Why Does this Game Mean so Much?
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 10, 2010
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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