ANNAPOLIS -- The ancient mariner phoned Navy athletic director Jack Lengyel last week and said he was returning his Army-Navy game tickets. He didn't feel up to the trip to Philadelphia, but vowed to watch on TV.
"Beat Army," he said before hanging up. As it developed, those were his final instructions.
Adm. William Fitzgerald, the self-proclaimed "ancient mariner," won't be watching the game on TV. Perhaps Navy's most devoted sports fan, Fitzgerald died in his sleep Saturday night at the age of 91.
"He checked out a few days early," Lengyel said. "I'm sure he figured he could help us more Saturday from up there."
Fitzgerald was a regular at Navy practices for decades. He was on hand to watch Tom Lynch, captain of the 1963 team and now an admiral and superintendent of the academy.
"He was an institution," Lynch said. "He had Navy blue and gold in his veins. When I returned as superintendent, it was like stepping out of a time machine. Adm. Fitzgerald was still here and looked the same."
Red Romo, in his 37th year as trainer and a virtual institution himself, recalls that Fitzgerald attended practices with three other retired military leaders. They sat in the stands near the sign erected in their honor. It read, "Golden Goats."
"Rain or shine, they came," Romo said. "They were religious about it."
Fitzgerald was fond of saying that if the Golden Goats did miss a practice, the coaches gave them holy hell and told them to do a few laps around the field.
Fitzgerald was interviewed early this season for a story in a Navy football game program. He allowed that his most prized memento was a football bearing the inscription: "To the best friend Navy football ever had."
The year was 1938.
Fitzgerald served in World War I while he was still a midshipman, graduated in 1920 and came back twice for stints as an instructor. On Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was on the flagship USS Maryland.
"The smoke was so thick I couldn't see my hands in front of my face," Fitzgerald said. "The Cassin, which I was on earlier, was blown to bits. I remember seeing the USS Oklahoma roll over after taking several torpedoes."
On Navy's press day last August, Fitzgerald was on hand as usual. The co-captains, B.J. Mason and Byron Ogden, were photographed with Fitzgerald, Lynch and the commandant, Capt. Michael Haskins.
"The admiral never brought up any bad points about Navy football," Mason said. "It was always constant encouragement. He didn't say if we did this and that, we'd have a great year. He just said it's going to be a great year."