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: