Tomorrow afternoon around 3:00 they will tee it up and kick it off for a college football game. There is no conference title on the line, few if any of the guys on the field will ever play a down in the National Football League, and the outcome will not factor in any of the polls. It is the biggest game of the year. For the 113th time Army will face Navy in the annual clash of our two oldest military service academies.
I grew up in Annapolis near the Academy. It was a different time and we all had pretty much free access to Academy Grounds as long as we didn’t do something too stupid. We played football on the proactive fields, boxed in the basement gyms using their equipment, swam in their pools and just generally ran amuck on the grounds. I can still recall the painted Tecumseh statue and the other pageantry that exploded across the Academy as this game approached every year. As a little guy I would go to the bell ringing ceremony at Bancroft Hall when they won and the team arrived back at Bancroft Hall to ring the bell. Sneaking into Navy football games was as much a part of local life as fighting with the Middies over the local girls. I have been to countless games and to this day carry a scar over my left eye from a well-aimed class ring reopening a childhood injury. The Academy and the Midshipman were a huge part of life in Annapolis and we had pretty much the same townie-college relationship that exists in every college town.
The kids that opt to go to a service academy make a huge choice. These are intelligent kids at the top of their class. They have a choice of where to go to school because if you can cut the mustard at Annapolis or West Point you likely would have excelled at Stanford and Harvard as well. They chose instead to undergo a rigorous military education and lifestyle and commit to term in the armed forces of the United States of America. This is not four years of beer blasts and cramming for exams. This is four years of yes, Sir, no Sir, high and tight and a difficult curriculum. This doesn’t end in an entry level Wall Street slot or grunt work at a Big Three accounting firm. This ends in a uniform as Junior Officer in the military of a nation that has been at war for years and probably will be for years to come.
It hit me back in 2006 or so when a bunch of us went to a Navy game in Annapolis. As I watched the march on of the Brigade of Midshipman it struck ne that ever man and woman in that impressive cadre had signed up post 9-11 and knew that there was pretty good chance combat was in their future. This was especially true of the Hoo-Rah Heads that opted to serve in the Marine Corps. They were not forced to do this. They were not drafted or impelled by circumstances to join the military. They chose this service to their nation over other opportunities.
Needless to say this hurts recruiting for the top players. If you have a chance to go to the NFL and make a gajillion bucks the idea of five years ducking fire in the hills of Afghanistan is just not that attractive. This is especially true for the long gray line. You can go in to the Navy and serve your country without ever having to sight your rifle on some insane Islamic fundamentalists bearing down on you. If you choose West Point you are pretty much assured that having religious sickos trying to kill you is in your near future. In the paper this morning where some past and present Army coaches attributed this as one reason for the decade long Navy win streak in the series.
Unlike the football factories there are no easy course for service academy football players. You are going to learn engineering , math, science and military history. You will get good grades or you will be asked to leave, or worse flunked out after the start of Junior year and have to serve your commitment as enlisted personnel and cannon fodder. You will learn military drill and you will practice such. You will serve various other duties as assigned of a military nature. You will take the mandatory physical education and training programs assigned for all students. If you want to play football you will do so on your own time.
This will be a hard played game with a high level of intensity. They will hit hard and do whatever it takes to win and take the commander in Chief trophy back to the Severn or the banks of the Hudson. It will be as rugged as any big rivalry but there is huge difference. The safety that levels a receiver going over the middle tomorrow may well be calling him for air support next year. The O-lineman battling all day with a linebacker may well depend on the middle linebackers marine patrol to rescue his pinned down unit sometime in the next few years. The punter whose soring kicks push the opponent deep into their own territory may be soaring over the return man’s head in an F18 next year to provide fire support. The Navy scat back slicing through the Army defense may need be calling his would be tacklers for artillery support as his company of marines moves up onto the line. This game is different.
Someone will win tomorrow and someone will lose. Whatever happens the United States of America wins as once again our best and brightest have answered the call to serve their nation with their minds, bodies and even their lives if need be. It is the biggest game of the year.
GO NAVY. BEAT ARMY.