If this is success," muttered one of the players near the bench, "it's ridiculous." He wasn't on the bench because there were spectators standing on it to see over the spectators who were standing right behind the players. Not behind them, actually. Among them. Mixing in. Making conversation. Sticking their eager heads into the intimate sideline huddles of coaches and players. There were so many people pinched into this little high school stadium in Lowell, Mass. the other night that a guy in a wheelchair with a ticket in his hand was told to go away because he could get killed in there. One eager group broke down a gate and poured through, and nobody knows how many people eventually got inside, because the place only seats 11,000 and the people sitting down were the minority.
The opposing coaches, Mike Holovak of the Boston Patriots and Weeb Ewbank of the New York Jets, were coaching on the field in the second half—actually on the field, because they could not see from anywhere else. The playing field was irregular by that time, narrowed by the fans. An old-fashioned Tennessee single-w ing power sweep would have wiped out 20 people.
In the formative years (all those years preceding this bright, promising one) American Football League preseason exhibition games only half-filled the same stadium. This time it was not even a varsity game, only a contest of rookies, but the critical difference was that two of the rookies were named Namath and Bellino. Followers of American finance know Joe Namath to be the Alabama quarterback who got $400,000 to become a New York Jet. After this game in Lowell, the first for Namath as a working pro, the Jets were calling it a pittance, a real steal, because Namath obviously draws people—right over the ramparts of the team bench, it would seem—and performs with the sure grace and cool facility of a five-year man. He passed for two touchdowns and directed the team well (the Jets won 23-6), and only later, privately, while the team doctor who is never far removed from that knee (SI, Feb. 8) fussed over him, did Namath show the pain that he does not publicly admit to. The knee, rewoven by surgery, apparently will hold up. Namath was hit at least four good shots during the game. But he will play in pain for some time. In the meantime he informs on-rushing linemen that he has released a pass by yelling, ' "Whoa, baby, baby, baby, whoa!"
What, then, of Bellino? If a poll had been taken at Lowell it probably would have shown that Bellino was of more concern to the crowd than Namath, because he was. first of all, one of them (a graduate of nearby Winchester High, class of '56) and because here he was a rookie at the advanced age of 27, trying to do what has been presumed—and more or less proved—to be impossible. In 1960 Bellino won the Heisman Trophy playing halfback for the U.S. Naval Academy—an exciting little (5 feet 9, 184 pounds) back with unusually large calves that gave him immense acceleration and flashing moves, and the sure hands of a first-rate pass catcher. But between Annapolis and the Patriots, except for that fall in 1963 when he squeezed in three games with the Providence Steamrollers while waiting around Newport for Navy orders, Bellino would scarcely have known if he were in the same county with a football. They were four years spent on the decks of a destroyer and a minesweeper patrolling off places like Guantanamo Bay during the blockade of Cuba and in the South China Sea—close enough to Vietnam to hear small-arms fire—and he tried to keep in shape by playing basketball and handball. Many great players have come out of the service academics, but most choose not to return to civilian life (Doc Blanchard and Pete Dawkins, for example), and those who do and try pro football do not ordinarily regain their greatness (Glenn Davis, Ron Beagle, Bob Anderson).
August 8, 1965
The Patriots did not count on Bellino's return, but they put in a lot of expensive hoping. "We drafted him in 1960 on a hunch, really, that Mike Holovak and I shared," says Billy Sullivan, the club president. "We didn't know if we would ever get him, but we weren't about to give up until Joe said no. We kept in close contact. Then last January we started talking terms, and Joe made his decision. Once when he called from Sasebo, Japan, we talked about an hour. Cost $400. That's nothing when you get a guy like this."
Bellino reported at 181, three pounds under his playing weight, but almost immediately there were sounds out of Mike Holovak that sounded suspiciously like encomiums. "I'm amazed," Holovak said one afternoon a few days later, stripped to his socks and sitting in front of his locker. Twice that afternoon Bellino had slipped past one of the Patriots' best defenders to catch passes. "Joe looks better than I thought possible. He can run at full speed, stop, then take off at full speed again. Listen," he said, "you have to say this is a great natural talent, a great one."
There was speculation that Bellino, considerably smaller than the classic pro running back, would wind up as a flanker, or perhaps as a kick-return specialist, or even in the defensive backfield, but already Holovak was talking about starting him at running back with Babe Parilli, the league's best quarterback, and Fullback Larry Garron against Buffalo on opening day, September 11. "He told me it will take him about six games to get ready," Holovak said. "That's perfect. We've got six exhibitions. We'll work him sparingly at first, give him the time he needs." In his mind's eye Billy Sullivan was seeing long lines of people outside Fenway Park beating at the doors with fists of money to see Bellino play.
