In June 1940, a young man from Corning, N.Y., named Bob Woods walked into the office of his congressman in the nearby town of Bath. Nervous, but pursuing his dream, Woods asked for an appointment to West Point. Politely, he let Rep. W. Sterling Cole know how badly he wanted to enroll then. The congressman laughed at the youth's impatience and told him he was too late for that year. A crestfallen Woods returned home to take a summer job digging ditches at $22 a week.
Late in August, the phone rang at Woods's home. It was Sterling Cole himself. "I remember you were so concerned about waiting a year," he told Woods. "Would you like to attend the Naval Academy instead of West Point--now?" Cole's appointee to Annapolis had suffered a disabling eye injury, having been struck by an oar during a lifeboat drill in summer training for incoming plebes. Woods became the replacement. He had scarcely arrived in Annapolis when he learned that word of his football skills had preceded him. He was ordered to report to the office of the football coach, Emery E. "Swede" Larson, an imposing Marine colonel and Naval Academy hero who both as player and coach had never lost to Army.
"When are you coming out for football?" Larson asked Woods.
"About two weeks, sir," replied the new plebe, who was busy trying to catch up with his classmates. "Be on the field in 20 minutes," Larson ordered.
That season, Woods played running back for the plebe team. As a sophomore, he moved up from the fifth unit to become a starter--a wingback in Navy's single-wing formation. In the final game of a 7-1-1 season, Woods helped Navy to a 14-6 comeback victory over Army before 103,000 at Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium. He seemed destined for a career of gridiron heroics as a Mid. But the next spring, Woods flunked math and was dismissed from the academy.
Immediately, Woods went to see his congressman--again hoping for an appointment to West Point. Again, Cole had no appointment available. Resourcefully, Woods set out for West Point and presented himself to none other than the dynamic Earl "Red" Blaik, who was beginning his second year there as football coach and who soon would become legendary. Of course Blaik knew Woods, who had helped defeat him the previous season. He suggested a place where Woods could study math that summer, but promised nothing. On July 31, 1942, the eve of his 22nd birthday, when he would have been overage to enter West Point, Woods received a phone call from Blaik. He had arranged for an out-of-state congressman to swap an available appointment with Cole so that it could be given to Woods. Knowing Woods's age to the day, Blaik told him to hurry to West Point, more than halfway across the state. "That night, my father drove me through fog so thick you could barely see the road," Woods recalled. Blaik was outside his house waiting, an apparition in the car's headlights.
Blaik rushed Woods over to the adjutant general's house, where he was sworn in on the front porch at 10 minutes before midnight.
That fall, just as Blaik had foreseen, Woods became an outstanding running back for Army. In late November he ran for three touchdowns in a 40-7 rout of Princeton at Yankee Stadium. The following game, Woods lined up with the Cadets to take on a Navy team whose players he actually knew better than his own teammates.
So it was that Bob Woods became the only player to play for both the Army and Navy football teams during their storied rivalry that on Saturday reaches its 100th game.
Wearing Two Hats
The white-haired Robert Evans "Woody" Woods, 79, maintains the dignified bearing and impeccably buttoned-down attire one might expect in a product of both academies. Starched collar, cuff links, creased slacks. He spent his career in business after fulfilling his active-duty service requirement in the Army. Retired from the Doubleday publishing company, where he was a top executive, the fit-looking Woods delights in traveling from his Connecticut home to West Point and Annapolis to watch Army and Navy football games. When the two teams play each other he maintains neutrality. "I just want a good game, a close game," he said, anticipating the 100th with clenched fist and pep in his voice. "Regardless of the outcome, I just want them to go at it."
A clue to Woods's less formal side, which enabled him as a youth to dare to win approval from congressmen and coaching icons, is in the car he drives about town. It's a 1969 tan two-seater Mercedes with the license plate XQSIT--"exquisite." Viewed in profile from the right front seat as he negotiates the narrow roads of the leafy Connecticut suburbs, he resembles a figure in a Fitzgerald novel or a Cary Grant movie. He wooed his wife Geraldine at a weekend hop at the Point, and they were married the day after his graduation in 1945. They regularly celebrate his class reunions at West Point--and also at Annapolis, with what would have been his class of '44.
Another football player once graduated from West Point after enrolling first at the Naval Academy--but he never played for the Navy varsity. Jim Kelleher, an end on Navy's 1939 plebe team, transferred to West Point after his older brother Bill, a Cadet, died suddenly. The son of an Army officer, Jim Kelleher filled his brother's unexpired term in part because he thought that would please his father and help assuage the family loss. He played for the Cadets from 1940 through 1942--against Woods in '41 and with Woods in '42.
