American Enterprise Online
December 5, 2005
By Alan Dowd
After 105 meetings, spread across 115 years, they were dead-even: 49-49-7. On Saturday afternoon, Navy broke the deadlock by beating Army 42-23. Those who think it was just another football game are wrong.
Army-Navy is a national event, even when the teams are something less than national powers, which has been true for a few decades now. As sports author John Feinstein writes in his biography of the game, A Civil War, 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 Navy’s Midshipmen are going to a 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.”
Yet despite the game’s ever-waning relevance to big-time college football, it remains a national- television staple, with CBS and NBC vying for the honor of broadcasting it. No other college rivalry can say that. As Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., superintendent of the US Military Academy, puts it, “This game truly belongs to America.”
As evidence of the game’s national character, consider that it has been played in New York and New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania, Illinois and California. In a recent bidding process, more than a dozen cities vied for the right to host the game, including Buffalo, Chicago, Jacksonville, Houston, Tampa and Washington, D.C. But it was Baltimore and Philadelphia that won the honor of hosting Army-Navy through 2008, when a new bidding battle commences. What other college rivalry can make such a claim? Most, after all, are confined within a state’s borders.
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 best of America, the very fabric of America. Under the gold helmets on the field, and beneath the sea of grey and black uniforms in the stands, you see America—Hispanics and whites and Asians and blacks. The players come from places like Hahnville, Louisiana, and Hixson, Tennessee; Hacienda Heights and Long Beach; Houston and San Antonio; Des Moines and Cleveland; D.C. and Honolulu; Charlotte and Tulsa. 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 commonplace in other college games—and celebrated in the NFL. There is no strutting among the winners, no pouting among the losers. In fact, after the clock hits 0:00, 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 is more than military discipline. It’s the fact that these young men, many of whom are far younger than the fifth- and sixth-year “seniors” who play at other Division IA colleges, know that they are part of a team. They know that 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, this day.
But the participants are unique not only because of where they come from and how they carry themselves; what makes them and this game truly exceptional is where they are headed. The reminders are literally everywhere—the Commander in Chief Trophy they play for; the generals and admirals who watch the game and who one day will give them orders; the patches on their football uniforms denoting various battle units or warships. This year, Army linebacker Barrett Scruggs wore a patch from the uniform of Army Ranger John McKenzie Henderson Jr., who was recently killed in Afghanistan.
In other words, 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 and sailors and Marines. They won’t sign any endorsement deals to line their pockets; they will take an oath to protect us. And they won’t take time off to find themselves; they will lead men and women into battle.
Some of them may become SEALs or Green Berets, striking at our enemies from the shadows as this global war moves from cities to snow-capped mountains to jungles to deserts. Some will protect the seas and the skies and even the of edges of space. (NASA’s mission on the International Space Station is being commanded by astronaut and West Point grad Bill McArthur Jr.) Others will fight on the ground. Like their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, they will wage war on faraway shores so that the enemy doesn’t again bring war to our own. Along the way, they will liberate nations and train new armies and rebuild broken cities.
Some of them will not return, of course. Doubtless, they saw a grim reminder of that last Friday afternoon, when a roadside bomb killed ten Marines serving in Iraq.
The Midshipmen and the Cadets know such stark truths; yet they signed up and saluted anyway. As their commander-in-chief concluded last week, in a speech at Annapolis, our freedom and our way of life are in their hands—“the best of hands.”