This is the best game of the year

Army Navy, Uncategorized


I’ll admit that I choke up on a regular basis.  It doesn’t take all that much -the Amazon ad in which the family dog wears a lion’s ruff to win over a reluctant toddler, the lost puppy protected by the Clydesdales, the dad playing catch with his son in Field of Dreams – I’m snorkling within seconds.  Then, there’s the Army Navy game.

I’m a sucker for tradition, and selflessness, and honor, and decency, and sacrifice.  Throw in heroism, the celebration of teamwork and underdogs, true patriotism, spectacle and ceremony, and all is right with the world.  Even when the world seems upside down.

This game has been played 118 times by student athletes who do not have agents, do not go to the combine, do not leave campus the day after the last game.  These athletes play with everything they have then go on to Verdun, the Marne, Midway, Normandy, Inchon, Heartbreak Ridge.  It has been said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and we have seen an indecent number of scoundrels make use of patriotism for their own ends, and yet, we watch this game knowing that every midshipman and every cadet entered their academy prepared to fight in defense of the nation.  I’m not keen on putting them in harm’s way, and I don’t always understand what it is that we ask them to defend, but I honor their courage and dedication.  None of those on in the field or in the stands has chosen an easy path.

Feelings run high when Alabama plays Auburn, when Michigan plays Ohio State, when Harvard plays Yale; a healthy rivalry provides some of the most drama and tradition in the sporting year and conversations that run hot until the game is played again.  Let’s remember that cadets and midshipmen (men and women) aren’t gadding about on weekends and summer holidays; they live in a small world defined by duty and tradition, one that presents itself fifteen or twenty times a day with the compulsion to shout, “Beat Army” or “Beat Navy”.  The intensity of this rivalry is relentless, lasts a lifetime, and is different from all others in that while both sides consider the game the central event around which student morale is based, they also respect each other and the tradition of service that each represents.  At the end of the game, the winning side will join the losing side in singing the academy’s alma mater, and then the losing side will join the winning side in singing the victor’s alma mater.

Until the late 1960’s Army and Navy had been among the top football powers in the nation.  It was Notre Dame’s victory over Army in 1913 that established Notre Dame’s reputation as a major football program.  The Army Navy game regularly drew more than a 1000,000 spectators, culminating in 1945 and 1946 when the two teams were no. 1 and 2 in the nation.  I had heard the game on radio, but saw my first televised game in 1958 as Army’s last unbeaten team lead by half back Pete Dawkins, Heisman Trophy winner and Rhodes Scholar, came up against a tough Navy squad featuring sophomore sensation Joe Bellino, a future Heisman winner who had been offered a baseball contract out of high school by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Dawkins ran wild, Army won, but Bellino, was the most complete player I had seen, catching passes from the backfield, running back kicks and punts, and averaging almost 50 yards a punt as Navy’s kicker.  Bellino also had the largest calves I have ever seen stuffed into a pair of football pants, and, remember, I measured Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime.

In the years since then, college football has changed.  400 pound monsters line up at tackle or guard; pro-style quarterbacks throw for a mile per game.  Army and Navy play a single wing offense built around a running game.  Both teams combined throw fewer passes in a season than some teams do in a game, and yet, both continue to play an ambitious schedule, occasionally knocking off a ranked team or creeping into national ranking themselves as Navy was last year. The outcome of the games has tilted back and forth as Army held the lead until Navy ran off a string of 14 consecutive victories, snapped last year as Army won 21-17.

This year’s tilt had all the elements of drama.  Navy hungered for revenge; Army longed to begin their own streak.  The game was played again in Philadelphia, the weather looked ominous, but both teams had selected uniforms evoking proud tradition.  Navy paid tribute to the Blue Angels in blue uniforms with two planes screaming across the helmets.  Army wore white on white in recognition of the 10th Mountain Division, the only division trained to fight in Arctic conditions, the wisdom of which seemed apparent as snow fell heavily throughout the game.  Army won, 14-13, as a last-minute field goal attempt by Navy missed the crossbars, but the game may be remembered for its opening as the choirs of both academies combined to sing the National Anthem, and Army’s 4400 cadets were marched into the stadium by the academy’s First Captain, Simone Askew, the first African-American woman to hold West Point’s highest position of student leadership.

And, in case you missed it, here’s the clip CBS presented at the start of the game, the official start of my snorking afternoon:

Sis Boom Bah!


Times have changed, certainly, but lest we forget those who once stood poised by their megaphones, ready to lead a spirited locomotive cheer, let’s remember, shall we, the men of cheer..

