Navy athletics legends abound at Welsh-Forzano tribute dinner

Navy athletics legends abound at Welsh-Forzano tribute dinner
From left to right, Tom Lynch, Roger Staubach, Bill Belichick, Phil McConkey and Chet Moeller. Guest speakers for the George Welsh – Rick Forzano tibute. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Latta). (Courtesy Photo)

I was surrounded by Navy football legends on Friday night.

Navy athletics conducted a “Celebration of George Welsh and Rick Forzano” in the Akerson Tower overlooking Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. It was a first-class affair that attracted a who’s who of former Navy football players to pay tribute to the two beloved head coaches who died one week apart in early January.

I spent a good portion of the cocktail hour catching up with Bob Reifsnyder, the 1957 Maxwell Award winner and 1997 inductee into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame. I have gotten to know Reifsnyder quite well over the years, in part because of connections within the Ocean Pines Community.

When Reifsnyder shakes your hand with that massive, meaty bear claw of his, you understand why he terrorized opponents as a two-way lineman for the Midshipmen.

Capital Gazette's Bill Wagner (left) and Bob Reifsnyder at the George Welsh-Rick Forzano tibute.
Capital Gazette’s Bill Wagner (left) and Bob Reifsnyder at the George Welsh-Rick Forzano tibute. (Courtesy Photo)

I had a nice conversation with Roger Staubach while walking from one wing of the Akerson Tower to the other when it was time to be seated for dinner. Staubach, the legendary quarterback who was the 1963 Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award winner, showed that he still has a smooth delivery by asking why I hadn’t introduced him to my daughter.

That line was very well received by Caryl Mason, who is actually my fiancée.

While finding a table in the dining room, I stopped to chat with Eddie Meyers, who still ranks fourth all-time at Navy with 2,935 rushing yards. Meyers owns two of the greatest single-game rushing totals in program history — rumbling for 298 yards and four touchdowns against Syracuse as a senior in 1981 while trampling archrival Army to the tune of 279 yards and three scores as a sophomore.

“Fast Eddie” Meyers, who spent time with the Atlanta Falcons, still looks like he could easily run over a linebacker.

Following dinner, I made sure to get a photo with Tom Lynch, who I consider the greatest captain Navy football has ever known. Through many interviews over the years, I have developed great respect and admiration for the captain of the fabled 1963 squad that beat Army in a thriller shortly after the assassination of President Robert F. Kennedy and then played Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

Admiral Lynch, who served as superintendent of the Naval Academy during a long and distinguished career, is one of those rare individuals who uplifts all the people around him. In the nicest way possible, Lynch mentioned that I made a mistake in my story about the Welsh-Forzano event that appeared on Friday.

Jim Lynch, who starred at Notre Dame and later in the NFL, is actually Tom’s younger brother − not older.

I also reconnected with Chet Moeller and Phil McConkey, both of whom accepted my invitation to serve as guest speakers for the annual Touchdown Club of Annapolis football awards banquet in years past.

Moeller, along with Reifsnyder and Staubach, is one of 22 former Naval Academy football players or coaches in the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame. McConkey, star of the 1978 team that beat BYU in the Holiday Bowl, enjoyed an outstanding NFL career with the New York Giants and caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXI.

Perhaps the best part of being the Navy football beat writer for The Capital newspaper the past two decades is that I’ve had the honor and privilege to interview, meet and develop relationships with the greatest players in Navy football history.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk for inviting me to Friday night’s prestigious affair, which was a three-hour walk down memory lane. Gladchuk delivered a typically tremendous introductory speech to kick off the festivities before handing off to master of ceremonies John Feinstein.

Feinstein, the renowned author who chronicled the Army-Navy football rivalry in his best-selling book “A Civil War,” was the ideal choice to introduce the various speakers while also relating several great stories of his own along the way.

Feinstein, who served a stint as color commentator for Navy football radio broadcasts, talked about the time he first met George Welsh. As a cub reporter at The Washington Post, shortly after graduating from Duke University, Feinstein had to fill in when the Navy football beat writer had an emergency.

