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40 years, one finger later, Maryland and Navy to meet

Thursday, Sep. 1, 2005




ANNAPOLIS — On Sept. 3, the University of Maryland and the Naval Academy will find themselves somewhere they haven’t been in 40 years – facing each other on the football field.

When the two teams take the field on Saturday, Sept. 3, at a packed M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, it will renew a rivalry dormant since 1965, and — both sides hope — put to rest the hostility and hard feelings still lingering after a Maryland player’s obscene taunt to the Navy bench in the 1964 game.

‘‘All my classmates remember the infamous game,” said Dave Church, who was just a Middie in the stands then and is now director of Navy’s alumni services. ‘‘These things live on in the minds of us older men.”

Navy was led that year by its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach. Though Staubach went on to a storied career in the National Football League, it was Jerry Fishman, Maryland’s linebacker and captain, who achieved another kind of immortality when he gave the one-finger salute to the Brigade of Midshipmen.

As Staubach remembers it now: ‘‘He got his fingers mixed up.”

That mix-up poisoned a rivalry that began in 1897 – one Fishman called ‘‘the Army-Navy game of Maryland.” No matter whether both teams were unbeaten or struggling to reach .500, the rivalry was intense.

In 1964, that intensity hit a fever-pitch in the game’s waning moments.

Edward ‘‘Skip” Orr, Staubach’s favorite receiver, took a jarring hit from Fishman, then the Terps’ star defensive player who was later drafted by the Baltimore Colts. As Orr remembers it: ‘‘It was a late hit, right in front of our bench.”

Fishman remembers it differently. ‘‘I got a great hit on him; ran him out of bounds,” he said. The Midshipmen booed, they both remember. And Fishman answered by giving them the finger.

Navy seemed to have sealed a victory with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that put them ahead, 22-21. But on the ensuing kickoff Maryland’s Kenny Ambrusko electrified Byrd Stadium with a runback of more than 100 yards that put Maryland up, 27-22.

Still, the Middies refused to give up, Staubach recalled in an interview. ‘‘Even with a minute to go, I thought we were going to pull it out.”

Fishman didn’t think so, and for the second time that day gave the gesture that still endures. ‘‘I just ran over (to the Navy sideline) and, like a bad leader, gave them the finger,” he said.

Though the student newspaper reported that Fishman later apologized, the bitterness and hostility that followed lingered for years and overwhelmed attempts to reconcile. As late as the mid-1980s, Church, a former Navy deputy athletic director, said there was ‘‘absolutely not” a chance that the rivalry could have been resumed.

‘‘Back then it was a different time,” said Church, Navy class of ‘67. ‘‘There were still a lot of people ... who had fresh memories.” In fact, the two teams met once more after the infamous 1964 game, for a previously scheduled game in 1965, won by Navy, 19-7. But that was it – and over the years Fishman’s lewd gestures have grown with every retelling.

At one point, according to Fishman, Maryland’s athletic director, Deborah Yow, even tried to enlist his support in getting the game started again. But, still defiant, he said that if Navy had demanded an apology, ‘‘I would tell them to change their mascot from a goat to a chicken.”

It took no less than the secretary of the Navy, Gordon England, a 1961 Maryland graduate, and the president of the University of Maryland, C.D. (Dan) Mote to finally break the impasse. In 2001, the two discussed the possibility of Maryland and Navy playing again and asked the athletic directors of the two schools to work out the details.

Despite Yow’s assertion that ‘‘the gesture by Mr. Fishman is ancient history,” Saturday’s game in Baltimore – from which each team expects to earn $1.2 million — is still only a single game with no commitment to play again. After this year, the next game between the two can not be until 2010 because their schedules are set until then.

Only then will the possibility of a rivalry reemerge. ‘‘Feelings change and rivalries change and unless you keep it going, no one’s going to care,” Fishman said. But, that one finger is sure to be on the minds of alumni for years to come, including Fishman.

‘‘It’s a part of me,” he said, and he means it literally. On the international lawyer’s hip is a tattoo of a Maryland Terrapin but not in a familiar pose. Instead, Fishman’s Terrapin is giving the salute he made famous in that long-ago game against Navy.

‘‘It was great and I don’t have any regrets,” he said. ‘‘If I could be honorary captain, I would come up and give them the finger again.”

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