Before the 1946 Army football team stepped onto the field for its annual matchup with the Naval Academy, the game was already thought to be over. Army hadn’t lost in three years and was just a few weeks removed from a legendary 0-0 tie against Notre Dame, a match-up dubbed one of college football’s “games of the century.”
The Army backfield featured two Heisman Trophy winners — legendary backs Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Together, they set a college football record for most rushing touchdowns (97) by a set of teammates that stood for 60 years.
“I really don’t think we had much expectation of winning that game,” said then-Navy starting running back Pete Williams, now 89, who carried the ball as time expired on the final play.
The Naval Academy, considered as high as 30-point underdogs by some, came into the contest losers of their last seven games.
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After falling to a 21-6 deficit by halftime, Navy was able to shut out Army in the second half and stormed back to make the score 21-18. With just a few seconds remaining in the game, Navy had the ball near Army’s goal line with a chance to pull off an incredible upset of one of college football’s greatest teams.
As Williams carried the ball toward the sideline on that last play, it was clear that he had not gotten into the end zone, but many of Navy’s players believed that Williams had gotten out of bounds and the clock should have been stopped. Even the grainy footage of the game — one of the first to be nationally televised — doesn’t resolve this age-old question.
“It’s a shame, but tough stuff, buddy. The game is over,” said Arnold Tucker, now 92, who played for Army. “I think they were personally quite disappointed and they wanted to vent a little bit.”
When asked whether he thought he got out of bounds, Williams coyly deflected the question.
“That’s been a secret that I’ve been able to keep my whole life,” joked Williams. “The only guy that can refute what I might say is Army’s end Barney Poole, and he’s dead.”
On Sunday afternoon, both men will be recognized at a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of that game in 1946. According to the event organizers, the ceremony is meant “to honor the spirit of lifelong competition and camaraderie between the men and schools.” The event will be held at The Palace, a senior living facility in Coral Gables, and will feature various members of the military and alumni from both academies.
“Being a part of and representing a community is a privilege. … I’ve been able to make great friends and associates,” Tucker said. “I think the athlete is very fortunate.”
Tucker was born in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina — a town with just over 2,000 residents at the census’ last count — before moving with his family to Miami when he was about 2 years old. His father, who also served in the military, got a job as a customs officer at Miami’s seaport.
Tucker points to his older brother as his inspiration for getting involved in sports. With his brother, he was able to test his skills against boys four or five years older.
“Rather than do like the other guys and say ‘Get away, squirt,’ he would select me to play on his teams … and I advanced physically and in regard to competition,” Tucker said. “I was lucky because he was a darn good brother.”
Dick Allen Tucker was a pilot during World War II and was ultimately shot down over the English Channel.
Tucker doesn’t know what losing is like. Before playing on Army’s back-to-back-to-back championship teams, during his years at Miami Senior High, Tucker never lost there, either. He was part of multiple state and national championship teams — in basketball as well as football — in the early 1940s. Tucker also went to the University of Miami for a short time before going to West Point.
After his athletic career ended, Tucker served a full military career of 37 years. He flew B-29s as part of the military’s atomic bomb program during Korea, served in Vietnam, did a tour at the Pentagon, and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Williams, known then as “Pistol” Pete Williams, also played on some of those football and basketball teams with Tucker at Miami High, where they became close friends. He took over the quarterback position after Tucker left.
Williams and fellow Miami High graduate Bruce Smith played opposite Tucker in that 1946 game and have remained close ever since. Smith was the Navy quarterback in the game.
“The friendship that we developed in high school endured. It wasn’t challenged a bit by that game,” Tucker said.
Smith would eventually reach the charge of Admiral of a naval base in Hawaii.
Unlike his peers, Williams didn’t make his career in the military. He left the Navy after a tour of duty where he served on a destroyer out of Key West and a heavy cruiser in Norfolk, Virginia, doing development work researching different equipment and techniques used to detect and combat submarines.
After the military, he got a degree in engineering from the University of Florida and started his own business, Volunteer Construction.
He stayed heavily involved in football and was a referee for the SEC for 26 years, where he was the recipient of the 1990 Outstanding Football Referee Award. Even though he stated on his application that he didn’t want the role of head referee or umpire, he was assigned as a referee, anyway.
“I feel like football has given me so much and I just wanted to give something back,” Williams said. “I wanted to keep the game as a good game. I wasn’t ready to divorce myself from it.”
He worked his day job during the week and flew out to call games on the weekends. He called multiple major bowl games and a national championship, and was chairman of the Orange Bowl Committee.
Williams became teary eyed when recalling the stories of friends, games and experiences past. He keyed on two things as defining experiences in his life – football and the Naval Academy.
“It taught me that in life you’re going to have to rely on people. In other words, a team,” Williams said. “If you get wrapped up in your ego you’re not going to be worth a whole lot to mankind.”