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When the Navy football squad reported for practice in September of 1954, the gloom was as thick as the fog that sometimes rolls in off the nearby Severn River. The Midshipmen had muddled through to a 4-3-2 record the year before, losing to Army 20-7. Only two linemen were returning and just one—End Ron Beagle, who later became an All-America—was outstanding. Worse yet, when the linemen stood up to full height, they looked like Singer's midgets. Only two players, Tackles Jim Royer at 211 and John Hopkins at 203, weighed more than 189 pounds. The quarterback was a bony little 157-pounder named George Welsh (above). He stood barely 5 feet 9 and did not look strong enough to throw the ball more than 10 yards. A win over Army was a pipe dream, a trip to a bowl utterly ridiculous.
Coach Eddie Erdelatz' first estimation of his team was hardly optimistic. He told sportswriters, "We're young, green and our line is very definitely our big problem." One writer's preseason evaluation began, "Navy's hopes for a successful season depend on a small miracle." He was prophetic. The Navy team of 1954 was destined to become the surprise team of the year.
Erdelatz' first order of business was to devise a new defense for his small, light line. He taught his players to scramble from one side to the other and in and out of the line to confuse the opposition's blocking assignments. Although common today, "jitterbugging," as Erdelatz named this style of play, was a novelty back in 1954, and it helped his linemen survive when it seemed often that they would be murdered. With less inspiration, Erdelatz called his offense "ham and eggs." It consisted of equal measures of passing and running, and if the phrase has disappeared, the records the backfield set using the offense have not.
Navy was so lightly regarded that when the oddsmakers made Annapolis a 10-point favorite over William and Mary in the opener, even the players were surprised. But Navy sailed past W&M 27-0. Then came Dartmouth. Welsh was out with bruised ribs, and the offense sputtered badly under John Weaver, who moved over from half to quarterback. Dartmouth led 7-0 in the third quarter when Erdelatz yanked his regulars and put in the second team with Dick Echard at quarterback. The subs scored 42 points in 16 minutes. Stanford, with John Brodie (now a San Francisco 49er) at quarterback, was next and fell heavily 25-0.
By this time people were beginning to take notice of Navy. For the first time in years, the team showed up in the top 10 in the wire-service polls. The week after the Stanford game, Erdelatz, ever the coiner of epithets, said at a press conference, "The fact that they have more desire to win is the big difference.... Why not just call it A Team Named Desire?"
The phrase was corny, but it caught on. In football, desire and the 1954 Navy team will always be synonymous.
No words, however, were enough to pull Navy through the following Saturday against a bigger Pitt team. Navy lost 21-19. The Middies bounced right back to trounce Penn 52-6, but then suffered a loss that was the making of the team. Navy pushed Notre Dame around frightfully in the mud at Baltimore, only to lose 6-0 on a long pass. "Actually," says Welsh, now an assistant coach at Penn State, "we didn't know how good we really were until we lost to Notre Dame. After that, we were sure we could beat anyone."
Erdelatz was beginning to think so, too. "The greatest team I ever coached," he announced. "Nothing will stop this team named desire."
And nothing did. Navy smashed Duke 40-7 and Columbia 51-6, and then it was time for Army. The Cadets, after losing to South Carolina, had won seven in a row, and they were ranked No. 5. They had Fullback Pat Uebel, who had scored three times against Navy the year before, and Halfback Tommy Bell, the leading scorer in the country. They were enough to make Army a seven-point favorite.