Army ending the longest losing streak to Navy (14 games) in the 177 year rivalry was as a fantastically huge sporting event. In fact, Navy had 14 stars filled in on their helmet with an open spot for a 15th that would remain unfilled. As it so happens, commentariat extraordinaire and 13 year Army veteran Barry Naum (aka, “Garry_Owen”) happened to be taking in his first game of the rivalry. He graciously agreed to share his accounts of the fine Saturday here and to shed his ano-Naum-amous status to do so.
Late Saturday afternoon, my car was legally stolen by the city of Baltimore. (It was not the first time that this Cleveland-area guy had something stolen by the city of Baltimore). But despite this fact, and despite the “organized crime racket” feel of the whole operation – from the conspiratorial absence of available parking garage space, to the conspicuous lack of clear and adequate parking warnings, to the (unconfirmed) collusion of the police and the towing company and the impound lot, to the convenient trickle-down income that inevitably landed in the hands of the cab driver who NAILED every red light in the city – I simply did not care. I did not care because of what I had just witnessed, and in my own small way, had been a part of, which was nothing less than the most amazing, most incredible, most purely joyful spectator sporting event of my life.
* * *
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, has been famously credited with saying that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eaton.” It isn’t true, and he never said it. Indeed, he likely never even thought it, given the fact that his short, despised and tortured tenure at Eaton occurred well before sports were played by Britain’s cadets at that hallowed location. However apocryphal, the sentiment of the saying rings true, as anyone who has ever played a sport can tell you that the lessons learned on those fields (or courts, etc.) inform and influence the future struggles of those who play them. Sports are not life, but great life lessons can be learned through sports – particularly when those life lessons involve the high stakes life aspects of conflict, victory, and defeat. This is certainly – and most viscerally – true for the highest of stakes life aspect of armed conflict. This past weekend, I got to witness my country’s future battles (may they be fewer than what we have experienced recently) won on the field of M&T Bank Stadium.
On Saturday afternoon, the Cadets of the United States Military Academy and the Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy competed in the 117th installment of the famous Army-Navy Game. In a year of knocking off bucket list items that included a World Series game in Cleveland, I finally got to attend my first game in this incredibly storied series with a dear friend of mine who grew up as a Navy brat and has four grown children living in Annapolis, two of whom gifted us our coveted tickets through their connections (which included free entry to a hospitality tent and the free surf and turf and open bar contained therein) . From start to finish, this day was, in so many ways, a dream come true. Though I did not attend or graduate from West Point, I did serve 13 years in the United States Army, both on active duty and in the Ohio Army National Guard, both as an enlisted soldier and as an officer (having graduated from Officer Candidate School), both as a REMF and a combat cavalryman (Garryowen!), both in peace and in war. Over the course of my time in service, I had the pleasure (and pain) of serving with and under many West Point grads; indeed, some of my best friends to this day wear that ring. And although there is internecine rivalry between those of us who obtained our Army commissions through different sources, my admiration for those that have earned admission and graduation from West Point is profound. And though that individual West Point experience was not mine, I believe that our shared Army service and experience unites us. In that way, at least for one December afternoon every year, West Point is me; I am West Point. And while I consider my Navy and Marine Corps counterparts to be my brethren for 364 days each year, for that one December afternoon each year, “those people,” as Robert E. Lee (USMA class of 1829) would say, are my sworn adversaries. To that end, what you are reading is an unapologetic Army viewpoint. Get your soggy Navy perspective elsewhere.
what you are reading is an unapologetic Army viewpoint.
The Army-Navy Game is an event as rife with tradition as the institutions it represents are rooted in the same. I could not wait to witness as much of this tradition as I could. After struggling through the disorganized Baltimore transportation network (ultimately culminating in an ill-advised parking spot), my buddy, Ben, and I caught the latter (and best) half of the first great tradition of the day: the Walk On of the Brigade of Midshipmen and the March On of the Corps of Cadets. Arriving just in time to see the Midshipmen saunter, some would say “bebop,” off the field to their seats, we then witnessed the Corps of Cadets march, in precision, onto the field: An inspiration to those that know what they are seeing. After taking our seats on the Army side of the field, we basked in the traditions that continued: from the returning of the cadets and midshipmen on exchange to the other academy, to the drop-in of the flag and the respective skydive teams of the Navy and Army, to the low-level fly-over of AH-64D Apache Longbows from the 82nd Airborne Division, to the slightly higher (and disconcertingly quiet) fly-over of the Navy F-35 Lightning IIs, to the benediction from the Naval Academy’s Chaplain, to the stirring singing of the national anthem by the joint choir of cadets and midshipmen. Later, as the game was going on, we buzzed along with the applause and anticipatory murmurs that filled the stadium as the entrance of the President-elect was announced. Though he (appropriately) did not formally switch sides at half, as is the tradition for the sitting Commander-in-Chief, Mr. Trump did informally move to the other side of the stadium, again to much buzz. You want tradition? The Army-Navy Game is tradition itself. As an alumnus of one of the institutions involved in the “greatest rivalry in all of sport,” I can confidently state, without hesitation, that Columbus and Ann Arbor have nothing on West Point and Annapolis.
