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Joe Bellino, Winchester halfback who became Navy’s first Heisman winner, dies at 81

Mr. Bellino won the Heisman Trophy in 1960, while he was a halfback at the Naval Academy. He was the Naval Academy’s first Heisman recipient.
Mr. Bellino won the Heisman Trophy in 1960, while he was a halfback at the Naval Academy. He was the Naval Academy’s first Heisman recipient.(Harry Harris/Associated Press/File 1960)

Joe Bellino was sitting in an electrical engineering class at the Naval Academy in November 1960 when he was summoned by the school’s superintendent. Mr. Bellino, Navy’s star halfback, thought he was in trouble.

The superintendent’s office was filled with people, including two sports reporters and an admiral, who read a telegram from the Downtown Athletic Club that began: “Congratulations Midshipman Bellino.”

At that moment, the former Winchester High School three-sport athlete realized he had won the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest individual honor.

Years later, he told the Globe that when he brought the trophy home, seeing the joy it brought his relatives and friends, along with former high school teammates and coaches, made him feel “glad for them.”

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Mr. Bellino, who is enshrined in the National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame, died of stomach cancer March 27 in Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln. He was 81 and lived in Bedford.

“Joe inspired everyone who knew him, and always found time to share his wonderful personality and embracing smile,” Naval Academy athletic director Chet Gladchuk Jr. said in a press release.

While a senior All-American, Mr. Bellino also received the Maxwell Award as College Player of the Year. His interception at the goal line ensured Navy’s 17-12 victory over Army that season. Though Navy later lost, 21-14, to Missouri at the Orange Bowl in Miami, his tumbling touchdown reception was a highlight of that game.

A 1960 Sports Illustrated cover story noted that “with a football in his hands and the bulging, muscular posts that serve him as legs drumming down a football field, Joe Bellino becomes something special.”

In his three college varsity seasons, when he also started on defense, Mr. Bellino scored 31 touchdowns, rushed for 1,664 yards on 330 carries, returned 37 kicks for 833 yards, and set 15 school records.

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In addition, he was an outstanding catcher and outfielder on the Navy baseball team and was team captain in 1961, the year he was drafted by the National Football League’s Washington Redskins and the American Football League’s Boston Patriots.

Mr. Bellino was the Naval Academy’s first Heisman recipient. The second was quarterback Roger Staubach. In the press release, Staubach said Mr. Bellino was the reason he went to the academy, and “was as good as it gets as a person. I idolized him.”

Born in 1938, Joseph Michael Bellino was a son of Michele Bellino, who emigrated from Sicily at age 16, and the former Sarah Corabi.

Mr. Bellino, whose older brothers were his sports heroes, experienced defeat only twice in three seasons with the Winchester High football team. He also was point guard on a basketball team that won two Eastern Mass. championships, and a power-hitting baseball catcher who pondered later in life what it would have been like to take aim at Fenway Park’s Green Monster.

His brother Michael of Woburn recalled a time when a professional baseball scout and a Naval Academy representative sat at the family’s kitchen table. The former arrived with a lucrative bonus offer. The latter was awaiting word on whether Mr. Bellino would return for his senior year of college and commit to four years of military service.

Mr. Bellino turned down the money.

“I felt I owed the Navy something for what it had done for me,” he told the Globe in 1965. “I thought I had an obligation to fulfill.”

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In 1961, he married Ann Tansey, a former high school classmate. Their upcoming wedding was featured in the Globe’s Society column, which included a photo of Ann adjusting Mr. Bellino’s ensign cap.

While serving as lieutenant on the minesweeper USS Albatross in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War in 1965, Mr. Bellino received cables from the Redskins and the Patriots asking him to come to training camp.

He chose the Patriots. Head coach Mike Holovak had seen Mr. Bellino shred the Boston College defense in 1959, when Holovak was BC’s coach, and later said Mr. Bellino’s 50-yard touchdown rush that day was “the greatest do-it-yourself run I ever saw.”

At his first news conference as a Patriot, the 5-foot-9 Mr. Bellino said he weighed 183 pounds — “three pounds lighter than my last Army-Navy game.” Subsequent ankle and hamstring injuries set him back, and Mr. Bellino retired after three seasons with the Patriots.

He coached the St. Columbkille’s High of Brighton football team in the mid-1970s and excelled at golf, once posting a 2-handicap while a member at Indian Ridge Country Club in Andover. He also enjoyed reunions of fellow Heisman Trophy winners, including with Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie.

Mr. Bellino “felt there was a standard” Heisman winners should hold themselves to “and he loved being a part of that fraternity,” Flutie said. “He was a class individual who gave back by supporting many charitable causes.”

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One such endeavor benefited disabled veterans, including those who had lost limbs.

Mr. Bellino was invited to dinner with his Navy teammates by president-elect John F. Kennedy in 1960, and he was friends with entertainer Bob Hope. One of his closest friendships was with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whose father, Steve, was a longtime Naval Academy assistant coach.

“Joe was my first hero and football inspiration. His standard of excellence was a great example for me,” Belichick said in the Academy press release.

Belichick added that when Mr. Bellino graduated, he gave him his midshipmen’s hat, and “50 years later, I gave it back to him because it belongs in his family.”

At the time of his death, Mr. Bellino was a director of Northern Bank & Trust in Woburn and a longtime executive with ADESA Boston, an automobile auction company.

“Joe was like a second dad to me and a mentor to many people in the automobile business,” said Tom Caruso, ADESA’s former CEO.

In addition to his wife, Ann, and his brother Michael, Mr. Bellino leaves a son, John, a Naval Academy graduate who lives in Great Falls, Va.; a daughter, Therese Bellino of Cambridge; another brother, Anthony of Winchester; and three grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 12:30 p.m. April 13 in St. Mary’s Church in Winchester.

Bellino Park in Winchester was named for Mr. Bellino.

“He cherished the honor because he and his wife grew up near the park,” said Michael, a former Winchester High football captain who enjoyed attending Thanksgiving Day games between Winchester and Woburn with his older brother.

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When John Bellino was promoted to the rank of captain in the Navy in 2014, Mr. Bellino, a retired Naval Reserve captain, presided over the ceremony and swore him in.

Mr. Bellino’s No. 27 football jersey was retired and he was given the academy’s top two athletic awards his senior year. The academy now presents the Joe Bellino Award to an inspirational varsity football player.

“Those are great honors and I’m very proud of them,” Mr. Bellino told the Globe in 2003.

He added, however, that no honor was greater than when Bellino Auditorium in Ricketts Hall at the academy was named after him.

“As long as there’s a Naval Academy, there’ll be a Bellino Auditorium,” he said, “and that is touching.”

Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story misspelled Therese Bellino’s first name and gave an incorrect last name for her. The Globe regrets the errors.


Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.