January 18, 2012

Joseph Michael Bellino was born on March 13, 1938 in Winchester, Massachusetts. Joe attended the town's public schools, and was a three-sport star at Winchester High School. In baseball he batted well over .400 and was courted by major league teams. The basketball team on which he starred won the state championship his sophomore and junior years. By his senior year Winchester High was moved up to the Class A tournament and the team's 55 game winning streak came to an end at the hands of much larger B.M.C. Durfee High School of Fall River. Joe Bellino was a dominant halfback on Winchester's outstanding football team, although his senior season was shortened by the 1955 polio epidemic.

During his 1956-57 year at Columbian Academy in Washington D.C., Bellino starred in both football and basketball. On November 25, Bellino scored three touchdowns in Columbian's upset win over the Navy Plebes, 34-33. In the fall of 1957, Bellino entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland along with his former high school teammate, Frank Dattilo. During his freshman year, the Plebes matched up against the Penn State freshmen and their star player Lew Luce. Penn State won the game 23-13 but Bellino took a lateral from his Columbian teammate Harry Dietz, and scored on an 85 yard kickoff return.

His name is etched in Navy annals for the battles he fought and the victories he won — on land.

A typical game day for Bellino meant a single platoon diet of defense (at safety), offense and special teams. He shot his 5'9", 181-pound body through holes and around tacklers on calves so thick (18 inches in circumference) his uniform pants had to be slit down the backs of the legs for him to get them on.

In 1959, Joe Bellino lead his Navy team against Army. He was so successful  — three TDs in a 43-12 rout of the Black Knights — the Army team devised a strategy they hoped would stop him the next year. They called it “Operation Bellino.” When 1960 rolled around, signs vilifying Bellino peppered the West Point campus. A bed sheet hanging from one barracks’ window pictured the Navy runner sitting in a sinking rowboat called the “U.S.S. Bellino.”

No matter. In the first quarter, with Navy pinned on its 1-yard line, Bellino broke loose for 58 yards. Then he scored the game's first TD. Late in the game, however, Bellino fumbled on his own 17. Army recovered, trailing by 5. Bellino stayed in the game at defensive back, determined to make amends.

“From then on, I either made a tackle or broke up a pass on every play,” Joe would later say. “Check the film. I wasn't going to be the goat, and Army wasn't going to score.”

Army didn't. Bellino picked off a pass at the goal line and returned it to midfield as time ran out.

Joe Bellino riddled Army's defense and led Navy to a 17-12 victory. That afternoon in 1960, before 98,000 fans and a national TV audience, 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. His play thrust the fourth ranked Midshipmen (9-1) into the Orange Bowl.

Few players caught the nation's fancy like Joe Bellino, a modest little plugger who, at 5-feet-9, looked like anything but America's best. Yet there he was, the nation's No. 2 scorer (110 points), darting here and feinting there and scuttling for touchdowns with a spontaneity that drove opponents nuts.

“He runs like a berserk butterfly,” Sports Illustrated wrote of its cover boy on the eve of the 1960 Army-Navy game.

Red Smith, sports columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that Bellino “wriggles like a brook trout through congested traffic.”

“All I know is that I was quick,” Bellino said. “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, and I had lateral movement that let me bounce in and out (of jams).”

Joe Bellino, at 5'9" and 181 pounds, in Navy's 1960 season (9-1), gained 834 yards, over half his team's total of 1,650 yards. He competed five of 14 passes, two for touchdowns, caught 15 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns. His quick-kicks averaged 47.1 yards and he returned 5 punts for 97 yards and 11 kickoffs for 240 yards. He was Navy's chief scorer in 1960 with 18 touchdowns.

Those statistics got him a nomination for the Heisman Trophy.

Joe Bellino, Navy's destroyer, swept the Heisman field with a salvo of points to finish 1,062 ahead of second place finisher Tom Brown of Minnesota. Bellino had 436 first place votes to 127 for Brown, as he became the second consecutive Heisman winner to sweep each region. Third place finisher Jake Gibbs turned to baseball after graduation and was a catcher for the New York Yankees. Joe Bellino beat out such great college stars as Mike Ditka (Pitt), Tom Matte (Ohio State) and Billy Kilmer (UCLA).