Feinstein contacted renowned Navy sports information director Tom Bates about obtaining a press box credential and parking pass for that weekend’s game against Connecticut. Bates nearly imploded upon learning that Feinstein was a first-year reporter fresh out of college.

Following the game, Bates brought Feinstein down to the locker room to interview Welsh, who could be famously testy with members of the media. Bates was worried how Welsh would react when confronted with such an obviously youthful reporter.

However, Welsh diffused the situation quickly by telling Bates, “if the kid is good enough to work at The Washington Post, I’m sure he can handle covering a college football game.” Welsh proceeded to answer every question Feinstein posed with complete candor.

Navy assembled four keynote speakers to honor Forzano and Welsh. McConkey and Moeller, probably the two greatest players of the Welsh era (1973-1981), gave the audience a window into the mind and personality of their old coach. Lynch and Staubach, both of whom were recruited to Navy by Forzano, provided insight into the type of man he was.

Lynch remained close to Forzano up until his death on Jan. 9 at the age of 90 and I found his remarks particularly poignant. Lynch was stationed at the academy during Forzano’s head coaching tenure (1969-1972) and got to know the coach extremely well while serving as officer representative for the football team.

By the way, there was one other notable person with Navy connections in attendance Friday night. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who grew up on Navy football, closed out the celebration by speaking about both Forzano and Welsh during a speech that was informative, emotional and humorous (yes, Bill Belichick can be funny).

Belichick was ideally suited to do so since his father was an assistant coach under both men. Steve Belichick’s name was mentioned numerous times during the night as he holds the distinction of being the longest-serving assistant in Navy football history, working under seven head coaches from 1956 through 1989.

Forzano lived with the Belichick family for a while when he was an assistant under Wayne Hardin from 1959 through 1964. Bill Belichick recalled listening to long conversations between his father and Forzano about every aspect of football.

Coach Belichick related how Welsh allowed him to attend meetings of the Navy football coaching staff and how much he learned just by being in the room. Welsh and Forzano both put together star-studded staffs filled with several assistants that would go on to become head coaches themselves.

Being able to spend quality time with so many great football minds as a youngster was invaluable for Belichick, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer who has led the Patriots to six Super Bowl championships.

Navy football has always been a close-knit family and Belichick spoke about the bonds that are built among the children of all the coaches. Three of the four Welsh children along with all three of Forzano’s kids were in attendance on Friday night and Belichick took time during dinner to stop at their respective tables to speak with them all.

Kate Welsh, the eldest of the Welsh siblings, spoke on behalf of her father and provided a moving tribute. Forzano Jr., who bears a striking resemblance to his father, also shared some wonderful thoughts and memories.

Bill Belichick wrapped up the nostalgic night by weaving interesting stories about Forzano and Welsh with some of his many fond memories of Navy football.

Forzano left Navy to take a job with the Detroit Lions and was quickly promoted to head coach. In 1976, he hired a young Bill Belichick as an assistant and gave him a wide range of duties.

“I was the new guy on the staff, so Coach Forzano had me doing things in many different areas — offense, defense, special teams, administrative. That was a great experience for me as a young coach,” Belichick said.

Belichick made it clear that much of what he learned from both Forzano and Welsh, along with the lifelong lessons taught by his father, molded him into the head coach he is today.

I found another story Belichick related to be particularly interesting. After losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII in 2018, Belichick felt there was something missing that had held the Patriots back.

Before kicking off the 2019 season, Belichick asked Admiral Lynch to spend a few days with the New England coaching staff at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. That is how much Belichick respects Lynch as a leader.

Over the course of his visit, Admiral Lynch imparted these words of wisdom to the New England staff. “Ship, shipmate, self. Team, teammate, self.” That mantra about the order of importance in which a Naval officer or a football player should rank his responsibilities, wound up being a season-long slogan for the Patriots as they rebounded to beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

Bill Wagner has worked for Capital Gazette Newspapers for 30 years. He served as beat writer for Navy athletics and general assignment sports reporter. He is also the sailing editor.