Joe Bellino, an elusive halfback who was the first Navy player to win the Heisman Trophy but whose professional football career, delayed by four years of military service, fell short of expectations, died on March 27 in a hospice in Lincoln, Mass. He was 81.
His son, John, said the cause was stomach cancer.
Bellino was an explosive, relatively undersized (5-foot-9) running back whose Heisman candidacy most likely began in late November 1959, when, as a junior, he rushed for three touchdowns, including one for 46 yards, in a 43-12 rout of Army.
It was a prelude to his 1960 season, when he rushed for 834 yards, then a Navy record, and 15 touchdowns. A versatile two-way player, he would also switch to defensive back and return kicks and punts as the Midshipmen compiled a 9-2 record.
By the end of the season, Bellino was a national star and the front-runner for the 1960 Heisman, college football’s most prestigious award. He posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing his standard dress blues.
“Joe runs like a berserk butterfly that happened to grow up to weigh 180 pounds,” Roy Terrell wrote in the accompanying article. “Above the waist he is muscular but not big; most of his weight is in those legs, which measure 18 inches in circumference at the calf.”
He added: “Tacklers say Joe can go sideways faster than forward, like a frightened crab.”
Bellino learned he had won the Heisman — by an overwhelming point total — when he was summoned from his electrical engineering class by Rear Adm. John F. Davidson, superintendent of the United States Naval Academy,
“I’m very pleased,” Bellino later told reporters. “I feel very happy because we as a team and a brigade had such a good year.”
Three years later, another Navy player, quarterback Roger Staubach, won the Heisman, served in Vietnam and later became a star with the Dallas Cowboys.
Navy’s 1960 season ended on a down note, however, when Missouri defeated the Midshipmen in the Orange Bowl in Miami, 21-14, holding Bellino to just 4 rushing yards. (“Bellino Stopped,” a headline in The New York Times said.)
Although he was drafted in 1961 by the Washington Redskins of the National Football League and the Boston (now New England) Patriots of the upstart American Football League, Bellino had to put his professional aspirations on hold. Four years of Navy service awaited him.
Joseph Michael Bellino was born on March 13, 1938, in Winchester, Mass. His father, Michael, a Sicilian immigrant, was a factory and construction worker. His mother, Sara (Corabi) Bellino, was a homemaker.
Joe excelled in football, basketball and baseball at Winchester High School and was recruited by more than 100 colleges. (He also began to attract interest from major league baseball teams interested in signing him as a catcher.) But in the end, he chose Navy over West Point, at a time when the two military academies had perennially strong football teams.
After graduation, he served on a destroyer that was part of the United States naval blockade during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He later became executive officer of a minesweeper that in the early days of the Vietnam War took American military advisers onshore.
His Navy commitment fulfilled, Bellino signed with the Patriots in 1965, the same year that a heralded rookie quarterback, Joe Namath, started his career with the New York Jets. The Patriots’ coach, Mike Holovak, recalled that six year earlier, when he was coaching Boston College, he watched Bellino seemingly fend off every tackler in a 50-yard touchdown run against his team. Holovak called it “the greatest do-it-yourself run I ever saw.”
But there were few such highlights during his three seasons with the Patriots. Bellino had injuries and played sparingly, mostly as a kick returner.
Although he said his time in the Navy did not diminish his speed, he conceded that he had lost his passion for the game when he returned
“You know, you play golf every day for a month, then lay off for a week, and you lose the feeling,” he told The Boston Globe in 1968. “That’s what I lost.” Asked if it had come back, he said that it had, during the 1967 season, when “I felt like myself again.”
He was selected in the 1968 A.F.L. expansion draft by the Cincinnati Bengals but never played for them, preferring to begin his post-football life. He started a business that provided catering services to junior colleges, then moved into positions in automotive auctions and leasing. He worked until February.
In addition to his son, Bellino is survived by his wife, Ann (Tansey) Bellino; his daughter, Therese Bellino; three grandchildren and his brothers, Anthony and Michael.
While at Navy, Bellino found an admirer in a young football fan named Bill Belichick, a future coach of the Patriots, whose father, Steve, was an assistant coach at the academy. The first football game Bill Belichick remembers was the one in which Bellino scored three touchdowns against Army.
“When Joe graduated in 1961, he gave me his midshipman cover,” or cap, Bill Belichick told Navy’s athletics website after Bellino’s death. “Fifty years later, I gave it back to him because it belongs in his family.”