By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
NOVEMBER 2018—America’s Army and Navy are going into battle next month—but not against some rogue regime or terror group. Rather, the Naval Academy and Military Academy will renew their bitter football rivalry. Every aspect of this rivalry reminds us that it’s much more than a game.
Consider that Army-Navy was once canceled by presidential order: The 1893 tilt triggered so many fights—including a near-duel between an admiral and a general—that President Grover Cleveland put an end to the annual gridiron contest. It would be six years before President William McKinley allowed the game to be played again.
President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent football fan, famously moved from the stands to the field during the 1901 game, as historian Nicolaus Mills writes. “At halftime, he inaugurated the presidential tradition of moving from one team’s side of the stadium to the other’s,” Mills adds. This was altogether appropriate given that TR had the unique distinction of being both an Army and a Navy man—having served as assistant secretary of the Navy and as colonel in the Army.
The 1963 game was played only after Mrs. Kennedy gave her blessing, concluding that her slain husband—a proud Navy man—would have wanted the rivals to take the field. And so they did, even as the nation mourned the terrible loss of its president.
As further evidence of the game’s national import and impact, Mills points out that the 1944 Army-Navy Game raised $58 million in war bonds—equal to about $822 million today.
This kind of stuff simply doesn’t happen at other college football games. As Lt. Gen. William Lennox, a former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, has observed, “This game truly belongs to America.”
Indeed, Army-Navy is a national event and national treasure—even when the teams are something less than national powers, which has been true for a few decades now. As author John Feinstein writes in his biography of the game, Army-Navy has lost much of its sports luster since the days when Army captured three straight national titles (1944-1946), or the academies produced a trio of Heisman Trophy winners in just six years (1958-1963). Although Army’s Black Knights are likely going to a post-season bowl game this year, Feinstein reminds us that the last time either team was invited to a major bowl was in 1967, when the Pentagon ordered Army to turn down a bid to the Sugar Bowl due to “growing controversy surrounding the Vietnam War.”
Scholars and Warriors
More than a national event, the Army-Navy game—and the men who play it—are an expression of the nation itself. The players embody the very fabric of America and the very best of America. Under the helmets on the field, and beneath the sea of grey and black uniforms in the stands, we see a glimpse of America—Hispanics, whites, Asians, blacks. The players come from places like Kingsport, Tennessee, and Humble, Texas; Basehor, Kansas, and Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin; the Bronx and Indianapolis and Long Beach; San Jose and San Antonio and Seattle; Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and Glen Mills, Pennsylvania; Charlotte, North Carolina, and Belton, South Carolina. No other rivalry game can boast such a cross-section of America.
And no other rivalry game can boast such a dearth of boasting. Absent from this game are the showboating and taunting that are sadly commonplace in other college football games—and celebrated in the NFL. There is no strutting among the winners, no sulking among the losers. In fact, after the clock hits triple zeroes, the winners stand at attention to honor the losing side as the alma mater is played. The losers then do the same for the winners.
Why do they act this way? It’s more than military discipline. It’s the fact that these young men—many of them far younger than the fifth- and sixth-year “seniors” who play at other Division I colleges—know they are part of something bigger than self. They know they are nothing without the man lined up next to them or behind them or across from them. They know there is more to life than this game. Their example is very much in line with the American Security Council Foundation’s Step Up America program, which encourages good citizenship, civic engagement and service, respect for the institutions that make our nation great, and support for those who protect our freedom and security.
In a sport, in a culture and indeed in an era dominated by selfie-narcissism and strutting individualism, everything from what the Army and Navy players study to the uniforms they wear reminds us this rivalry is different than all the others.
Rather than elevating the individual by wearing uniforms emblazoned with player names, the backsides of the jerseys worn by Navy and Army display words that underscore the unit and the team: “West Point,” “Midshipmen,” “Duty Honor Country.” In recent years, Army’s uniforms have honored the 10th Mountain Division, the Big Red One and 82nd Airborne Division. Navy’s have paid tribute to the famed Blue Angels and been adorned with the Eagle, Globe and Anchor of the Marine Corps. At times, their uniforms honor their brothers and sisters in harm’s way—who are wearing another kind of uniform.
While the rest of the college-football world pays lip service to the “student” half of the overused term “student-athlete,” the Army-Navy Game showcases bona fide scholar-athletes: A quick scan of the rosters reveals degrees like systems engineering, quantitative economics, chemical engineering, operations research, mathematics; the list goes on and on. There are no general studies or nutrition majors to be found on these rosters.
But the participants are unique not only because of where they come from and how they conduct themselves and what they study; what makes them and this game truly exceptional is where they are headed. The reminders are everywhere—the Commander in Chief Trophy they play for; the generals and admirals who sit in the stands and who will soon issue them orders; the patches they wear denoting combat units and warships.
These young men know they are not going on to play football in the NFL; they are going to war. They won’t become grad assistants; they will become soldiers, sailors and Marines. They won’t sign any endorsement deals to line their pockets; they will take an oath to protect their country. They won’t take time off to find themselves; they will lead men and women into battle.
Some of them will deter hostile regimes in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific and the Persian Gulf. Others will wage war on faraway shores so that the enemy doesn’t again bring war to our own. Along the way, they will serve as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense; they will liberate captive nations; they will rebuild broken cities.
Some of them will not return from the mission that lies ahead. The Midshipmen and the Cadets know such stark truths. Yet they signed up and saluted anyway. That’s why Army-Navy is more than a game.
Photo: The U.S. Military Academy Black Knights practice at their home field in West Point, N.Y., for the Army-Navy football game scheduled for Dec. 13, 2014, in Baltimore. DoD photo by EJ Hersom