This is the second installment of a series we are running on Against All Enemies in the week leading up to this year’s Army-Navy football game that looks at what the rivalry and game means to different people and groups. Gavin Jernigan got us started yesterday with a first-hand account of what this game means to the Midshipmen and Cadets, including what it means to the players competing on the second Saturday in December.
We are writing this series because of the fact that this game matters significantly to a large number of people, some of them with direct connections to the Naval Academy and West Point, and some who simply know someone who has served in the Armed Forces. And there is no doubt that each year, the game centers around the student-athletes and student bodies of each school, as it always should. But this game is about more than just those on the field, and about more than just those in the stands. Those people are a representation of something greater than any individual or even their collective whole, and the school’s themselves serve a much higher purpose than just great academics or Division One athletics.
The Army-Navy football game, more than any other singular moment each year, is a joint showcase for two proud institutions of what was and is and hopefully always will be most special about who they are and what the represent. I’m not suggesting that Army-Navy football is the biggest or most important event that takes place each year for these schools. Far from it. But what can’t be argued is that this is the biggest and most national stage each school gets on an annual basis to demonstrate who they strive to be.
Sure, the baseball teams have played at Fenway Park and the basketball teams have squared off in Madison Square Garden, but in Philadelphia on Saturday, at Lincoln Financial Field, literally two entire universities and every member of their student bodies will travel to cheer on their football programs and do so in a display of pageantry and patriotism that can only be rivaled by how much each school wants so desperately to win.
Everything that takes place at each school is about beating the other. As Gavin mentioned in the first article, it’s written on the plates in the weight room, it’s on the back of shirts, it’s shouted thousands of times a day by freshman in the dormitories, it’s sung at the end of each school’s alma mater no matter when or where you are singing it. You will not find two other schools who care more about beating the other than you will between Army and Navy. And of course, winning and securing bragging rights for the next year is a part of what this game means to each school. But it is about so much more than that.
There are a lot of rivalries out there, many of them steeped deeply in tradition, and most of them showcase great things about the institutions they are playing for. Still others bring out the worst in each other, and in many of these rivalries, the two schools use the opportunity to simply downplay or degrade the other for what they don’t have.
Sure, Navy fans spent many a year screaming “watch our bowl game” (which I’m sure Army fans will be returning this year) or saying how happy they were to not spend their time in the dreariness of West Point, NY. And Army fans would come back with something about how glad they were not to spend half their lives on ships in the middle of the ocean. But, on the whole, rather than focusing on what each school doesn’t have, the Army-Navy game is a chance to show collectively what they do have, and to try and one-up each other in that display. I see your Leap Frogs and raise you the Golden Knights Parachute Team. I see your multiple sections of Apaches flying what appears to be inside the stadium and have four F-18’s come roaring by at a deafening decibel level. I see your uncoordinated and lackadaisical march-on and show you one with discipline and precision.
The whole showcase is about who can do it with more pride and precision and that’s not even talking about the football game taking place. In what is normally a chance to showcase division and differences in most rivalries, the Army-Navy game is an opportunity to show collectively what makes these schools two of the premier undergraduate institutions and opportunities available for young people in the country.
This is still a contest rooted in tradition. It has seen 100,000 plus pack Soldier Field in Chicago and Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia. It’s been played in historic venues such as the Polo Grounds or the Rose Bowl. It’s seen the “game of the century” and having to play immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And of course it has seen its fair share of amazing players and future military officers come through its ranks.
But this is not just a display of tradition. This is about the here and now. This is about those who continue the legacy. This is just as much about what each school represents now than it is just a throwback relic to days of the past. Army and Navy may never play again with the National Championship on the line, but this is a symbol of the fact that both schools are still here, playing at the highest level of college football, and demonstrating their resolve and determination long after television contracts and conference affiliations changed the landscape of competitiveness.
The game is a microcosm of what each school embodies. A never say die mentality that, odds be damned, we are going to fight until the finish and give you our best shot, each and every play, each and every game. Just ask Oklahoma or Notre Dame or Ohio State what that looks like, even in the College Football Playoff era. Army and Navy football represent in their purest form, opportunity. An opportunity to show what you have got in front of a packed NFL stadium and with millions watching on TV. An opportunity to come from states all across the country, from all walks of life, and to come together and give your best effort for your brother next to you because you know he is doing the same.
I challenge you to look on the sidelines and in the stands on Saturday. When everyone else notices and comments on uniformity, look for the differences in the faces and people you see. It is not a perfect representation of diversity, but it is most definitely a melting pot in its smallest form, representing the greater branches of the military and country that each one will soon serve. Collectively, it is a fighting force unafraid of any opponent that comes its way.
On a national stage, with the whole country watching, the United States Naval Academy and the United States Military Academy get to show from 70,000 fans down to 8000 students down to 22 football players at a time, exactly why these schools exist and exactly why this spectacle is still as important as ever to the physical missions of our service academies, now and for the future.