On Saturday the greatest rivalry in sports will continue for the 108th meeting as the Black Knights of the United States Military Academy (Army) renew their great rivalry with the Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy (Navy) at M&T Bank Stadium. It will be as close to pure as you will get in today’s somewhat slimy and seedy college sports scene.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t pure amateurism. It’s not like when you and I played football in the backyard after school. Each team is getting $4 million apiece from the Ravens to play the game in Baltimore. CBS Television is paying for the rights to broadcast the game, and both teams have extensive radio networks across the country. Coaches are getting paid and players are receiving the best education money can buy.
However, there is something different about this rivalry than you will find in any other rivalry in sports, college or professional–from the players, to what happens after the final whistle, and to what this game means to so many. There is a gentlemanly aspect to this rivalry that isn’t seen in other rivalries. The pageantry is also second to none.
Where else in sports do rivals become teammates in a blink of an eye? Where else do you see players stand at attention and pay respect to the other’s anthem?
Start with the players. They are not at their respective academies just on football talent alone. See, you don’t get recruited to the Naval or Military Academy; you get appointed. No matter how good a football player you are, you still need grades and you need all the other service requirements that go with future leadership.
If Arkansas’ Darren McFadden or West Virginia’s Steve Slaton wanted to go to Navy, they just wouldn’t let them in because they are good football players. At the end of the day, the true mission of the Naval and Military Academies is to create outstanding military leaders out of young men and women. Football players are no exception to the rule.
Getting in is tough, and once they get there, it’s even harder to stay. It starts with the horrors of their respective summers prior to their first year. At Army it’s simply called "Beast Barracks" and at Navy "Plebe Summer." These six weeks of hell are meant to weed out those who slipped through the cracks. It’s intense, and you are stripped of every aspect of individualism. This happens before your first class and before your first fall football practice.
When classes start, the regimen and discipline stay a constant. There are inspections of rooms and bed sheets, morning formations, military drilling, mandatory meals, and mandatory curfews. These are just a few aspects.
They take classes at the academies that you and I can’t even pronounce or begin to comprehend. There are no cupcake classes or study halls, and grades are not just something you pass by. Pass or else. There are no redshirt seasons; you have four years to get it done.
The easiest two and half hours these guys spend each day is football practice. A chance to take out their frustrations, hit someone before they go back to the books or meet with their squads.
On the field, the high academic entrance requirements, height and weight limits, and the five year post-graduation military commitment required of West Point and Annapolis graduates put these teams at a competitive disadvantage. There are no four and five star recruits at Army or Navy. Every game, even against smaller schools, is a challenge for these kids. They are usually out weighed, not as quick and they have less talent. They are able to compete thanks to intelligence, attitude and discipline.
See, at the academies winning a football game pales in comparison to that ultimate and far-reaching objective. None of Navy’s or Army’s players arrived in Annapolis or West Point with aspirations of enjoying a long career in the NFL. That is what makes these student/solider athletes different.
Just look at the walls of Navy Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis. There are no names of players or pictures of decorated football players anywhere inside the stadium. Instead, you see the names of famous military battles from around the world: Normandy, Iwo Jima, Sicily, Desert Storm, and currently Operation Enduring Freedom among others.
For Saturday’s game, my thoughts drift to the seniors. For Army’s seniors this will be their last game. Navy seniors have one more game left in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on December 20th.
But yet for all of them, it will also be the last Army-Navy game. Following this game the seniors will continue their march towards graduation. In a few short months they will be shipped out various ports of calls or fields of battle. Many who play in this game will pay the price of freedom. Freedom, as they say, isn’t free.
At Army seven in ten seniors will be war fighters this time next year. They will defend our freedom, mine and yours, as part of Operation Iraq Freedom or part of Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Same at Navy. This game which always means something, means just a little bit more now that our country is at war.
The emotion turned up a notch, because some seniors will not return once they are deployed. For instance in the 2004 game, at least one senior from the class of 2003 who was killed in Iraq, Navy’s J.P. Blecksmith, was remembered. Former Navy player Ronald Winchester, class of 2001, was also killed in Iraq.
These players will be putting their own lives at risk in the the very near future. That reality is not lost of these players. This class of seniors at both schools knew when they accepted this appointment that combat was a real scenario.
The game itself will feature pomp and circumstance. "The March on of the Brigade of Midshipmen" and "The Long Gray Line of the Cadets" will parade onto the field before the game. It’s one of most special moments in sports. Flyovers by Army helicopters and the pounding sound of Navy Jets will fill the air. There will be more dignitaries–politicians, generals, and admirals–then you will ever see.
For sixty minutes the two squads will give you everything they have. Navy will probably enter as a heavy favorite due their devastating triple option attack; they know they can’t take Army for granted. The Black Knights, especially their seniors who have never beaten Navy, will leave it all on the field as players. Good soldiers will fight the good fight, no matter how undermanned and no matter the odds.
At the end of the game the school song of the losing team and then the winning team are played and sung. The winning team stands alongside the losing team and faces the losing academy’s student; then the losing team accompanies the winning team, facing their students. This is done in a show of mutual respect and solidarity.
The seniors from both teams will leave together knowing in a few short months they will be teammates in the US armed forces. They will become a new band of brothers with a shared past and history. The respect on the field will carry over in battle. They may cross paths on the field of battle and at various ports of call. One day the other’s skill and training may save the life of the other.
For these players their will be no more football, no more chances to play a game they love. What do you think the Army players would give for one more chance to play after this game just like Navy will have in San Diego?
So this Saturday in the midst of Christmas shopping, tree decorating or putting up lights in the yard, take a few hours and sit down in front of the couch. Watch an old fashioned game of football–where the players are playing for pride and love of the game. Stay with it to the end and watch the singing of the school songs. Then think of the sacrifice both teams have made and the sacrifice they will give in the upcoming years. Think of those who came before and have given us the ultimate sacrifice.
Trust me, you will get hooked and be more than thankful you live in a nation represented by these young men. For on Saturday, sports will be what it should be, just a game. It will mean everything for a few hours and then real life will take over. For a few young men the reality will sink in. It’s over, and while saddened, a new chapter is about to begin.
Enjoy the Greatest Rivalry in Sports.