The rookie game with the Jets came six days after Bellino began practice. On the afternoon of the game, right after lunch in the dining hall of Andover Academy, where the Patriots train, Bellino got into the Buick Skylark a Boston dealer had loaned him and drove to the Friendly Ice Cream Shop. He said he'd like to get up to 184 pounds and a dish of walnut ice cream wouldn't hurt. He settled into a booth, relaxed.
"I enjoyed the Navy," he said. "I mean it when I say I left with mixed emotions. I didn't quit just to play professional football. But after four years I decided the Navy did not quite fit my natural abilities. And I always seemed to be someplace else whenever there was a family crisis. I'm a family man. I really love my family. But when my mother-in-law was killed in an accident I was in Japan. When my son was stillborn I was off" the coast of Brazil. It was a very helpless feeling. Now Ann, my wife, is expecting another baby in October, and she's having a little trouble. There's an Rh factor. I want to be right there with her the whole time until that baby's born."
Bellino raked his dish with the tiny spoon and put it aside.
"Size," he said. "They keep talking about my size. Well, I'm used to that. If I don't make it it won't be because of my size. This is a chance that comes along just once, and I didn't think it would come for me. I won't be careless and let it slip away. I've worked, and I'll work harder. So far it has been fine. The moves are coming back. The long layoff hasn't helped, but it could have been worse."
Bellino drove back to his room at the Andover Inn, read his mail (one well-wisher writing from an insane asylum said it was nice to have Joe back) and then lay across the bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking it all over "I feel I've done the right thing," he said. "I know I wouldn't change the past 10 years. People said I was foolish to go to the academy, with the chance I had to make a lot of money in professional football or baseball [he was a catcher]. A major league baseball club offered me $75,000 when I was having trouble with my studies at Annapolis. I was about to resign. My father told me, 'Joe, I've got five sons and a daughter, and I could not afford to put them through college. I want you to finish." My dad never had a lot of money. Seventy-five thousand was a lot. I figured if he didn't want it, all that money, I didn't want it."
Joe drove to Lowell for the game with Jim Marcellino, a defensive back from Holy Cross. Marcellino is also a rookie, but he is five years younger than Bellino.
"O.K., Little," said Marcellino, "watch the road signs. You don't want to get lost in your own state."
"Look who's calling who Little," said Bellino. "I could eat peas off your head. What are you, five-ten?"
"The guys started calling him Little right away, except for Red Dawson," said Marcellino. "Dawson calls him Swabbie. Say, Joe, how's your wife?"
"Fine, just fine. Saw her this morning. She's in the hospital, you know. In Boston."
"Anybody from Winchester coming to the game?"
"I hear they sold over a thousand tickets. Everybody's coming. Here, Jimmy, want a Rolaide?"
"No, I've got mints. You nervous, Joe? I'm nervous as hell."
"I don't get real nervous," said Bellino. calm behind the wheel. "I mean sick to my stomach or anything. I'm anxious though. I want to play."
In the stadium parking lot people who recognized Bellino yelled to him, and one man stopped him to say they had met when Joe was on his honeymoon. Joe nodded. At the players' entrance, however, the gatekeeper was incredulous when approached by these two little men.
"I'm Joe Namath," said Bellino.
"Oh," said the man, and opened up.
True to his plan, Holovak used Bellino sparingly. By count, he participated in 10 plays. On the first Boston running play of the game, Bellino cut back off right tackle, head up, those great legs making the quick, darting moves vital in close company. He gained five yards. On the next series he gained two more when there was no hole. Then he caught a swing pass to the left, behind the linebacker and in front of the halfback, slipping deftly between them, and ran for 13 yards. In the second half he caught another pass for 15 yards, followed good blocking around right end on a 13-yard run and ran for three at right tackle. Twice he was overthrown on pass plays.
Bellino looked particularly good on two plays that did not produce anything. On a long pass in the second quarter he had a step lead, but the pass was short and hit the defensive back on the shoulder pads. As the two men and the ball came down, Bellino alertly stretched out for it and for a second held on. It would have been a sensational catch, but when he hit the ground the ball bounced free. Later, on a sweep, he ran right past the Jets' left end, sucked the defensive halfback into overcommitting and cut inside, running perilously close to the sideline (and all those people). Three times he was hit solidly before he went down 16 yards upfield. This play was called back, because a Boston guard had jumped off side.
Early in the second half, when it was apparent to him—and to the crowd that kept yelling his name—that he felt ready to play more than Holovak was willing to permit, he volunteered.
"Let's not rush it, Joe," said Holovak. "There's plenty of time. You're doing fine, just fine."
Afterward, driving back to Andover with a friend, Holovak smiled and said just fine wasn't the half of it. "We've got something here," he said. "We've really got something."