Once Upon a Time in Coral Gables

by John Delach

Late in December of 1960 my father summoned me to Miami between Christmas and New Year’s Day to meet with Congressman Dante B. Fascell’s service academy selection committee. John Sr. desperately wanted me to attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy located on Kings Point, Long Island. The old man believed the competition for an appointment from Florida would be easier than from New York so he concocted a plan that I would apply using his Homestead, FL address.

(Long story short: John Sr. divorced my mother shortly after coming home from WW II. He re-married and remained on active service. In 1957 he was stationed at Homestead AFB while I lived with Mom in Ridgewood, Queens.)

My reaction on arrival; culture shock. They had Christmas lights in Florida. I thought: “How dare they! Christmas belonged to those of us who suffered through cold snowy winters. These interlopers had the sun, swimming pools and short-sleeve shirts. Who gave them the right to celebrate Christmas!”

I did meet with the selection committee; it went nowhere.

But the trip wasn’t a waste of time for me. On one of my few free days, the old man drove over to the home of Jack Roberts in Coral Gables. Jack was an Eastern Airlines pilot and was the first person I ever met who had a swimming pool in his backyard. On this day though, swimming would have to wait.

Jack announced to his two boys and me, “Pile into the car, we’re going to go watch a football practice.”

We filled the back seat, my father sat shotgun and off we went to a nearby field in Coral Gables. Jack explained who we were watching: “Boys, that’s the Midshipmen preparing for their game on New Year’s Day against the Missouri Tigers in the Orange Bowl.”

We stood there watching their drills, an experience slightly more exciting than watching grass grow or paint dry. Jack and John Sr. drifted off to speak to one of Navy’s coaches. They re-joined us as practice ended. I stood there wondering why we were wasting swimming time when the coach walked over with a midshipman dressed in a sweat-stained cut-off tee shirt and blue shorts. First thing I noticed, I was taller than him but, quickly my eyes were drawn to his enormous legs. His name was Joe Bellino.

The Washington Post noted: “Deceptively fast, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Bellino said he was never tackled from behind. His legs were so heavily muscled that he had to cut slits in the back of his football pants to make them fit.”

“All I know is that I was quick,” (Bellino) told the Baltimore Sun in 2010. “I wasn’t big in the shoulders or waist, but my legs were stocky, and I was built low to the ground. I could run straight, or sideways, without losing any speed.”

Bellino first greeted Roberts and my father with the respect due an Eastern Airlines captain and a USAF Major. Moving on to us kids, Roberts introduced us as we shook his hand. He wore a smile easily and joked around with us before leaving for the locker room.

The thought of asking for an autograph seemed out of the question, but all three of us were genuinely impressed by this football hero who spoke to us.

Back at Mr. Roberts’ house, we charged into the pool for a good time, but observed Mr. Roberts posted warning sign: “IF YOU PISS IN MY POOL – I’LL SWIM IN YOUR TOILET BOWL”

Despite this disappointment, Joe Bellino was awarded the 1960 Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the nation. Labeled, “Jolting Joe” and the “Winchester Rifle,” in honor of his Massachusetts home town, he broke every running record at Navy. Annapolis retired his number. 

Arthur Daly, then the dean of The New York Times sportswriters scribed:” Of recent years the Navy has developed at least two tremendous weapons. One is the Polaris missile and the other is Joe Bellino’”

Red Smith, then writing for the New York Herald Tribune noted: “(He) wriggles like a brook trout through congested traffic.”

For the Service Academies, their clashes against each other are paramount. And the greatest rivalry is Army versus Navy. In the 1959 contest Bellino scored three touchdowns including two scoring runs of 15 and 46 yards and, playing both ways, he intercepted an Army pass to set up another Navy TD. Final score: Navy 43, Army 12.

The following year’s game was much closer, but the Midshipmen prevailed 17-12. “Bellino ran for 85 yards, caught two passes, scored a touchdown, returned kickoffs and at game’s end, intercepted an Army pass on Navy’s goal line to preserve the win.”

After I returned to Ridgewood, I watched my newly adopted Midshipman lose the Orange Bowl to the Tigers: 21-14 on New Year’s Day…and so it goes.

Bellino fulfilled his service obligation played two years in the pros for the Patriots before finding an ordinary American life back home in small town Massachusetts.

Reading his obituary in Newsday on April3, 2019 reminded me my father’s scheme, my first winter break and meeting my first football hero. Joe Bellino, RIP.

On the Outside Looking In will not publish on April 17 and will resume om April 24.