On Dec. 2, 1944, Baltimore sat at the epicenter of the football world. * Fifty-six years, four wars and two stadiums ago, the city last played host to the Army-Navy game. No modern-day lightweights, these. Army (8-0) was ranked No. 1 in the country with an offense that would have frightened der Fuhrer. Navy (6-2) was No. 2, having left a trail of college flotsam in its wake. * D-Day was six months past and the Battle of the Bulge two weeks hence, but for one brilliant and blustery afternoon, the war played second fiddle to the bands and the betting and the business on the field.
The game brought together everyone from Gen. George C. Marshall to sportswriter Grantland Rice, plus a cadre of more than 5,000 prospective officers from the two service academies. In the stands was a future president (midshipman Jimmy Carter); on the field was his director of central intelligence (Navy's Stansfield Turner). Not to mention two future Heisman Trophy winners (Army's Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis).
Nearly 70,000 people jammed into Municipal Stadium on 33rd Street, where lifeless Memorial Stadium now stands. The contest had been scheduled for little Thompson Stadium in Annapolis, but the magnitude of the game -- two military schools playing for the national championship during a world war -- led cash-strapped Washington to seek greener pastures.
The sale of tickets to the public -- a war bond purchase receipt had to be turned in for each seat bought -- netted $58,637,000 in the drive to repay the war debt. Several fans ponied up $1 million for a field box at the 50-yard line.
For tailback Hal Hamberg, the Army game was the last, and biggest, of his Navy career. Mementos are few.
"Every once in a while, when they're cleaning out their desks, people will send me these old clippings on yellowed paper that's falling apart," said Hamberg, 78, of Laurel.
"That's all I have -- that and memories, if I can remember them."
The war turned Army and Navy into football juggernauts. Many of the country's top young athletes sought these schools out of patriotism. For others, it was pragmatism: Why go overseas a regular Joe when you can be commissioned? Some even signed on to avoid the military draft.
"A lot of my classmates dropped out [of the academy] after the war," said Jim Carrington, one of Navy's standout guards. "In 1944, I was our lightest interior lineman. Two years later, I was the heaviest -- and I had only gained 5 pounds."
In 1944, Army and Navy were all-star teams, with their pick of talent from Notre Dame and North Carolina, Michigan and Mississippi. The pool seemed bottomless.
"We picked up one All-American who couldn't even make our traveling team," said Army end Ed Rafalko. It was as if the best collegians had become free agents, and the service academies, their Steinbrenners.
No team could match Army's point-a-minute offense, and few were Navy's peer on defense (allowing 40 yards rushing a game). Army ran from the "T" formation, a newfangled system that fit its talent to a ... T. The Black Knights had a deft, agile line led by Dan Foldberg, DeWitt "Tex" Coulter and Barney Poole, an All-America end who had seen all of America by the time he had finished playing eight years of college football.
They had halfback Davis, the national college scoring leader, one of a handful of cadets who had entered West Point right out of high school and left it as a cover boy for Life, Time and Look magazines.
And they had Felix "Doc" Blanchard, the son of a South Carolina physician and a tank of a fullback who had been turned down by Navy because he was colorblind. It was one of the few times Blanchard was ever thrown for a loss.
"I can't honestly say that I ever brought Doc down in a scrimmage," said Archie Arnold, one of Army's starting tackles. "He was not only strong straight ahead, he was shifty. You'd think you had him in your grasp, and he'd disappear."
With Blanchard running inside and Davis outside, the Black Knights exploded for 504 points, allowing 35. They blitzed North Carolina, 46-0; Brown, 59-7; and Pittsburgh, 69-7. Then Army began rolling up the score, routing Coast Guard, 76-0, and Villanova, 83-0, in a game that was curtailed in the second half. (Army scored so many touchdowns against Villanova, and lost so many footballs on extra-point kicks, that it was forced to go for two-point conversions to conserve pigskin. There was a war on, after all.)
When, on Nov. 11, Army defeated Notre Dame, 59-0, for the first time in 13 years, the Treasury Department sniffed paydirt and scrambled for a larger venue for the intra-service game three weeks away.
Navy, the preseason national favorite, had righted itself after a shaky 2-2 start. The Mids recorded four shutouts of their own, though averaging a modest 29 points. They clung to the old single wing, a conservative, grind-it-out attack that plumb wore out other teams -- including Notre Dame, another early proponent of the T. Navy beat the Irish, 32-13.