"There isn't anything you can't do if you want to do it and use your intelligence," Woods said, "as long as you don't walk brazenly into something--but don't sell yourself short, either." He added that luck often plays a part. It had for him. Having all but given up on hearing back from Blaik in the summer of '42, Woods decided to join the Marines at a nearby recruiting office. "There was a sign on the door: 'Closed. Death in family.' That was a Tuesday. For some reason I didn't go back on Wednesday or Thursday and Blaik called Friday. 'Son, you're going to be 22 at midnight. You'd better get here.' Had the recruiting sergeant's mother not died, I'd have been in the Marines."
Woods's dedicated positivism--and talent as a musician--began with his father, who raised the boy and his two older sisters after the death of his wife. The elder Woods, who worked in a glass factory in Corning, and his children all sang in the church choir. Young Bob Woods played trumpet in the Corning Academy band--and as recently as the other day he played a session with a group of friends.
Woods wore No. 12 for Navy, before Roger Staubach wore the number. Woods was No. 10 for Army. But in 1942, he left behind the better team. The 1942 Army-Navy game was played at Thompson Stadium at the Naval Academy because of wartime travel restrictions; half the brigade of midshipmen was assigned to root for Army because the corps of cadets could not attend. The Navy players were waiting for their opponents--especially for Woods. "Where're you going, Woody?" said one defender, a friend across the scrimmage line who affected a confident grin.
Navy won, 14-0, and added its fifth straight victory over Army in 1943, Woods's last season of varsity eligibility. It was a frustrating one for him because a leg infection limited his playing time. In the fall of '44, Woods was named as a coach of Army's "B" team. But that was not the only measure of Woods's success at West Point. For 1944-45 he was chosen first captain, the highest military rank in the corps. He lived in a suite and, absolved from taps, worked late into nights at a rolltop desk. He was successor to the likes of MacArthur and Pershing.
The silver Pershing sword, given to the first captain, emits a gleam in Woods's home.
In late spring of 1945, with the war won in Europe, Time magazine prepared a reassuring account of the new crop of leaders being turned out on the banks of the Hudson. It was entitled "The Long Grey Line" and planned as the cover story. That year, the cover of Time included Truman, Eisenhower, Stalin, Hitler and Patton. On June 11, 1945, Time's cover carried the portrait of West Point's curly brown-haired first captain, Robert E. Woods.
Notable persons who have played football for either Army or Navy this century:
William F. "Bull" Halsey, Jr. 1902-03. One of the leading U.S. naval commanders in World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur called him "the greatest fighting admiral" of the war.
Alan Shapley. 1923-26. Directed anti-aircraft fire from USS Arizona during attack on Pearl Harbor; swam to safety, rescuing another, when ship was bombed.
Tom Hamilton. Halfback and kicker. 1924-26. Planned a physical training program for Navy's preflight students throughout the country during World War II.
Slade Cutter. Tackle and place kicker. 1932-34. Commanded submarines that sank 19 Japanese ships during World War II.
Don Whitmire. Tackle. 1943-44. Helped effect evacuation of Saigon at end of war in Vietnam.
Stansfield Turner. Guard. 1944-45. CIA director.
Tom Lynch. Center. 1961-63. Naval Academy superintendent. Led battle group on critical maneuver during Desert Storm.
Paul Bunker. Halfback and tackle. 1899-1902. Walter Camp all-American at two positions, in 1901 and '02. In Bataan death march during World War II and died as a prisoner of war in Formosa at age 64.
Dwight D. Eisenhower. Halfback. 1912. U.S. President. Supreme Commander of Allied forces, World War II.
Omar Bradley. Center. 1914. Commanded the largest fighting force ever assembled in battle under the American flag, in World War II.
James A. Van Fleet. Halfback. 1914-15. Commanded Eighth Army in Korea, '51-'53. Lived to the age of 100.
Don Holleder. End and quarterback. 1953-55. Killed in action in Vietnam. Esteemed at West Point for exhibiting "highest level of sportsmanship, character, courage and achievement."
Creighton W. Abrams. Guard. 1935. Vietnam forces commander. Army Chief of Staff.
Bill Carpenter. End. 1958-59. The perpetually flanked "Lonely End." Served two tours in Vietnam.
MANAGERS OF ARMY FOOTBALL TEAM
Douglas MacArthur. 1902. Renowned American general of World War II and Korean War.
Matthew Ridgway. 1916. Succeeded MacArthur in 1951 as supreme commander for the Allied Powers in Japan and as supreme commander for the U.N. forces in the Far East.
Brent Scowcroft. 1946. National security adviser.
Frank Borman. 1949. Astronaut.
HEISMAN TROPHY WINNERS
Felix (Doc) Blanchard, Army, 1945. Fullback. "Mr. Inside."
Glenn Davis, Army, 1946. Halfback. "Mr. Outside."
Pete Dawkins, Army, 1958. Halfback.
Joe Bellino, Navy, 1960. Halfback.
Roger Staubach, Navy, 1963. Quarterback.
Francis Rahr Duborg, Navy, 1929.
Stansfield Turner, Navy, 1947.
Pete Dawkins, Army, 1959.
Ricky Waddell, Army, 1982.
Sources: Naval Academy and West Point