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Army-Navy Football: What the Game Means to the Alumni

In Part Three of our series leading up to the Army-Navy game, we take a look at what the game means to the alumni in their own words

NCAA Football: Army at Navy Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

“Army-Navy is not just a game. It’s the spirit of America – a reminder of who we are, what values we hold dear, and our foundational belief in duty, honor, country.” – Joe Funderburke, USMA Class of 1995.

This is the third article of our Army-Navy game lead-up series focusing on what the game means to various people and groups. Our first segment focused on the game’s meaning to the current students – the Cadets and the Midshipmen – both player and fan alike. Our second story dissected the meaning of the game to the schools themselves. From day one as a plebe to commissioning day as Ensigns or Second Lieutenants, “Beat Army” and “Beat Navy” are a part of everyday life within the confines of Annapolis and West Point. But, that mindset doesn’t stop at graduation.

Joe Funderburke, USMA Class of 1995 with his son, Alex
Alex Funderburke

When these students graduate they not only join the finest military in the world, but they also join a special fraternity of brothers and sisters as service academy alumni. Certainly each academy has its unique stereotypes, some more accurate than others, but there is also an incredible bond among graduates of both schools; an understanding and respect

recognizing their counterparts’ desire to serve their country. While the differences between the two schools are many, both groups of alumni have a central understanding of what the Army-Navy game represents. I asked some of them to share what the game means to them and surprisingly, regardless of the school affiliation, the answers were nearly the same.

As an alumni of Annapolis or West Point, what does the Army-Navy game mean to you?

Sometimes a picture or video does all the talking. When I asked USNA Class of 2014 graduate and former Navy football equipment manager Mike Larson this question, his answer was simple: “Army-Navy means family.” But, the real words are spoken in the generational photo below that shows the family bond and support for Larson’s commitment to serve. The old adage says that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but in this case it is worth at least three generations.

Mike Larson, USNA Class of 2014 and his family in Chicago before watching the 2017 game together.

Mary Sutton’s husband is a 1991 USMA graduate and the two joined together to show their generational love for the Army-Navy game when they surprised their son, John, with tickets to the 2016 game in Baltimore. For this family the game has deep meaning of family, sacrifice, and fun. This video displays the raw emotion when John finds out he will be going to the game with his father for the first time. He also hopes to one day join “The Long Gray Line.”

Picture provided and updated with permission from Mary Sutton

Tyler Sweatt, USMA Class of 2005, recognizes the friendly rivalry between the two schools.

“It (the Army-Navy game) is a chance to see some of the best the country has to offer. There are no fights between Army and Navy fans – there are shared experiences, values, and a cherished and respected rivalry that brings us (all) together. I’ve made new friends within the bond of those experiences and values.

Tyler Sweatt, Class of 2005 and classmate
Provided by Alex Funderburke with Tyler Sweatt’s permission

This sentiment is echoed from the Navy side as well.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing but respect. All of the rivalry games you see today turn into showing off, planting your flag at their 50-yard line, knowing that you’ll start a fight. That takes away from the game. Army-Navy is so much more than that.” – Bill G. Oat, USNA Class of 1890. Yes, you read that right – Bill G. Oat. Believe it or not, not all of our alumni seek public attention.

For others, the game represents how friendships forged at the academy can sometimes fill the void left after losing the ones we love.

My wife died of cancer in 2004. That year, I was looking at a bleak holiday season and decided to contact some classmates and go to the game. It was about connecting with classmates and friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was like our time at West Point was a week ago, not (the actual) 24 years. Haven’t missed a game since. It’s something I look forward to every year now.” – Phillip May, USMA Class of 1980.

This is a common bond among service academy classmates no matter if they are West Point or Annapolis trained. Your new friends become family and your family welcomes those friends with open arms. I know it may be a year or two in between phone calls with an Annapolis classmate, but we can always pick up right where we left off. I am confident my

former Academy roommates will be there for me in my darkest hour no matter how long it has been since we last spoke. That feeling may not be entirely unique to service academy graduates as I am sure students from other colleges and universities develop similar bonds. Actually, these quotes often featured the terms “family” and “friends” – not uncommon words to describe any given Saturday rivalry, really. But, the uniqueness of this rivalry is built on the premise that both sides are on the same team and no one recognizes that better than the active duty and veteran alumni of both Army and Navy.

You probably know someone who decided to attend a service academy or you may have a childhood friend who answered the call to serve in another capacity. In that regard, on the second Saturday of December, these alumni are merely a symbol of the greater group of all Americans who decided to put on our nation’s cloth. But that’s not my story to tell. I will let Kaylah explain what this game means to our military servicemen and women tomorrow. Today, we simply recognize from the direct words of alumni that graduates from these two schools aren’t very different. In fact, there is only a one letter difference between “USNA” and “USMA” and the difference between those two letters is as close as possible in the English alphabet.

Even though our first words as students were polar opposite in hopes of beating the other school, maybe Army and Navy alumni are really just the same after all.

Then again, maybe not.

Beat Army!

Austin Lanteigne is a 2009 graduate of the United States Naval Academy.