“I was in engineering class when I got the news,” Bellino said. “Someone said the superintendent needed to speak to me. I thought, ‘Geeze, I'm in trouble academically." Afterward, a reporter asked Bellino what else he hoped to accomplish. “Well,” the All-American said, “another guy from Massachusetts did pretty good this year and I’d like to meet him.” Within days, Bellino found himself having lunch with that “other guy,” - President-elect John F Kennedy. Kennedy, a Navy lieutenant who served in World War II, attended the Orange Bowl, where the Midshipmen fell to No. 5 Missouri, 21-14. Playing with a broken collarbone, Bellino made a diving, 28-yard TD catch that he still calls “the best play I ever made.”

He and Kennedy stayed friends. “In June of 1961, I was picked to deliver our class yearbook to the president,” Bellino said. “He invited me into the Oval Office, where we sat for an hour, just two guys with Boston accents talking football.”

Bellino also appeared on a Bob Hope Sports Awards Show, where he hit it off with the host. “After rehearsal, being pro-military, he (Hope) asked, ‘How about coming to my place for dinner?’ He met me at the stage door, in his Buick, and we went to his house,” Bellino said. There, he said, Hope turned the tables: “Bob phoned his son and asked me to say hello to him.”

Years later, Bellino got a call from Bob Hope. The comedian was in Boston and wanted to meet up with Bellino. After dinner, the two men took a walk outside Hope's hotel where, at 1 a.m., a police car pulled up beside them. “The cop warned us to be careful because it was a dangerous neighborhood,”  Joe Bellino said. “Then he saw who we were, called his precinct and said, ‘Sarge, I’ll be off for 15 minutes. I'm taking a walk with Bob Hope and Joe Bellino.’ “The desk sergeant didn't believe him, so the cop says to me, ‘Joe, would you guys come back to the station with me?’ “ Bob Hope agreed to that. “Bob entertained those guys for more than an hour,” Bellino said.

Despite Joe Bellino's four-year service obligation (he served on a mine sweeper in Vietnam), the Washington Redskins and the AFL's Boston Patriots both drafted him in 1961. Aboard the minesweeper in the South China Sea in the spring of '65, near the end of his second tour in Asia, Lieutenant Bellino received a cable inviting him to the Redskins' training camp after he left the Navy that summer. The Patriots followed suit. Bellino played three seasons for Boston but, the long layoff and some nagging injuries took their toll. He scored only one touchdown.

"What I lost was the instinct," Bellino says. "A lot of things—how to make cuts, how to read a defender—take time to come back."

The Naval Academy honors 'The Berserk Butterfly" with the annual  Joe Bellino Trophy. Joe led Navy team over three years and to an Orange Bowl berth in 1961. Playing both ways, Bellino scored 31 touchdowns, amassed 1,664 yards rushing and set 15 Naval Academy records. He was the 1960 Heisman Trophy winner, as well as a unanimous first team All-American, Maxwell Award winner, recipient of both the Thompson Trophy and the Naval Academy Athletic Association Sword in 1961, and a 1977 inductee to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The Joe Bellino Trophy is presented by the trustees to the Navy varsity football player of the graduating class who is the leading ground gainer over his playing career.

Joseph Michael Bellino served over 28 years in the U.S. Navy and the Naval Reserve and holds the rank of Captain, USNR (Ret.).

In November 2004 Bellino Park in Winchester was dedicated in his honor.

Joe lives in Bedford, Mass., 10 miles from his hometown of Winchester. With his wife, Ann, whom he married four days after graduating from Annapolis, Joe has two children: Therese, a teacher in Cambridge, Mass., and John, also a Naval Academy alumnus. Joe has one grandson; Ian.

“I've had three careers — athletics, military and civilian,” the now 74 year old Bellino said. “I've got a great family. I'm getting long of tooth, but I still play racquetball and golf.” “Whenever I meet a West Pointer, I have a smile on my face, because the last time I played them, we were winners,” To know that is very important.”

Source: Wikipedia, Sports Illustrated, Mike Klingaman, Baltimore Sun

Joe Bellino -The Berserk Butterfly