As for the game, I will not bore you with details. If you watched it, you have a better grasp of the intricacies than I do. Simply stated, the first half was characterized by a strong Army running attack and an even stronger Army defense (No. 2 in the country, behind That Team Up North ). The good guys had me dreaming of a rout, heading into halftime with a 14-0 lead (should have been more), and Navy barely able to gain a first down. I, and everyone on the Army side of the field with me, could feel it: This was the year. It was going to happen.
Now, if you did watch, you undoubtedly learned that Navy was playing this game at an athletic disadvantage, with a number of star players, including two quarterbacks excluded from the game due to injury. Sure. Fine. Okay. Whatever. The briny deep of Navy’s area of operations is more than sufficient to absorb their collective tears. You see, I have little sympathy for their plight. The ugly, dirty secret of the modern Army-Navy Game is that Army has been playing at a disadvantage for decades, partly by design (Navy’s unilateral change in policy that permits players to play immediately in the NFL, if drafted), and partly by circumstance (a 15-year ground war in multiple violent theaters that makes it difficult to convince a Division 1 athlete, eligible to enter an academy but not otherwise inclined to do so, to select West Point and the singularly austere and dangerous life of a constantly-deployed Army officer in those theaters), but in a manner that is wholly frustrating and regretful in the way that it has impacted this otherwise beautiful rivalry. Specifically, that inherent disadvantage contributed significantly to a 14-year streak of Navy victories (and Army defeats) in the most important game of the year. That 14-year streak has been particularly painful to my side, as each loss takes on the character of (i.e., “feels like,” if this is your language) a direct attack on our collective identity and honor. It has been insufferable, but we are soldiers; we endure. We’re just sick of enduring.
That said, I certainly do not want to detract from the players on either side that have recently played in this great game. My complaint is with institutional and administrative decisions, and not with the fine men that have worn the Navy and Army uniforms in the course of the recent lopsided state of this game. The decision of a bright and athletically gifted young man to choose the Naval Academy over West Point when faced with the facts of the world and various options available to him is not, in any way, shameful. Nor does it mean that this young man will not face serious risks and dangers (and many of these Navy football players elect to pursue careers as combat pilots, and Marines, and SEALs, and other numerous high-risk jobs). At the end of the day, while none are automatically heroes for having done so, they have all still elected the path of the “one percent” – the one percent of our nation’s citizens that volunteer to serve as warriors. And these men will all eventually assume important and challenging roles in leading that warrior one percent in defense of that nation. Therefore, they are all deserving of my respect and honor, and indeed, I love them for their service. But on Saturday, that love was reserved for the Long Grey Line alone. On Saturday, those be-bopping kids in the yellow helmets were my adversaries, however honorable they might otherwise be.
On the actual field of play, Navy’s supposed disadvantage was illusory and more than offset by the obvious general advantage that they had in size and athleticism (and a fair, Navy share of determination and guts). To that end, by all outward appearances from my vantage point in Section 129, Row 30, Seat 7, the contest continued to be the David and Goliath match-up of the last 14 years. The only question was whether the David Army had enough stones in their sling to hold back the Philistine giant Navy. On Saturday, Army proved to be up to the task, though it was not without uncertainty and suspense.
Despite various disadvantages and advantages, Army simply played the game that they needed to play. In the second half, though surrendering a couple of big plays that they had previously been so good at preventing (and causing our collective hearts to take the old “Cleveland drop”), the defense held. As every Army officer knows, defensive operations are only conducted so that you can attack. And that’s what the Army defense did, setting the conditions for Army’s offense to finally, once and for all, kinetically end the insufferable streak. Those kids in grey stepped up, they took the hopes of the largest and oldest branch of the military on their shoulders, and they delivered. With their penultimate possession, Army moved the ball down the field, and simply out-manned and out-blocked and out-gutted their bigger, more athletic Navy adversaries. The Army QB, Ahmad Bradshaw, who up to that point had a good, but not great day, fought to and across the goal line from what seemed like about 80 yards (but was actually closer to ten). In that moment, Army’s will proved to be greater than Navy’s athleticism and stronger than the weight of the 14-year streak. It was glorious.
