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P.S.R. Op-Ed

Why Does this Game Mean so Much?

The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy already belongs to Air Force, thanks to its wins over both Army and Navy. The Midshipmen have already clinched their bowl berth: they’ll face San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23. Likewise for Army: the Cadets will face off against S.M.U. in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30. Any other game with a similar scenario would feel like the final week of the N.F.L. season, when teams already in the playoffs would rest their starters, knowing more important games await. Not this game. What’s left to play for? For Army and Navy, everything.

Let’s not pretend that this any other game: it’s Army-Navy, and no other game means more to the fans, players and alumni associated with each program. Take Alabama and Auburn, for example. If that pair entered the Iron Bowl at 8-3 and 6-5 — as is the case tomorrow — the game would be important, it would be for bragging rights, but it wouldn’t be, well, vital.

Hyperbole rules the day when discussing Army and Navy. Or is it Navy and Army? When talking about this pair, one wants to ensure that equal respect is granted to each team: rag on the teams all you’d like — if you’d want to — but you damn well better respect those men on the field, as well as the midshipmen and cadets cheering in the stands.

What does it all mean, on the other hand? What does this game really mean in the grand scheme of things, in the big picture — the picture where the men and women of each service academy move directly from the quad to the battlefield, by and large, an arena completely foreign to the overwhelming majority of this country?

Here’s what I’m asking: why does this game mean so much? And make no mistake: it means everything. Tougher challenges await, but on this day, whether Cadet or Midshipmen, this is all that matters.

Perhaps we care because the rivalry stands as the last bastion of amateur football, a landscape recently sullied by N.C.A.A. violations, a lost Heisman Trophy, accusations of rampant misconduct and accusations of pay-for-play, the latter the newest entry into the college football lexicon. When Army and Navy meet on the final Saturday of the regular season, there’s never any question if these student-athletes don’t have their heads on straight — they do, more than me, more than you, more than most of us.

Perhaps we care because many of us are veterans, or we know — or knew — a loved one who served in the military. Perhaps we care because we wish we had the courage to be like the men and women of the U.S.M.A. and U.S.N.A.; even if, in my case, I know I’m not tough enough. I just wish I could be.

Maybe we just care because it’s football. That’s too simplistic. We care for all the above reasons, more so than we care simply because the game stands as one more taste of college football before the long, slow slide of bowl season.

I know why Army cares: because it’s Navy. And why Navy cares: because it’s Army. That bond of animosity — well-meaning animosity, if that makes sense — goes back generations, back to 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to show his neutrality, despite being a Navy man, by inaugurating the Presidential tradition of switching sidelines between the first and second halves.

There’s a bond here, a tie that goes beyond football. That’s why each team joins the other to serenade fans with each academy’s alma mater at the end of the game, win or lose. Perhaps this bond is what makes the game so endearing — is what makes us care so much.

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Comments

  1. Dave says:

    Great post – you’ve captured the meaning of this rivalry perfectly. I recommend for anyone who wants to know more about it the book “A Civil War,” which chronicles the 1995 season, culminating in Army’s 4th consecutive win. (sigh)

    PS BEAT NAVY

    Dave
    USMA Class of 2000

  2. Robert Paulson says:

    My first college football memory is watching the Army-Navy game on tv around 1986 or 87 with my father. Even as a child I knew I was watching something bigger than a football game, and it still moves me to this day.

  3. Bob J says:

    The difference this game makes is that the teams, and the rival student bodies, are not the usual collections of students going to college after high school for whatever reason. Plainly put, these students have made a firm commitment to defend our country, protect its interests, and in so serving, provide the basis for our country to project its principles as the leader of the free world. That gets respect, and it’s respect that’s deserved. This game touches our patriotism.

    This game, and football at these academies, is part of the college life if those students, and nothing bigger than that. There will be no quarterbacks holding a press conference to apologize for losing a game and promising it will never happen again as if losing were the end of the world. There will be no coaches getting out of Dodge the year before the NCAA lowers the boom on violations that happened in their tenure. There will be no fathers shopping sons to the highest bidder. None of that taint is on this game.

    This game is also pure football. It reaches back to the traditions of college football’s beginnings, when one college played the other for the sake of competition alone. And deep down, we know that. It’s a refreshing break from all the Heisman talk, the B.C.S. talk, who’s in which conference. Let’s just play football. Here it is.

    What about Air Force? Those games are played in the same vein, too, but armies and navies are something different. We’ve had an air force only since the end of WWII, but there have been armies and navies since civilization began. There’s something primeval about them that we still sense, our awareness that when we are threatened, they will be our first line of defense.

    We care about this game because when it’s over, the rivalry ends and students of both academies go back to the business of preparing to defend us and to perhaps make the ultimate sacrifice in the process. You have to respect that. By honoring this game, we in a very small way pay homage to those future soldiers and sailors for that service to us.

    Bob J
    USN 1970-74

    Paul: Thanks for the comment and your service. There’s just something about this game.

  4. GEORGE says:

    ACTUALLY THE TWO TEAMS SATND NOT FOR THE OTHER’S FIGTS SONG BUT FOR THEIR ALMA MATERS. THAT IS NO SERENADE!!

    Paul: I know, I know. My fault. And my mistake. And I don’t mean serenade in the “Romeo and Juliet” sense of the word, more like they pay homage to their fans and fellow servicemen and women by singing the alma mater.

  5. GEORGE says:

    OH, YES.

    GO ARMY! BEAT navy!

  6. Dave says:

    Incidentally, watch carefully during the alma mater close-ups. Every player knows every word. So do the coaches, student managers, cheerleaders, and the cadet in the Black Knight costume. Not many schools can say the same.

  7. Earl says:

    GO NAVY!

    BEAT ARMY!

  8. DaU!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    I never knew why I always liked watching army and navy play. I guess when I watch the two play, it just seem like good ole fashion football.

  9. jgish92 says:

    The entire student body of both schools attends this game. Ask any graduate of either school how the team fared against their arch rival during their four years, and I guarantee they’ll know. Would every alum of Michigan or Ohio State be able to answer the same question? There are sooo many things to love about this game. If you are a true sports fan, you have to go at least once.

  10. Dotbo says:

    I enjoy watching the game on many levels. On the patriotic level, you’re seeing two teams of hard working students at two top tier institutions represented by their peers. On a football side, you’re seeing two groups of not-so-highly sought after recruits playing against each other, not for the possible knocking off of a Goliath (that would be Notre Dame, for Navy), but the other David. I mean c’mon. It’s NOT that the other team should beat you, it’s that YOU SHOULD BEAT THE OTHER TEAM.

    2010 will be the NINTH victory in a ROW!

    Less Hoo-a, More Do-a! Go Navy, Beat Army!

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