The final scrimmage for the plebe football team provided the opportunity to make one of the teams that suited up for games at the Navy Stadium. The coaches pitted one made-up plebe team against another. They shuffled the players around until the coaches decided what players made the first three teams to represent Navy out of eight who practiced. This long practice began around 10:00 AM on a Saturday.
My uncle Lewis Groebe, who established himself as a track star, a World War II Army veteran, and a Chicago lawyer, came to watch me play that day. He arrived in Washington, D.C. to visit my father, who could not attend.
I ran out to the field and started a passing drill with a number of players before the coaches had arrived that warmed up my arm passing to about twenty plebes running standard patterns. My spiral passes reached their intended target with few exceptions giving me confidence. After a half an hour the majority of players had gathered in the center of the field where the coach made up teams for a scrimmage. We quickly left the area and scrambled to join the main group.
Since they already had made up some teams, the coaches asked me to quarterback the eighth team. Eventually they called out for the eighth team to take on another team. I led our team to a series of drives both on the ground and with simple passes. At about forty yards from the goal on fourth down, I decided to call a trick play coach Bux taught me at Yokohama High school, which resulted in the winning touchdown in the Japan Championship game. The same play at Duke as a freshman worked for me when I threw a touchdown pass against South Carolina.
Luckily Johnny Sai was my halfback, who ran faster than any back on the plebe team. He stood only 5’ 8,” making him perfect for “The Play.” I told the ends, “Go ten yards straight ahead and then cut to the sidelines, turn toward me, and yell for the ball to get the attention of the defensive backs. Johnny, take a position as a flanker two yards outside our left end and back a few Yards. After the snap run at the left defensive end and block him, roll off, and fall to the ground. Get up and scoot to the right, and up the middle. You should be free from defenders for a pass. On three. Break.”
When the center snapped the ball to me, I ran back to pass and faked a pass to the left end. Both defensive backs raced to the sidelines to cover my decoys who pretended they would receive a pass. Johnny was alone racing up the middle and reached out and snagged my bullet spiral just ahead of him without losing a step and waltzed into the end zone for a touchdown. A cheer rang out from those watching, as that was the first touchdown pass during the game. An electrifying glow of excitement filled me. That play worked perfectly. The coaches yelled, “Great play! Way to go Johnny. Good pass…” They didn’t know who threw the pass but praised the play. I had not yet registered on their radar.
They gathered us together and chose Johnny and me to join the third team against the second team. We made a series of first downs when I ran the ball on a few end runs, and Johnny ran up the middle and off tackle. We stood about thirty yards from the goal when I described to the new team “the play” briefly in the huddle and put Johnny on the right flank this time and faked to the left end. Both ends carried out their patterns screaming for the ball as required. Johnny blocked the right defensive end, fell to the ground, got up and sped to the middle. Both defenders ran to guard our faking ends leaving Johnny wide open. He grabbed my second spiral bullet pass over his left shoulder and raced into the end zone leaving the deceived defenders behind. Cheers erupted from the crowd applauding the second touchdown pass Johnny had caught from me in fifteen minutes.
Uncle Lewis congratulated me a few feet away from the sidelines after the game. “Danny, you looked great today. Your Dad will be proud when I tell him.”
“I‘m glad you had a chance to see me. They hardly knew my name before today.”
“Not after today, Danny. I’ll bet you make the first team.”Just then, the coaches blew a whistle for us to gather. I raced to join my teammates to listen to the coaches’ instructions. While standing there with the team, coaches, and Uncle Lewis on the sidelines, I felt my decision to come to the Academy, despite the drudgery of plebe year, was right for me. A few players congratulated me making me feel a valued part of the team.
The head coach said, “We’ve filmed the scrimmage game and will study it to select the first three teams next week and pass out uniforms.” That message really excited me since I had played the best fifteen minutes of football in my life—and it was on film!
After the coaches reviewed the film the next Monday, the quarterback coach, Joe Tranchini, a former Navy quarterback a few years back, called me aside, “Lavery, you’ll be our first team quarterback if you memorize these plays this week.” He handed me a two inch stack of plays. “Thanks coach. I’ll get right at it.” My smile beamed from ear to ear.
