The Army-Navy Football Game

The Army-Navy Football Game

Garland Davis

 

The Army–Navy Game is an American college football rivalry game between the teams of the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York and the United States Naval Academy (USNA) at Annapolis, Maryland.

The USMA team, the “Army Black Knights”, and the USNA team, the “Navy Midshipmen”, each represent their services’ oldest officer commissioning sources. As such, the game has come to embody the spirit of the inter-service rivalry of the United States Armed Forces. The game marks the end of the college football regular season and the third and final game of the season’s Commander in Chief’s Trophy, which includes the Falcons of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Army and Navy first met on the football field on November 29, 1890. The series has been renewed annually since 1899, except for 1909, 1917, 1918 and 1929. It has been held at several locations throughout its history, including Baltimore and New York City, but has most frequently been played in Philadelphia, roughly equidistant from the two academies. Historically played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving (a date on which most other major college football teams end their regular seasons), the game is now played on the second Saturday in December and is traditionally the last game of the season for both teams and the last regular-season game played in Division I-A football. With the permanent expansion of the regular season to 12 games starting in 2006, several conference championship games joined the Army–Navy Game on its then-current date of the first weekend of December. In 2009, the game was moved from the first Saturday in December to the second Saturday; this means that it will no longer conflict with conference championship games and once again is the last non-bowl contest in college football.

This game has inter-service “bragging rights” at stake. For much of the first half of the 20th century, both Army and Navy were often national powers, and the game occasionally had national championship implications. However, as the level of play in college football improved nationally, and became fueled by prospects of playing in the National Football League (NFL), the high academic entrance requirements, height and weight limits, and the five-year military commitment required has reduced the overall competitiveness of both academies. Since 1963, only the 1996 and 2010 games have seen both teams enter with winning records. Nonetheless, the game is considered a college football institution. It has aired nationally on radio since the late 1920s, and has been nationally televised every year since 1945. The tradition associated with the game assures that it remains nationally broadcast to this day.

Arguably, one of the reasons this game has maintained its appeal is that the players are playing solely for the love of the game. By the time their post-graduation military commitments end, many players are simply deemed too old to even consider playing competitively again, much less in the professional ranks. Many have other post-service ambitions that would preclude such a career, or they simply do not want to pursue one. Nevertheless, some participants in the Army–Navy Game have gone on to professional football careers. Quarterback Roger Staubach (Navy, 1965) went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys that included being named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl VI Wide receiver and kick off/punt returner Phil McConkey (Navy, 1979) was a popular player on the New York Giants’ squad that won Super Bowl XXI. Running back Napoleon McCallum (Navy, 1985) could concurrently serve his commitment to the Navy and play for the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1986. After satisfying his Navy commitment, he joined the Raiders full-time. Sadly, his career was ended by a gruesome knee injury suffered in a game against the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.

The game is especially emotional for the seniors, called “first classmen” by both academies, since it is typically the last competitive regular season football game they will ever play (though both Army and Navy went to bowl games afterwards in 1996 and 2010, and Navy played in a bowl game every season since 2003, except for 2011). During wartime, the game is even more emotional, as some seniors will not return once they are deployed. For instance, in the 2004 game, at least one senior from the class of 2003 who was killed in Iraq, Navy’s J. P. Blecksmith, was remembered. The players placed their comrade’s pads and jerseys on chairs on the sidelines. Much of the sentiment of the game goes out to those who share the uniform and who are overseas.

At the end of the game, both teams’ alma maters are played and sung. The winning team stands alongside the losing team and faces the losing academy students; then the losing team accompanies the winning team, facing their students.[6] This is done in a show of mutual respect and solidarity. Since the winning team’s alma mater is always played last, the phrase “to sing second” has become synonymous with winning the rivalry game.

The rivalry between Annapolis and West Point, while friendly, is intense. Even the mascots (the Navy Goat and Army Mule) have been known to play pranks on each other. The Cadets live and breathe the phrase “Beat Navy”, while Midshipmen have the opposite phrase, “Beat Army”, drummed into them (even the weight plates in the Navy weight room are stamped with “Beat Army”). They have become a symbol of competitiveness, not just in the Army–Navy Game, but in the service of their country, and are often used at the close of (informal) letters by graduates of both academies. A long-standing tradition at the Army-Navy football game is to conduct a formal “prisoner exchange” as part of the pre-game activities. The prisoners are the cadets and midshipmen currently spending the semester studying at the sister academy. After the exchange, students have a brief reprieve to enjoy the game with their comrades.[7]

Occasionally, the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, awarded to each season’s winner of the triangular series between Army, Navy, and Air Force, will be at stake in this game. For most of the 1970s, Navy held the trophy. After a period of flux for most of the 1980s, Air Force dominated the competition until the early 2000s. Navy has been the dominant team in the rivalry for most of the 2000s, winning every game in the triangular rivalry starting with the 2002 Army–Navy Game and ending with a 2010 loss to Air Force. If there is a tie in the Commander-In-Chief Trophy competition, the trophy remains with the incumbent team.

The rivalries Army and Navy have with Air Force are much less intense than the Army-Navy rivalry, primarily due to the relative youth of the Air Force Academy, having been established in the 1950s, and the physical distance between Air Force and the other two schools, with the Air Force Academy being located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Army-Air Force and Navy-Air Force games are played at the academies’ regular home fields, rather than at a neutral site, although Navy has occasionally moved its home games with Air Force to FedExField in Landover, Maryland.

The 34–0 Navy victory over Army on December 6, 2008, was the first shutout in the series since 1978 and marked the second time a Navy coach defeated Army in his first year of coaching,[8] following Wayne Hardin in 1959. As of 2015, Navy has won the last 14 games in a row dating back to 2002, the longest winning streak in the history of the series.[9]

 

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