The overriding takeaway from the Army-Navy game is that despite the intensity of the rivalry, they’re all ultimately on the same team.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t expect to be so moved by the whole thing. So captivated by the spectacle. So caught up in the color and pageantry.
Oh, I knew the Army-Navy game was a big deal. You don’t have to be a graduate of West Point or the Naval Academy, or even a hard-core flag-waver, to figure out that something billed as “America’s Game” is going to tug at your patriotic heart strings.
I’ve watched Army-Navy enough on TV to appreciate the traditions that the game offers. But on Saturday, due to a fortunate confluence of events, I was able to attend Army-Navy in person for the first time — and not in a working capacity.
I sat in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and soaked up the day as a fan. It turned out to be one of the best sporting experiences of my life, and only partially because the game was unexpectedly competitive.
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The Seahawks happened to be playing in Baltimore on Sunday, so we were in the vicinity — a fairly short car ride away. And one member of the Seahawks media crew happens to be Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News Tribune, a West Point graduate who was able to use that connection to score hard-to-come-by tickets.
The only stipulation was that our contingent — Times staffers Bob Condotta, Jayson Jenks and myself joined Bell — had to root for Army.
Not a problem. Everybody loves an underdog, right? Army football is in a serious dry spell right now; they entered the game with a 2-9 record, 13 consecutive losses to Navy and just one winning season since 1997. They were listed as 22-point underdogs to Navy, so sure, I’ll pull for the Black Knights. They need all the support they can get.
But the overriding take-away from the Army-Navy game is that despite the intensity of the rivalry, they’re all ultimately on the same team. That’s a point that Matthew Pawlikowski, chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy, drove home (a bit heavy-handedly, perhaps) in his pregame invocation when he spoke of the seniors “bristling on the brink” of becoming soldiers, sailors, and marines:
“Ready today to happily visit violence to each other, and, if need be, someday, sometime soon, on the enemies of the world so that our citizens, our allies’ citizens, indeed the sane citizens of all countries, can sleep safe and sound in peace.”
That’s kind of a bigger deal than playing for a bowl game or a playoff berth, right?
There were so many great touches that you simply have to see in person, starting with the stirring “March On.” That occurs about three hours before the game when the attending Army cadets and Navy midshipmen, in full dress uniform, march in formation across the field and take their seats on opposite sides.
Gregg made sure to point out that the Army had much greater precision in their lines. My favorite part came when Army cadets lined the edge of the bleachers trying desperately to knock the hats off their Navy counterparts as they marched off the field.
Other moments that will stick with me included the so-called “prisoner exchange,” when a handful of students who had spent the school year attending the rival academy got to switch sides and enjoy the game with their home academy.
And at halftime, when Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, who had watched the first half on the Navy side, strode across the field at to view the second half on Army’s side. That accentuated again the shared bond that endures long after a football game ends.
I’ll also long remember the sheer bedlam in the Army section when the Black Knights took a 17-14 lead with 2:08 to go in the first half on a 39-yard TD pass from quarterback Chris Carter to the intriguingly named Edgar Poe. (Yes, his middle name is Allen. I checked.)
But, alas, those would be Army’s final points, as they squandered innumerable scoring chances in the second half. There are numerous theories as to why Navy, especially under coach Ken Niumatalolo — currently flirting with the BYU job — utterly dominates the series and has been vastly more successful overall.
It could be such mundane factors as the body-fat requirements that tend to keep Army’s linemen lighter than their counterparts. It could be the grueling physical requirements of military training that causes some players to lose weight during the year. It could be that it’s simply hard to recruit top-notch athletes when a five-year military commitment awaits them after graduation (though Navy has the same requirement).
On Army-Navy day, though, the fervor and will to win by both teams tends to be a great equalizer. As Joe Drape wrote in his 2012 book, “Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country, and Football at West Point”: “Playing football is at once the easiest, most fun and least important thing they do over the course of their 47 months as an officer in training.”
The most important part becomes clear when Army’s Hail Mary falls incomplete as time runs out, and Navy wraps up its 21-17 comeback victory. Then comes the most famous, and most moving, Army-Navy ritual of them all.
I’m speaking, of course, of the singing of the alma maters. The losing team always goes first, so Army’s players trudged over to the bleachers to stand in front of the cadets, while Navy’s squad stood at attention behind them. Then both teams moved to the Navy side — the midshipmen sprinting over gleefully — for the singing of the Navy alma mater, “Blue and Gold.”
Niumatalolo and his former assistant, Army coach Jeff Monken, stood side by side, both with tears in their eyes. Many Army players were openly weeping, not just from the pain of the loss but the poignant knowledge that seniors almost certainly had just played their final organized football game before heading off to military careers.
Sources close to the situation report that there might have even been moist eyes in the bleachers.