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Honoring A Gridiron Great

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19 edition of Army Football Game Day versus Ball State.

By Mady Salvani

Army honors one of its gridiron greats today when it retires football jersey No. 61, worn by Joe Steffy who blazed across the playing fields of Michie Stadium over 60 years ago.

An imposing figure during the finest period in Army football history, Steffy is a National Football Foundation & College Football Hall of Fame inductee, an Army Hall of Famer, an All-American and winner of the Outland Trophy. He also played on two national championship football teams.

But when Steffy looks back on his storied career, what he most cherishes came following the 1946 national football championship season when his teammates elected him captain of the 1947 team.

"They made the announcement in the Mess Hall and I literally cried," commented Steffy. "I could not believe they would elect me captain, it was a great honor to be chosen."

That is quite a statement for the 83-year-old Steffy who has seen more than his fair share of awards during a gridiron career that began at the University at Tennessee and ended on the playing fields of Michie Stadium alongside the fabled "Touchdown Twins" Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.

Though living in the shadow of the Volunteers growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., Steffy also followed the Cadets of West Point listening on the radio to Army-Navy football games.

"I wanted to attend West Point but I didn't think I could get in because of politics," said Steffy. "I attended Baylor School of Chattanooga, a prestigious prep school, and the headmaster knew of my desire. He had a connection to West Point in Army line coach Herman Hickman.

"Hickman was a Baylor graduate who went to the University of Tennessee and his high school coach was the headmaster at Baylor when I was in high school."

Telegrams were exchanged and Hickman proved to be Steffy's ticket to West Point, but there was concern about his academics.

Hickman contacted his best friend John Barnhill, the head coach of the Volunteers, and the two men decided that Steffy would go to the University of Tennessee for a year to improve upon his academics.

He would then pack his bags and head to the banks of the Hudson Valley where West Point was on the three-year War Program which allowed plebes (freshmen) to play. World War II ended shortly after Steffy arrived and so did the three-year program.

Steffy's introduction to college ball took him to the Rose Bowl where the Volunteers suffered their lone loss of the season to Southern California en route to compiling a 7-1-1 mark during the 1944 season.

"That was quite a heady start for a prep school kid," laughed Steffy, who made an impact at both Tennessee and Army. "Going to Tennessee helped me academically and I had no trouble with any of the classes at West Point except English 101, where I struggled with writing, spelling and punctuation."

Though Steffy might have had his struggles with English, it did not translate to the gridiron where he quickly made a name for himself as an outstanding offensive guard and defensive stalwart at a time when players competed on both sides of the ball during the single-platoon, two-way football era. Army authored a 23-2-3 record along with a pair of national championships in 1945 and 1946 during the three years he played.

Steffy played behind team captain and All-America guard Jack Green his first year, then took over the spot the next two when he started drawing the attention of coaches and sportswriters.

The 1946 Army-Notre Dame game that decided the national champion resulted in a 0-0 tie following a battle between the two lines with Steffy being voted the National Lineman of the Week for his performance.

Despite major personnel losses to graduation, that included Blanchard and Davis, following the 1946 season, Army went 5-2-2 to include a 21-0 defeat of Navy with Steffy leading the way as team captain the following year.

Steffy reaped a pair of prestigious honors in 1947 as the 5-11, 190-pound stalwart who set the standard for all who did the dirty work of the interior line when he was named the Outland Trophy winner as the best lineman in the nation in just the second year of the awards existence. He also snagged first team All-America honors as a guard.

Steffy is Army's only Outland Trophy winner and held the distinction of being the lone service academy player to receive this award until 1987 when he was joined by Air Force Academy's Chad Hennings.

Though surprised and pleased when head coach Earl "Red" Blaik told him in the spring of his junior year that he was the winner of the Outland Trophy, he balked that he would have to travel to New York City that night for the presentation the next day.

"I remember telling the Colonel in his office that I had an electricity exam the next day and I didn't see how I could leave that night unless the Dean was going to allow me to put this exam off," recounted Steffy. "Well the Dean said ‘no' so it was arranged that I would receive the Trophy at West Point

"There was no audience or fanfare and afterwards I just put the plaque they gave me (I never received the actual trophy until a few years ago) in my locker, then ran to class to take the exam."

With his eligibility up after the 1947 season, Steffy stayed on as an assistant coach helping the Black Knights to an 8-0-1 record with the lone tie a 21-21 draw with Navy.

Steffy, who met his future wife Ann Brown (a local girl from nearby Newburgh, N.Y.) his senior year, spent the next five years in the Army following his graduation in 1949. He fought in the Korean War, drawing that assignment at the start of the conflict in 1950.

Though wounded along with suffering frostbite, the Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient returned to his unit after being discharged from the hospital to lead and take care of his soldiers the same way he did his teammates on the gridiron.

He later served as an aide to Gen. "Iron Mike" O'Daniels before returning to the Hudson Valley where he joined Coach Blaik's staff (1952-56) which at the time included Blanchard.

"Doc (Blanchard) and I were very friendly as teammates, but got even closer during that time," remembers Steffy, who was inducted into the College National Football Foundation & College Football Hall of Fame in 1987 along with being elected to Army's second Hall of Fame Class in 2005.

Like Steffy today, Blanchard's number (35) will be retired at the Army-Vanderbilt game on Oct. 10; just the third and fourth Army players, respectively, to join this elite fraternity that also includes Davis (41) and Pete Dawkins (24).

Steffy, who joined his father-in-law in Newburgh, N.Y., as the owner of a car dealership, has been a regular at Army home football games since 1952.

Today Army salutes Joe Steffy, who never thought of himself as a star, but his exploits on the field created countless holes for Heisman Trophy-winning running backs Blanchard and Davis in the Black Knights' storied history that we hold so dear today.

Mady Salvani is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.

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