Separated by about 30 miles, in a state whose fields hosted battles between the Blue and the Gray during the Civil War, the only two Division I-A football teams in Maryland have not clashed in four decades.
For many years, the Terrapin football team held a fierce in-state rivalry against the U.S. Naval Academy, with the distance — both geographically and ideologically — intensifying the series.
But the schools’ opposing principles collided in 1964, and the series has been shut down for 40 years.
On Saturday, a generation of Terp students who have been chastised for profane chants and rowdy post-game celebration will re-enter a rivalry that all but ended with the flick of a middle finger before they were even born.
The Nov. 7, 1964, match-up could have been considered one of the biggest wins in Terp history. After Navy took the lead with just less than three minutes remaining, Kenny Ambrusko returned the ensuing kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown, and the Terps defeated reigning Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach and the Midshipmen at a packed Byrd Stadium.
But as the Terps gathered to celebrate the 27-22 victory, star linebacker Jerry Fishman had something else on his mind. He ran over to the visitors cheering section and saluted the brigade of Midshipmen in his own fashion.
“I gave them the middle finger,” Fishman recalled in an interview with The Diamondback last week from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “Tell it how it is.”
It was the second time during the game that Fishman flashed a gesture that is still blamed for the teams not meeting for the past four decades.
Earlier, Fishman drilled Navy’s Skip Ott during a punt return, slamming him down near the sideline in front of the Midshipmen bench.
“I just laced him,” Fishman said. “He got hurt, but it was an entirely legitimate hit right in front of the Naval Academy section. They were booing and razzing and I just flipped them off. It wasn’t just a quick gesture, though. I was walking up to them and really standing there with a few-second salute.”
Of course, the details of the play are remembered differently on each side of the rivalry.
“It caused me to miss a game and a half,” said Ott, who was already nursing an injured knee and thought it was a cheap shot.
Fishman lived up to his reputation of being one of the most intense players around, which also brought harassment from Navy’s following.
“He was getting pretty aggressive and the brigade started to ride his back,” teammate Darryl Hill said. “Never underestimate what goes on with those guys and what a player might hear. I was the only black player, so I obviously heard a lot. And Fishman was Jewish.”
But regardless of the details accompanying Fishman’s middle-finger responses, their impact lived on far more than the details of the game.
Outraged by the incident, Navy canceled the regular series with the Terps, with a previously scheduled game in 1965 serving as the last match-up until the teams reunite at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
The Terps played Navy 19 times between 1905 and 1965, with the rivalry picking up steam as the Midshipmen became a national powerhouse behind Staubach.
Navy thrashed the Terps 42-7 on the way to a Cotton Bowl appearance in 1963 that decided the National Championship.
From Navy’s perspective, games against the local rivals were as important as their rivalry with Army, without the same pomp and circumstance.
“When I was in the Academy, we had a saying that beating Army is great, but beating Maryland is a must,” said Hill, who attended Navy as a freshman before transferring to the Terps.
In the Vietnam War era, students from the local service academy left an elitist impression on other college students, Hill attests.
“The Naval Academy always thought they were far superior to the Maryland redneck coal miners,” Fishman said. “It’s just the mindset.”
The feud included typical rivalry staples — university students stole one of Navy’s goat mascots before the 1964 game — but animosity stretched beyond events relating to the competition on the field.
Fishman remembered bumping into an old buddy from high school who went to Navy when the two were in college. Fishman approached the friend, who turned his back and ignored the greeting.
“The Naval Academy was pretty tightly controlled and there were strict standards,” said Pat Donnelly, a Navy fullback in 1964. “From a public institution, it was night and day. I think there was a feeling of mutual dislike, but it wasn’t personal, it was more institutional.”
Just an excuse?
As an institution with powerful political ties, the Naval Academy viewed Fishman’s middle finger as a blatant sign of disrespect.
“When a player gives his finger to 40,000 spectators, he has no right in college athletics,” then-Navy coach Wayne Hardin told The Diamondback the day of the incident. “If Fishman were on my squad, he would never play another game of football.”
After honoring the prior commitment to play the 1965 game — a 19-7 Midshipmen win — Navy refused to play their neighbors despite many attempts by Terp officials.