I learned when I got home that President-elect Trump said on TV that the Army-Navy Game is “not the best football.” Politics and tempting outrage aside, it’s obviously true. If an inquisitive extraterrestrial (presumably friendly, and not looking to invasively probe) arrives in our land looking to understand this game of football and to witness the finest example of it, you would not take him (her?) to an Army-Navy Game. But if you want to show that alien what “spirit,” and “competition,” and “rivalry” look like, this stand-alone December contest is the only destination. I mean that. As the game ebbed and flowed – first in Army’s favor, then in Navy’s – the energy of the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen and of the rivalry itself churned around the stadium, unlike anything I have ever experienced as a spectator. The history of this game, and of the inter-service competition, was palpable. The cynic will say that it was because the two teams combined for only eight passing attempts (three resulting in interceptions), but the romantic (that’s me, if you haven’t noticed) will attest that the cold December day flew by as a result of the palpable history and rivalry swirled among the participants (we were all participants). And as that energy rose, every person in the stadium rose with it, to stand for the remainder of the game, whatever the outcome. It was Army. It was Navy. It was 117 years of tradition. It was a 14 years of Army grief and Navy dominance on the line. And Navy took the lead in the 4th quarter. Until Army took it back, stopped a final Navy drive, and held.
So on Saturday afternoon, after 14 consecutive years of defeat – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inevitable, but always crushing in its own way – Army finally beat Navy. As the last whistle sounded, as Cadet Bradshaw (USMA class of 2018) chucked the ball into the air and rushed into the waiting arms of his coaches and teammates, the Corps of Cadets began streaming onto the field in unison, and tears (very manly, I assure you) began streaming from the eyes of the Army faithful. The nightmare was over. I turned to my right and hugged my Navy brat buddy, Ben, who was as happy for me as I was for the Cadets. I turned behind me and hugged the unknown woman, but Army comrade (USMA class of 1980), who tearfully exhaled, “we finally did it.” Then, as the first notes of the Navy alma mater began playing (FIRST – for the first time in 15 long years!), I faced to my front and advanced, as I was trained to do at OCS and the Armor Officer’s Basic Course and the Armor Captain’s Career Course, as George Patton (USMA class of 1909) inspired me for 13 years and certainly would have demanded. On Saturday afternoon, for the first time in my 43 years of life, I rushed the field as a spectator at a sporting event.
While the players of both teams learned lessons on the field that will influence and inform their future combat, the battle won on the field of M&T Bank Stadium was ultimately won by only one side – and that side was flooding by the thousands onto that field. After only a brief pause to hear, and to sing (for those who owned the words) the West Point alma mater (LAST!), the real party began. The celebration was unbridled. I know it all sounds silly, like so much sentimental fluff, but in that moment, it felt as if those young (so very young) cadets in the grey 82nd Airborne-inspired football uniforms had just won that game for all of us. I believe they did – and not just for those that had graduated from West Point, or just for those of us present at the game, but for every soldier from everywhere that we had ever served with, in peace or in war, but particularly those brothers and sisters of ours who never made it home to watch another Army-Navy Game. The joy was indescribable; the emotion was genuine, and raw, and vibrating on that field. I shook hands with every cadet I could find; I pounded the shoulder pads of every football player in reach; I said “Congratulations!” and “Thank you!” in equal measure – always returned with a “Thank you, sir,” and often returned from the military position of attention (so very humbling to receive from a 6-foot-5 kid in a football uniform). I hugged and posed for selfies that I’ll never see with other combat vets (you could identify us by our random old uniform items, non-mission capable beer guts, and ubiquitous beards and soiled desert combat boots). In that moment, I felt like I was half my age, ready to go to war again with these fine, wonderful warriors – with the Army. It was like I was back at home, with my people, my family. I honestly did not want to leave.
* * *
But we left. Ben and I are old, we had families to return to, and a long(ish) drive home to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Turns out, we also had a missing car; but we didn’t care. After an hour and a half of tracking down said car, without the use of a cell phone (both of ours were long dead), but with the kind help of one of Baltimore’s Finest (who likely also wrote the citation leading to the legal larceny-by-tow truck) and the loan of a few minutes of cell service from a Cadet in civilian clothes (I assume he was in the “Charm City” without authorization), I was afforded the privilege of paying $336 for the opportunity to leave Baltimore in my own property. As the *charming* city worker at the impound lot handed my car’s parole through the bullet-proof glass, I could not help but smile the smile I had been smiling for over two hours, offer a friendly “Merry Christmas,” and walk out of the door with a spring in my step, shaking the hands of the other Army fans, veterans, and yes, even Cadets in the room that had just suffered the same *charming*, expensive indignation. As I explained to all that could hear, neither $336 nor the organized civic crime of the City of Baltimore could dampen my spirits. For, you see, despite one last attempt to steal our joy, Army had just beaten Navy. Finally. After all this time; after all this pain; after all of the greater indignation at the hands of our junior brothers and sisters in arms, Army had just beaten Navy.
Army beat Navy. Let me type that again, as the smile returns to my old Army face. Army beat Navy.
GO ARMY, BEAT NAVY!