Headed for Bancroft Hall elated with my good fortune, I entered jogging on the green centerline reserved for plebes carrying my package of plays under my arm. A second classman with stars on his lapel indicating he had a high academic record, appeared abruptly and stared at my name, LAVERY, D. C., stenciled on my white sailor jumper. “Lavery, halt,” he screamed with eyes opened wide. “Did your brother attend the Academy from the class of 1960?”
“Yes, sir,” I said and proudly stood at attention.
“I own you, Lavery,” he yelled in my face. “Come around to my room ready for inspection every time a bell rings in Bancroft Hall. Do you understand?”
He had blonde hair, blue eyes, about my height but slender and appeared extremely dangerous, like a sleek white shark. Thinking of my ability to memorize and follow orders I vowed to show him I could take anything he dished out. After telling me his room number he said, “Listen to my instructions. Memorize three days menus in exact order, front page of the newspaper, fight songs of every team Navy faces this weekend, and scores of last weekend for every Navy sport. Arrive at my room ready for inspection to recite tomorrow morning and every time a bell sounds.” He darted away and disappeared like a barracuda.
The intense face-off stunned me because I could not believe someone of his status at Annapolis would make me pay for a grudge, especially against my brother. Only a few minutes before this horrific clash, I had experienced one of my highest athletic performances. He placed my status as plebe quarterback in jeopardy unless I could persuade the petty tyrant to leave me alone by showing him I could memorize anything. How could I also memorize the playbook?
Racing back to my room I told my roommates about my game and disaster. Having dodged many of their troubles as a football player until this fortuitous confrontation ripped me apart, I spent all night with a flashlight memorizing each meal on the ten-course menu in order. The senseless task had the minimal value of demonstrating one can memorize trivia, but no one had use for a menu three days old. This was pitiless revenge harassment.
My roommates also memorized meaningless information for upper classmen so I tried to consider it another part of plebe year. My Dad and brother survived the Academy. So could I. The next day with no sleep, I reported to his room before the morning meal as the bell rang. “Midshipman Lavery fourth class reporting as ordered, sir,” I said at attention prepared to recite everything he requested. He ignored me and prepared for the morning formation shaving and brushing his navy blue uniform. Other plebes reported to his room who stood at attention until he left without saying a word. I double-timed to our formation on the other side of Bancroft Hall and made it as the late bell rang.
The next night staying up in the shower with a flashlight memorizing the required information left me again with no sleep. At his room ready to respond with all the information he requested before the next meal, once more he paid no attention to me. His method prevented me from showing him my memory was excellent and from pleasing my tormentor.
Monday at football practice I barely had the energy to put on my uniform and run the calisthenics and drills. Of course I had not memorized the plays and disappointed coach Tranchini who must have thought I had lost interest. Plebes weren’t supposed to explain that an upper-classman had detained me for an intensive come-around because we had to say, “No excuse, sir,” when we failed to do as told. My ordeal seemed senseless and surreal. Whatever obstacles others placed before me—even his grossly unfair orders, I had to rise above.
Had I accumulated more experience in problem solving and been wiser about handling traumatic assaults from incorrigible personalities, a simple solution for this dilemma was within my reach. The Academy assigned a first classman to each plebe to assist with any problems during the year. The varsity first string quarterback, Hal Spooner, was my first classman. He roomed with first team All-American Joe Bellino, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy for the most outstanding college football player of the year. Hal and Joe knew of my interest in quarterbacking the plebe team and wanted me to succeed. They would have assisted me had I mentioned any unconscionable interference and would have ended this despicable dispute. My tormenter would not be allowed to disrupt football at Annapolis. However, my stubborn will demanded I must solve my plebe problems without resorting to help from others. Viewing the dilemma as a challenge to my manhood, I didn’t want anyone running interference for me. Determined to make him realize I could do anything he ordered with a flourish, my performance would lead him to respect me once I completed his impossible tasks and won the contest of wills it seemed to me.
After a few more days of driving my body into the ground my health felt awful. I had a fever, sore throat, and reported to sickbay. They did a few tests, concluded I had contracted mononucleosis, and sent me to the hospital for the next five weeks. Plebe football came to a screeching halt and the hospital allowed me ten or more hours of needed sleep, but I was too exhausted to read the first week on heavy medication.