Fans attending games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and Alumni Hall take for granted that key information will be displayed on the scoreboard.
For football games, that means such elements as time, score, yard line and down and distance. Fans rely on those numbers while following the game, and it’s important that they are posted timely and accurately.
Navy athletics is fortunate to have a veteran scoreboard operator who is steady, reliable — and a true American hero — in Dave Hoffman, who spent more than a year of his life as a prisoner of war in Vietnam after being captured on a combat mission.
He has dedicated his life to service and has been unwavering in his support of the Naval Academy. Years after his retirement, he starting assisting the athletic department and has been a mainstay ever since.
Hoffman has handled scoreboard duties for every Navy home game in football, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s lacrosse since the late 1990s.
“I’ve never missed a game ever since I started doing it,” Hoffman states matter-of-factly. “I get the complete schedule from [Navy’s senior associate athletic director for sports information Scott Strasemeier] at the beginning of the year, put all the events on a calendar and make sure I never have any conflicts.”
When you add up all the home games for those four sports, Hoffman has probably worked close to 2,000 straight. Strasemeier said it’s reassuring to know the scoreboard is always in good hands.
“Dave Hoffman has a job with [Navy athletics] as long as he wants it because it’s going to be impossible to replace him,” Strasemeier said. “He is the Cal Ripken of scoreboard operators.”
Ripken, of course, holds the Major League Baseball record with 2,632 consecutive games played. Hoffman could probably post a similar number if he continued running the Navy scoreboards for another five years or so.
However, Hoffman recently celebrated his 82nd birthday and isn’t sure how much longer he will continue spending Saturdays inside the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium press box or seated at the Alumni Hall scorer’s table.
“It might be time to think about quitting,” he said.
In the next breath, Hoffman acknowledges how much he will miss being so closely associated with Navy athletics. “I really enjoy the sports and I love being around the athletes and coaches,” he said.
Hoffman takes tremendous pride in making sure the scoreboard is always up-to-date and accurate. He must assess the situation and then make quick decisions, inputting information to the scoreboard after every play in football and every made shot in basketball.
“You need to be alert and make sure you stay ahead of the action,” he said. “You have to pay close attention because you don’t want to make mistakes.”
Under the direction of Strasemeier, Navy has created a strong core of game-day personnel filling a variety of roles. Many are members of the sports information staff or other athletic department employees. Hoffman is among a handful of game day workers not employed full-time by the Naval Academy Athletic Association.
“I know Dave enjoys the game days as much as we do. There is a true camaraderie among the staff and we are one big family,” Strasemeier said. “Even though Dave is the senior member of our crew, we still give him a hard time just like everybody else and he wouldn’t want it any other way.”
An American hero
Hoffman was raised in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, and attended Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. He annually attended the Army-Navy football game at JFK Stadium with his father, who was in the shipbuilding business.
“My dad not-so-subtly encouraged me to think about the Navy,” Hoffman said. “He would say things like ‘Don’t those blue uniforms look good.’ I learned what the Naval Academy was all about and it got to the point that is where I wanted to go.” Hoffman said.
Hoffman played baseball in high school and hoped to do so at Navy before suffering an arm injury during tryouts. He wound up serving as manager for the varsity baseball team.
Hoffman graduated from the academy in 1962 and was commissioned as a Naval aviator, attending flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola. He was stationed at Whiting Field in Florida and Miramar in California before serving as an F-4 pilot and being deployed to Vietnam aboard the USS Enterprise in October 1966.
Hoffman returned to Miramar to serve as a tactics instructor with VF-121 then attended the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, earning a Master’s degree in operations research. He was deployed to Vietnam a second time as landing signal officer with VF-111 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea.
That is when Lieutenant Commander Hoffman’s life and military career was irrevocably changed. While flying a combat mission, his fighter jet was hit by surface-to-air missiles. Hoffman and flight officer Norris Charles were forced to eject at 25,000 feet and dangerously high speed and they landed in the midst of enemy territory in North Vietnam.
Hoffman was captured by the Viet Cong near the City of Vinh on December 30, 1971, and spent 455 days in captivity at the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. That decrepit and outdated facility was sarcastically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American Prisoners of War who were subject to miserable conditions.
“It was an extremely grim situation,” said Hoffman, who arrived with a broken arm and was initially held in solitary confinement.
While the food was barely edible and the entire facility was totally unsanitary, the United States prisoners kept each other’s spirits alive. Several men shared cells and were moved around often, allowing information to be spread among the prison population.
“The Vietnamese made a basic mistake. They let us talk to each other. Information got passed along about what to do and how to do it,” Hoffman said.
A favorite pastime of the POWs was to brainstorm various ways to make things difficult for the Vietnamese. Hoffman was among a group of prisoners assigned to perform vehicle maintenance and they plotted sabotage.
“We put sugar in the gas tanks of the trucks,” said Hoffman, noting the Vietnamese never figured out what caused engine failure.
After its withdrawal from Vietnam, the U.S. negotiated the release of all Prisoners of War and the inhabitants of the “Hanoi Hilton” were freed in early 1973. They were transported home by Air Force C-141 cargo planes. Hoffman returned to San Diego, spent 60 days in a hospital, then resumed flying.
“Within a year I was back in the VF-142 squadron and deployed to the Mediterranean aboard USS America,” he said.
March 28 marks the 50th anniversary of Hoffman’s release from the Hoa Lo Prison. During last Friday night’s men’s lacrosse game between Navy and Johns Hopkins, the two scoreboards Hoffman operates broadcast a special video tribute in his honor.
Hoffman reached the rank of captain before retiring July 1, 1988, after serving 26 years in the Navy. He went into the banking business, rising to become president of the Bank of Orange County in southern California.
Hoffman moved across the country to Annapolis after his wife, Captain Mary Jo “MJ” Sweeney, was transferred to the Naval Academy as a battalion officer. Sweeney served as the offer representative for the Navy women’s basketball team and it was around 1996 when Hoffman started working as a statistician for Navy athletics.
“Dave Hoffman has not only been a valuable gameday employee for the NAAA for more than 25 years, and along the way he has become a close friend with me and my staff,” Strasemeier said. “I don’t know anybody that cares more about the Naval Academy than Dave Hoffman, and to have the opportunity to get to know him and become friends with a true American hero is one of my greatest treasures.”
Hoffman, who resides in the Crownsville community of Belvoir Farms, also devotes considerable time to training and showing horses. He owns a pair of Appaloosas named Bella and Lily and enjoys riding in Pleasure and Ranch Riding competitions.
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