“I think the rivalry got bigger than it should have from the Navy perspective,” Hill said.
But the consensus is that Navy had little to gain from playing the Terps and used the Fishman incident as justification.
“They couldn’t play Maryland every year because we beat the crap out of them every year,” Fishman said. “Why get beat up by the state university when you can lose to Notre Dame and big national teams?”
Ott agreed that Navy wouldn’t have refused to play for so long simply because of a single incident. He explained the emergence of professional football lured players away from service academy teams, where they were less likely to cultivate a career in the sport.
Donnelly concurred that without being able to attract the top talent, Navy had no chance against the Terps.
“It would’ve been a pretty one-sided rivalry in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s if they had been playing,” he said.
But this university had plenty reason to keep trying.
“Maryland wanted the money,” Fishman said. “Navy didn’t. They could just call up the government and ask for $10 million. They didn’t have to work for it.”
From his tone during the interview, Fishman didn’t seem bitter about the way his actions were portrayed, nor did he offer an apology for expressing his feelings at the time.
Still, if anyone could imagine how much attention the incident would garner in the press, it would be Fishman, who studied journalism at the university and covered a crime beat for this newspaper.
The story dominated the headlines, and Fishman remembers seeing his photograph plastered on sports pages throughout the area. Tom Nugent, the Terps’ head coach at the time, tried to rationalize his defensive star’s actions, but was largely unsuccessful.
“I can’t chastise a boy for going all out,” Nugent told The Diamondback at the time. “Both teams appeared to be just a bunch of red-blooded guys trying to kill each other.”
And even as he grew up into a successful attorney in — of all places — Annapolis, Fishman was continually reminded that people still held the gesture against him.
Fishman said he and his fellow attorneys were usually called to the bench early in the day to settle matters with the judge, followed by citizens representing themselves.
But one day he sat in the courtroom until the late afternoon, watching the judge call every one else until only he remained in the quiet chamber.
Fishman said he approached the bench with a puzzled look and the judge replied, “Go Navy” before hearing his case.
“People have remembered the incident for years and years, but I still wear my Maryland jersey proudly,” said Fishman, who doesn’t plan to make the trip to see the game Saturday.
And despite later getting in touch with some of his former Navy opponents — including Donnelly — Fishman still holds some animosity toward the Academy.
“Maybe we can get another Maryland player to carry on the tradition,” he suggested.
On the first night the Terps reported to camp in early August, head coach Ralph Friedgen gathered the team for some story-telling.
A freshman at the university the last time the teams met, Friedgen has a taste of the rivalry that none of his current players can fully understand.
“I am concerned about our players knowing that it’s a rivalry,” he said. “We talked to them a little bit last night about it. I know Navy’s coach has indoctrinated them with it.”
The Terps have been searching for a true rival for years, and a little animosity could only help a team that hasn’t played a crisp opening game in the past three seasons.
“That gets you ready to work during every two-a-day practice,” cornerback Josh Wilson said. “It’s a big rivalry. We weren’t really around 40 years ago, but we’re ready for it. I’ve heard some pretty nasty things.”
Friedgen also wants to make the most of the Terps’ opportunity to face Navy, as he has fought for the game since arriving at the university.
With an estimated payout of $1.2 million assured to each school, Terp Athletics Director Debbie Yow finally convinced current Navy athletics director Chet Gladchuck to agree to play — at least once.
“I don’t believe that it’s in the cards to play every year,” Yow said. “I think it’s a special thing. I think [different] people have their own scheduling philosophies.”
Yow and Gladchuck — who has been receptive to the idea of the teams playing since he was hired in 2001 — have already made plans to meet after the game and discuss future possibilities, but the Terps don’t have an opening in their schedule until 2010.
Saturday’s game will kick off all festivities related to the university’s 150th anniversary. And with that, the Terps hope to prove their university and athletic ideologies represent more than profanity and discontent.
“I think for our state to have an in-state rivalry would be a tremendous thing,” Friedgen said. “We have to do everything in our power to make this a good evening.”
Contact reporter David Selig at firstname.lastname@example.org