Friday, December 06, 2002

Stand Navy down the field, sails set to the sky.
We'll never change our course, so Army you steer shy-y-y-y.
Roll up the score, Navy, Anchors Aweigh.
Sail Navy down the field and sink the Army, sink the Army Grey.

The Army Navy game is tomorrow (Pearl Harbor Day). My grandfather went to West Point, USMA '38. My father (his son) went to Annapolis, USNA '68. Let's just say that their rivalry made those games very memorable for me. They had an annual bet on the game that was only $10, but the loser had to give the money over on his knees and say "go Navy, beat Army" (if it was Army that lost, or the other way around). I've only been to a few of the games, but my parents go almost every year. I got this story from an email forwarded through the family, and although a little long for the blog, I think it's pretty meaningful (and it ties in Duke hoops).

Throw Away the Records, Army-Navy Always Matters

AOL Exclusive

Every year, the questions are the same: Why should a football game between two bad teams matter? Why, I have been asked over and over again the last few days, am I all pumped up about going to a game between two teams who are a combined 2-20? Army-Navy, the cynics say, has become irrelevant.

I have two different responses when these questions come up: Have you ever been to the game? I know the answer, because NO ONE who has been to an Army-Navy game will ever say that it doesn't matter or that the teams' records render the game un-important. Once you have been in the stadium and gone through the experience, once you have witnessed those five minutes after the final gun when the teams stand together for the playing of the alma maters, you will never again wonder about the won-lost records of the Cadets or the Midshipmen.

Beyond that I say this: I would much rather care about a game involving young men who have volunteered to defend our country, who might at some point be asked to die for our country, than about a game that involves people who steal checks or shoes or have boosters filling their pockets with everything from cash to cars to women. (Okay, women and cars don't fit in your pocket, but you get my point).

I don't say this to bash other rivalries or to claim that the passion of the players on the field or the fans in the stands is greater at Army-Navy than at other rivalry games whether they be Ohio State-Michigan; Alabama-Auburn; Harvard-Yale or Williams-Amherst. All great rivalries for different reasons with differing traditions. But Army-Navy is unique because as much as the players want to win the game--and they want desperately to win it, believe me--their is a bond between them that simply doesn't exist in other rivalries.

You will never hear anyone from Army or Navy talk about hating the other team or the other school or the other players. You will never hear a player from either team put down the opponent. In fact, once they get away from, the "field of friendly strife," there are bonds between the players on both sides that often lead to lifelong friendships. Only Cadets can really understand what it is like to be Midshipmen. Only Midshipmen can understand what it is like to be Cadets.

One of my favorite stories about Army-Navy doesn't involve football or a game between the two schools. It involves a 1986 basketball game between Navy and Duke. The Midshipmen, led by David Robinson, had improbably reached the Eastern Regional Final of the NCAA Tournament that year and found themselves matched against Duke, coached by Army Captain (retired) Mike Krzyzewski, West Point Class of 1969.

In the locker room prior to the game, Krzyzewski talked to his team about the opponent as he always does before a game. He said very little about their offense, their defense or even about Robinson. "I want you guys to understand something," Krzyzewski said. "There is no group of players in the country I respect more than the players in that other locker room. There is no way any of you can understand what they have gone through and how amazing it is that they are in this game. Every single one of them is a remarkable person. I know that without every having met them."

He paused. "Now, I want to tell you one more thing. If you don't go out there and kick their butts for 40 minutes, don't even bother coming back in here. Because they're Navy. I'm Army. I do not accept EVER losing to Navy."

That is Army-Navy. There is no one you respect more. There is no one you want to beat more. That's why there is simply nothing like it.

Is it disappointing that both have such awful records this season and have been equally awful for three seasons now? Absolutely. Are players, coaches, administrators and alumni losing their minds trying to figure out how to improve, how to at least be able to compete with baby brother Air Force, which as dominated both of them for the last 20 years?

You bet. Navy fired a coach last year and expects major improvements very soon from the new coach. Army's coach in his third season and if he doesn't show marked improvement next season, he will be an ex-Army coach when the season is over.

But for this one day, the records simply don't matter. They will matter again soon, but not on this day, not during this game. Bob Sutton, who coached at Army for 17 years--eight as an assistant, nine as the head coach--explained Army-Navy best. "Other games are played for today," he said. "Army-Navy is played for forever."

Every Army-Navy game, regardless of records, is played for forever, because that's how long they will be remembered by everyone involved from players to family to coaches to alumni to fans to media. In other rivalries, the records DO matter. Florida-Florida State just wasn't as important this year as it is when the teams are both involved in the national championship picture. Notre Dame-USC was a whole lot more significant this season than it was a year ago when both teams were sub-.500. Army-Navy always matters for one reason: it is Army-Navy.

When the corps of cadets and the brigade of midshipmen march on the field prior to the game, we see something special. Not just because we are seeing young men and women who will soon be defending our country, but because we see ourselves at our very best. We see what we are when we are willing to sacrifice everything for what we believe to be right and just and fair. It may be corny, but it is also true.

And when the teams stand together for the playing of the alma maters, understand that there's no moment quite like it in sports. There is nothing quite like seeing athletes who have just spent three hours giving everything they have to try to beat one another, standing at attention out of respect for one another. The winners cry on the losers shoulders and the losers cry on the winners shoulders.

Then, they walk off the field together. They enter as opponents. They leave as comrades.

There just isn't anything like it. Period.


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