The Rocky Mountains look foreboding as I pass over them. Sandy and I are on our way to Philadelphia. The last time I was in Philadelphia I believe I was eight or nine years old. It’s been quite some time. People have told me it has changed; some say for the better, some say for the worse, but “improvement” or “degradation” is really not the purpose of this journey, nor is God’s artwork from outside my airplane window.
We are headed back to Philadelphia to satisfy a promise I made to Sandy and myself four years ago. When Chaney was admitted to West Point, I told Sandy I wanted to attend at least one Army-Navy football game before she graduated.
In May she will be graduating, commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, and she has just been awarded Aviation as her branch detail, so she will be headed to Fort Rucker (Is it still named Fort Rucker?) to learn to fly helicopters.
She is nearing the end of her time at West Point, which means we were rapidly losing our opportunity to attend that Army-Navy game.
This game is unique for many reasons, first and foremost is the rivalry, not just intercollegiate, but inter-service. There is a meme floating around that shows the offensive and defensive lines of Army and Navy squaring up with the tag line, “The only game where players would lay down their lives for any fan”.
There is something wholesome about this game. Football, like its cousin rugby, is anything but wholesome. It is rowdy, aggressive, disruptive, disappointing, redemptive, but it is rarely described as “wholesome”. This is largely a result of the people who now play the sport and the obscene amounts of money involved.
Army and Navy has always been a little bit different. I remember when Chaney was a plebe (a freshman) I had gone back for Parents’ Weekend. During that trip there was a home game scheduled: Army vs San Jose State. I remember sitting in the stands as the Army Parachute Team descended into the stadium from helicopters, listening to the sound of the Howitzers being touched off as the Army team took the field. I remember feeling my chest fill with pride as I saw these young warriors preparing for gridiron battle.
Then I remember the distinct feeling of dread as I saw the offensive line of San Jose State. Their players seemed like they were a full two feet taller than the Army defensive line. Certainly they outweighed the Army players by what looked like 100 pounds per player. Seeing the two lines square up it literally looked like a college team was scrimmaging a Pop Warner team. Before the first snap I knew things were not going to go well for Army.
There is actually a reason for this, and it is pretty noble. Up until very recently (Donald the Trump changed this) each of the players for Army was not going to go into the NFL… They were going to go into the United States Army. They are soldiers first. As such, they have height/weight requirements for the operational Army that must be adhered to. The Cro-Magnons who play professional football would never be able to fit into a tank, a helicopter, or, for that matter, even complete the IOCT obstacle course. You certainly cannot be too small and be an Army Officer, but you can’t be too big either.
So when Army plays the beasts recruited by other schools it is usually pretty one-sided. There is one major exception though: Navy.
The Navy is under the same basic height/weight restrictions as Army. Therefore, the teams are pretty much evenly matched. Even if both teams have had a miserable season (as they have this year)… Army-Navy has a chance at redemption.
By the time you read this blog the score will have been etched into the history books. But the score, an Army’s or Navy’s victory, is really beside the point.
These amateur athletes are not there to audition for the NFL, they are there for love of country. They are our nation’s heroes, our protectors, and, if necessary, they wield the sword of judgment upon our nation’s enemies.
They could have played for other schools, some might even have had a shot at the NFL… but they chose, instead, a career of service.
There is also a cool tradition of sorts that should be discussed. At the end of each game the winner stands at attention before the corps of the losing side. That side sings their school alma mater. Once they have completed their song, the entire assembly moves across the field to the winners. There the losers stand at attention as the winners sing their alma mater. It is called “Singing Second”… and it is in the prayers of every cadet who graduates from West Point that they “sing second” at the Army-Navy game.
The entire corps of Cadets from West Point and all of the Midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy will converge on Lincoln Stadium in Philadelphia… neutral territory roughly equidistant to both schools. There, they will taunt their opponents, rally their team, and pray that their side sings second.