Classic rivalry takes a back seat to no other game
Behold, the greatest game of all.
On Saturday, Dec. 8, the respective football teams from West Point and Annapolis will face off on the gridiron for the 119th time, as Army and Navy will play at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia — while viewers will anxiously tune in from all sections of the globe.
I don’t call this the greatest game of all because I expect it to be a 14-overtime thriller, with a national championship hanging in the balance. Nor do I boost it above all other games because of transcendent players who will one day be put on display in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, or due to the athletic wonders we are sure to witness as 330-pounders move with an elegance and grace that belies their size.
No, we probably won’t see any of that stuff, to be honest with you. Army is bringing a 9-2 team to the game, and a two-game winning streak over Navy, who has struggled to a 3-9 record this year. Though crazy things tend to happen in this rivalry, most pundits expect Army to come out on top fairly handily in this one, so we don’t come into this installment of the rivalry with edge-of-our-seats anticipation over a barnburner.
Future Hall of Famers? Maybe. Again, you just don’t know until time plays itself out on these young men’s careers, but it’s been quite awhile since Roger Staubach was taking snaps for Navy. Sure, there’s a chance that a few of these players might one day be wearing NFL patches on their uniforms, but the odds are pretty slim, and most of them have different goals for patches on their uniforms.
You see, these players chose their respective schools because of a desire to be part of something much larger than football. By choosing to go to one of the service academies for their studies, they chose to place their nation ahead of their individual goals. They chose honor and commitment to the greater good over the pursuit of a professional football career. They chose us over themselves.
Again, that’s not to say some of these young men won’t play in the National Football League. It happens. Napolean McCallum was a star running back for the Naval Academy while I was a high school student up the road, and he went on to have a nice career for the Los Angeles Raiders, once scoring three touchdowns in a 1993 playoff game against the Denver Broncos.
But, again, if these players were simply chasing NFL careers, they would have gone to different schools.
This is the very rare game when the fans watching live or on television can find role models not only on the field of play, but also in the stands. Students from both academies, active service members and veterans pack the stadiums to watch the teams compete, and “Beat Army!” and “Beat Navy!” will be the four most-heard words from those stands all day.
And, make no mistake about it, the competition in this game is fierce. There are bragging rights at stake with this contest, from the players and coaches on the field to the cadets and midshipmen in the stands, to the alumni and elsewhere. For many of the seniors on the field, especially if their team didn’t qualify for a bowl game, this is it. This is the very last time they will every play a game of organized football. They’d sure like to wrap things up with a win over their rival before joining their new team full-time — where the stakes are much higher than a football game.
And that’s the crux of all of this. On Saturday, they will be competing against one another on a field for millions of people to watch. In a year, some of them might be working together to stop an enemy weapons convoy in Yemen. You think there is some pressure for the players in the upcoming college football playoffs?
You want tradition? During the pre-game festivities, there is a “prisoner exchange,” where cadets and midshipmen currently studying at their sister academies are “freed” so they can watch the game with their comrades.
You want sportsmanship? When the game ends, both teams’ songs are played. The winning team stands with the losing team and faces the losing academy’s student body while that song is played, and then vice versa. This is a sign of respect.
You want history? On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, spiraling the nation into a state of mourning and shock. Discussions began on canceling the Army-Navy game, slated for Nov. 30, but Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, urged the academies to go forward with their game, arguing that the nation needed it to help heal. The game was eventually moved to Dec. 7, to also honor the 22nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. A crowd of 102,000 people crammed into Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium that day, and saw eventual Heisman Trophy winner Staubach lead Navy to the win.
This is a game for the family to watch. The players are shining examples of scholastic and athletic excellence, there won’t be the over-the-top, look-at-me celebrations we find in other games (at least not without repercussions) and the competition will be genuine and pure. These athletes are what’s right in the world.