Yes, mascots slam dunking off trampolines are among the more amusing spectacles available at halftime, and, yes, the national cheerleading championship broadcast from Disney World does feature impressive pyramid building and endless tossing of small girls into the stratosphere, but doesn’t it all feel contrived, really?

Fired Up and Bring It On took us inside that heartless world of cheer competition, but like the Disney version of cheering, school spirit seems secondary if mentioned at all.  Satan’s Cheerleaders expanded the scope of the genre, but again, was much more about a secondary issue (sacrificing virgins) than rooting a team to glory.   Apparently cheering as cheering lost traction somewhere along the way.

I suppose a modern cheer take on the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Hey-let’s-paint-the-old-barn-and-put-on-a-show” montage would present the moment in which the college’s notably mousy librarian jumps from the bleachers as the final minute ticks down, the home team scores, she drops her specs, strips off her cardigan sweater, displays the college’s colors, and leads the crowd in a furious snake dance around the goal posts.  I suppose she could as easily mug the opposing team’s mascot, toss an overweight bobcat to the ground and plant the school’s flag somewhere near its nether bits.  Or not.

Back to the locomotive, a cheer rarely heard on the sidelines these days.  It’s simplicity itself; fans simply follow the leaders in spelling the school’s name, deliberately at first, gathering steam as the cheer is repeated – like a locomotive – get it?  Not too tough on the sidelines at Yale, a bit more challenging at Susquehanna.  Simple, perhaps, but the energy behind the cheer comes from the urging of cheerleaders, men in letter sweaters virtually foaming at the mouth as the cheer grown in intensity.  Toss away any misconception you might have about the popularity of male cheerleaders in the day; these guys were BMOC, Aces,Keen. Mr.Charisma grabbed a microphone, threw his shoulders back, and tossed out the first word. That was enough. That’s all it took.

In the 1880’s Princeton’s lads developed what would come to be known as the skyrocket cheer –

Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Tiger. Sis, Boom. Bah Princeton!

In Austen, in 1892, eager Longhorns “borrowed” a cheer in use at Philips Academy Exeter (NH), a school known as PEA:

Hullabaloo! Hoo-Ray! Hoo-Ray!
Hullabaloo! Hoo-Ray! Hoo-Ray!
Varsity! Varsity! UTA!

And the familiar refrain?

Rah! Rah! Rah!
Sis! Boom! Bah!

… It is rumored that the first modern cheer of this sort originated at the University of Minnesota where six male cheerleaders kicked this genre into gear.

Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-u-mah, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-So-Tah!”

OK, that was fine as far as it went, but some colleges brought a higher level of erudition to the field. Imagine if you will the Britons of Albion College rousing the crowd in 1884 as Olivet came to town:

Io Triumphe! Io Triumphe!

Haben, swaben, rebecca le animore

Whoopy, whoopty, shellerdy veridy;

Broomdy, Ralldy, eyedy pa

Honeka, heneka, wack-a wacka;

Hob, bob, boldibara, boldibara,

Con slomaday, hob, dab, rah!

Albion! RAH!

Occidental borrowed that one wholesale, and others traveled equally well, as did this gem from Mercer University in Georgia.

Ricker-chicker, Boom! Ricker-chicker, Boom!
Ricker-chicker, Ricker-chicker, Boom ! Boom ! Boom !

Even more institutionally specific is the cheer used by years by the fun-loving pranksters at Cal Tech:

Cosine, tangent, secant, sine

Logarithm, logarithm, hyperbolic sign,


slide rule, slide rule

Tech, Tech, Tech.

Fun is fun, but every once in a while a college has to step up and celebrate its core values, as is done on the sideline at Indiana’s Earlham College, one of the nation’s most Quakerly of Friends colleges:

Fight, Fight, Inner Light!
Kill, Quakers, Kill!
Knock ’em Down, Beat ’em Senseless!
Do It til We Reach Consensus!

For years, Earlham’s mascot was “Mr. Quaker”, a portly figure the virtual twin of the character shilling for Quaker Oats. Today, however, that bastion of Quakerism has become, “Big Earl”, a fearsome if highly principled avatar.

Who WERE these guys, these captains of cheer squads? Here are but a few: George W. Bush (Head Cheerleader at Andover), Jimmy Stewart (Head Cheerleader at Princeton), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Varsity football star who cheered while injured), Franklin D. Roosevelt (Harvard Cheerleader). What’s changed over the years? Somehow this activity, once entirely controlled by men was transformed, sometime in the 1950’s as pom poms began to replace megaphones. The ranks of women who once cheered is perhaps even more celebrated (Halle Berry, Vanna White, Sandta Bullock, Madonna …. and … Ruth Bader-Ginsberg).

Sis! Boom! Bah!