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Public Affairs : Reliving the '68 Army Football season

Mark Beech_02.JPG
Mark Beech, a writer for Sports Illustrated and a U.S. Military Academy Class of 1991 graduate, returned to his alma mater Sept. 18 to attend his first book-signing event for "When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football," which chronicles the 1958 season. Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO 

Mark Beech, USMA Class of 1991 grad, relives Army Football’s ’58 season of glory

By Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor

Mark Beech lived Army football while growing up with an “Old Grad” for a father. Now he’s reliving one of the most memorable—if not greatest—seasons in his first book, “When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football.”

Beech knew the stories about the 1958 team, and players like Pete Dawkins, Bill Rowe and Bob Novogratz—not from the pages of history books but from his father, a Class of 1959 graduate.

“I grew up with this team,” Beech said. “My dad was classmates with the seniors on the team … so I knew a lot of those guys and had heard about this team all my life.”

There’s nothing better than a yearbook to learn what parents were like before adulthood, and Beech would pour over the Howitzer to discover his dad’s life as a cadet.

“When we would visit my dad’s parents in southeast Kansas—and there was nothing to do at my grandparents’ house—I would flip through his yearbook on the coffee table, the Howitzer,” Beech said. “I kept coming across the pages on the team and how they were undefeated; which, in the ‘70s when I was growing up, was unthinkable. I’ve always been fascinated with this team—they had a Heisman Trophy winner, they had this famous coach and they beat Notre Dame and were ranked No. 1.”

It was a season of highlights and the accomplishments those cadets made fascinated Beech, but he wasn’t sure it would be the subject of his first book.

“When I started scratching around for book ideas a few years ago, I kept coming back to this one,” Beech said. “But I kept saying, no, it can’t be this—I’ve covered NASCAR, I’ve covered horse racing for 15 years … this can’t possibly be the book I’m going to write.”

Ultimately, Beech decided to take the plunge into Army Football lore. He took no leave from his writing duties with Sports Illustrated while working on the book.

The 1991 graduate spent a total of a month’s time at his alma mater delving into its rich archives where he found the correspondence between Coach Red Blaik and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

“It was a way to get inside Red Blaik’s head in a way that wasn’t available to me because he is no longer alive,” he said. “It was a great resource into what he was thinking at certain moments, like after the cheating scandal in ’51 or before the Notre Dame game. He included some detailed stuff there, like probable depth charts, which sort of opened the flower that much more.”

These letters detail the friendship between the two while enhancing the narrative of the season from the words between Army’s most celebrated coach and its biggest fan.

“It was just a treasure trove,” he said. “And then I would come back and forth to the athletic communications office whenever the chance presented itself—Mady Salvani and Bob Beretta were incredibly helpful. Then I went to some of the games because the players were there and I would talk with them at the Thayer Hotel or at a tailgate before the game.”

His father kept acquaintance with Dawkins through the years, as well as other players—especially around reunion time, and Beech said when approached, they were all willing to talk history with him.

“It was my impression they felt that when people talked about the great Army teams it kept coming back to the ‘40s, and of course, those were the national championship teams,” Beech said. “I thought in some ways this team was as great or greater than those. You know it was ironman football then and in 1958 Army didn’t go much deeper than its best 15 or 16 players.”

Another great score for Beech was a set of “Lonely End” play books and the Army-South Carolina game film which launched that historic strategy.

“That was an incredible resource because there are no visual documents really of that game,” Beech said. So it was very hard to recreate it until those things came up."

Beech said he was lucky the former players remembered so much about one season more than 50 years ago, and said it felt sometimes like he was springing a pop quiz on them.

“They remembered a lot from that year, and their interactions with Red Blaik were so infrequent that they remembered them all,” Beech said.

It was the second book-signing in as many weeks to feature an author’s work about Army Football. New York Times sports writer Joe Drape visited the campus Sept. 12 and signed copies of “Soldiers First,” which documents the 2010-2011 Army football season. Beech was positive about his friend and fellow writer’s book, even tweeting that it was the best sports book he read this year. He also thinks the two serve nicely as book ends to the past and future of Army Football.

“One story ends and another begins,” Beech said. “What Army Football used to be and what it is now…it will never be like it was in 1958 again. Army was actually very good in the ‘60s and finessed the decade with a winning record, but they never reached the heights they did in ’58—ranking-wise or reputation-wise.” Football is different now at Army, as it is throughout collegiate sports, but some things remain the same.

“You’re still getting those same committed, disciplined guys interested in something bigger than themselves,” Beech said. “It’s different, it’s unique and it counts for something. Those kinds of guys were coming to West Point back then too, and chose Army because it was going to be hard.”