By Anne Marie Tobin
When it comes to hometown heroes, they don’t get any bigger than Winchester native Joe Bellino. Bellino, who lives in Bedford, defied all odds in 1960 when the diminutive halfback midshipman at the Naval Academy won college football’s most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy.
Bellino stood only 5 feet, 9 inches. But that didn’t stop him from excelling in football, basketball and baseball at Winchester High School, and being recruited by more than 60 colleges for football and nearly as many for baseball, before entering the Naval Academy.
In the 1960 Army-Navy football game he ran for 85 yards, caught two passes, scored a touchdown and returned kickoffs to lead Navy to a 17-12 win. Bellino fumbled at the Navy 17 yard line late in the game. With Army marching in for a likely game-winning touchdown, Bellino intercepted a pass at the goal line and returned it to the 50 to save the day. After the game, Navy publicist John Cox told Bellino that the interception had likely clinched the Heisman. Bellino disagreed, saying instead that the catch saved him from being the game’s goat.
He was named one of 50 greatest Massachusetts athletes of the century in 1999 by Sports Illustrated, joining the likes of Harry Agganis, Tony Conigliaro, Pat Bradley and Francis Ouimet.
He even spent time with President John F. Kennedy.
Bellino played three seasons returning kickoffs for the Boston Patriots following four years of active duty, which included two years on a destroyer in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bellino, in his early 20s, began a lifelong love of golf, a game which he quickly mastered. He once held memberships at Hillview, Andover and Indian Ridge, eventually settling in at Pleasant Valley.
Married to his high school sweetheart, Ann Tansey, for 56 years, Bellino has two children, son John Bellino, a 1989 Navy graduate who works in intelligence, and daughter Therese Eggerling, who teaches in Cambridge.
Still close to his playing weight of 185 pounds, 80-year-old Bellino works in the auto business for Ohio-based Adesa Corp. and can be found nearly every day working on his game at the military-owned Patriot Golf Club on the grounds of the Veterans’ Administration Center in Bedford.
North Shore Golf: What was your first exposure to golf?
Bellino: When I was 12, I went over to Winchester Country Club to caddy. I had no experience and had never been on a golf course. I got there at 6 a.m., but by 10 I was still in the caddie shack as nobody chose me. I never went back.
But my first real experience was when I was a senior in high school. The star golfer on the team was a kid named John Black. I was a baseball stud, and I got the idea that I could hit a golf ball with a baseball bat longer that he could with a golf club. So a group of us met at a field on a Saturday morning. He puts a ball on a tee and whacks the thing out of sight. I looked at my bat and said, “case closed, I’m not even going to give it a try,” because I knew I couldn’t do it.”
When did you take up the game?
Both of my roommates at the Naval Academy played golf and were always trying to get me to play. I told them they were crazy to waste their time playing golf. A couple of years later, I was home for a two-week vacation before leaving for Japan. My brother, Tony, and cousin, Angelo Amico, came to the house and asked me to play. So we went to Unicorn and Angelo asked me what my handicap was. I didn’t know what that was, so he said, “We’ll play a Nassau with automatic presses off the back side” and he gave me two shots a side. I had no idea what he was talking about. After we finished, he said I lost the front, the back, the overall and the automatic and that I owed him $8, which was a lot in 1963. He asked me what I was doing tomorrow, so we went back and this time he gave me three a side. Well, I lost another $8. I pointed my finger at him and told him he had hoodwinked me and told him, “I will be back.” From that point on, every chance I got for the next two years I devoted to golf until I knew what I was doing.
What’s your lowest handicap and the best round you ever shot?
I got down to a 2-handicap for a few years when I was at Indian Ridge. … My best round was a 68 I shot at Newport Country Club. I don’t remember when, but I can remember the round like it was yesterday.
What was the best part of your game?
I could talk myself into making any shot, so I would say the mental part of the game. That and the short game, as I was always pretty good at chipping and putting. But the most challenging part of golf is to maintain concentration and routine and stay positive. If you think you can’t do something, you won’t.
Do you have any memorable experiences or anecdotes to share from the links?
I’ve birdied the 17th hole at Harbour Town (on Hilton Head Island, SC) every time I have played it and love telling people I’ve played the course 22 times. The first time I played the hole (195-yard par 3), I knocked it stiff and still had a really hard 4-footer, but made it. I knew I could never top that, so after that, I just skipped the hole every time I played the course.
What did it feel like when you heard you won the Heisman?
Well, it wasn’t like it is today, being on TV, with all the fanfare. In my case, honestly, it was a relief. I was in an electrical engineering class about a week after the Army game. I got called out of class and sent to the superintendent’s office, which was never a good thing. So, I thought I was in trouble especially since I was struggling in that class. The office was full of people, the admiral, a couple of sports reporters, our football coach; the admiral read a telegram from the Downtown Athletic Club. As soon as I heard, “Congratulations, midshipman Joseph Bellino…” I knew I won it. But my only thought was I was so glad I wasn’t in trouble, that’s the only thing that went through my mind.
How did you come to meet John F. Kennedy?
One of the reporters in the superintendent’s office that day interviewed me and asked me what was left for me, after winning all the major awards. I said there was another Massachusetts guy who had done pretty well that year, president-elect Kennedy and I would love to meet him. So, the next day the headline of the Washington Post read “Bellino wins Heisman, wants to meet Kennedy.” The day after that I got a telegram from him congratulating me and inviting me and the other Navy players from Massachusetts to his Georgetown house for dinner. He even sent a limo to pick us up.
I also got to meet him the following summer to present him, as our commander-in-chief, with the Class of 1961 yearbook. I was an ensign, and it was an incredible experience, just two guys with Boston accents talking it up in the Oval Office. We talked for a couple of hours. I still treasure the picture I have from that meeting.
Talk about playing for the Patriots. You were drafted, but still had to fulfill your 4-year service commitment.
My active duty was ending in 1965 after being in Japan for two years, and playing football was the furthest thing from my mind. I had submitted by resignation papers and someone in the Redskins organization had a Washington connection, so they contacted me to invite me to training camp. Then, the Patriots found out and offered me a contract, so I flew home, signed the contract and was at training camp in Andover the next day and then played in an exhibition game against the Jets and Joe Namath, who was a rookie, the day after that. One day I was in the Navy, then 72 hours later I’m in a Patriots uniform playing professional football, wondering what I am doing here. But I did pretty well, caught a pass and returned kickoffs, but the next day I stepped in a hole and broke my ankle, so I was done that year. The next year, I snapped a hamstring, but after the third year I was in good shape and got picked up by the Cincinnati Bengals in the expansion draft. In those days, if you played pro, you had to have two jobs, and I started a family and business and I couldn’t do that from Cincinnati, so I packed it in.
You come from a large family, four brothers and a sister. What was their reaction when they found out their brother was voted the best collegiate football player in America?
My older brother Sam was sitting at the kitchen table. Back then, your older brothers and high school athletes were your heroes, so Sam was my idol. He was a football star at Winchester and played at Wentworth and he always pushed me. If I scored three touchdowns, he would tell me I should have scored four, or I should have made that interception or that pass I should have had. I could never satisfy him, but I knew it was for my benefit. So I put the trophy down on the table, proud as a peacock. He read the inscription, that it was for the best player in the country, and he said, “In this family, you’re not even Top 3.” He said he was better than me, my brother Tony was No. 2 and my sister Betty was No. 3 because, even though she didn’t play, if she did, she still would have been a better player than me. I’ll never forget it.