Army-Navy: Football's Greatest Rivalry

I spent the last 3.5 hours watching the 112th Army-Navy game. It's a particularly personal game in my family: my grandfather served in the Army; his first son, my dad, was born at West Point and went on to attend the Naval Academy, serving 20 years in the Navy; his eldest son, my brother, is currently a senior at West Point, preparing to graduate in May and embark on a career in the Army. So yeah, you could say watching the game is a big deal for us.

To celebrate this 112th meeting of the USNA and USMA football teams on the football field, I've compiled a thorough list of interesting facts on this longstanding tradition, one of the most enduring rivalries in college football.


In 1890, a Navy football player challenged USMA Cadet Dennis Mahan Michie to a game; Michie accepted the challenge and a tradition was born. (Above is a view of the 1908 game.)
After a mere 3 Army-Navy games, the tradition was suspended from 1894 to 1898. As the story goes, the Navy win in 1893 prompted an incident between a rear admiral and a brigadier general that nearly led to a duel. The two teams were then restricted to playing only home games, preventing another match-up. When the tradition resumed in 1899, the game was moved to Philadelphia, considered a neutral location due to its near-equidistance from both academies.
Since the move to Philadelphia in 1899, the City of Brotherly Love has hosted the Army-Navy game a total of 83 times. New York City has hosted 11 times, Baltimore (MD) and East Rutherford (NJ) have each hosted 4 times, and the game has been played just one time each in Chicago (IL), Pasadena (CA), Princeton (NJ). The game has been played 3 times on Navy's home turf in Annapolis, MD; Army has also had the home advantage 3 times with games at West Point, NY. This year, the game was played in the DC area—at FedEx Field in Landover, MD—for the first time. As Army coach Rich Ellerson put it, "I'm surprised it has taken this long, but it's fitting and appropriate that this game be played in our nation's capital... It's going to feel like a home game for both of us."

For the Army-Navy game at the Rose Bowl in 1983, the city of Pasadena paid the travel expenses of all the USNA and USMA students and supporters, a total of 9,437 people on the Pasadena tab. Due to the distance traveled, though, the academies' own mascots weren't brought out to California; a substitute goat for Navy and 4 rented mules for Army were used instead.
The 1926 Army-Navy game in Chicago was the inaugural game for Soldier Field and the National Dedication of Soldier Field as a monument to WWI servicemen. The game ended in a 21-21 tie.
In addition to the lack of games from 1894 to 1898, the game has been missed only 5 other times:
- In 1909, Army cancelled the rest of its season, including the Army-Navy game, after Cadet Eugene Byrne died in a game against Harvard.
- In 1917 and 1918, the country was engaged in World War I, and no Army-Navy football games were played upon order of the War Department.
- In 1928 and 1929, the two academies couldn't agree on player eligibility standards, and the Army-Navy games were consequently suspended.
The 1944 and 1945 Army-Navy games were probably the apex of the rivalry: both years Army was ranked #1 and Navy was ranked #2. In 1944, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt tied the game to a war bond drive, requiring the game's 70,000 attendees to purchase war bonds along with their tickets. When Army beat Navy 23 to 7, Army's head coach, Col. Earl H. "Red" Blaik received a telegram from Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific: "The greatest of all Army teams—STOP—We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success." Leading up to the 1945 face-off, the game was hyped as the "game of the century;" Army won 32-13.

(At left is the image from the 1944 Army-Navy game program.)


The friendly rivalry is still intense, with USMA cadets living by the motto "Beat Navy," which is even emblazoned on the roof of one of the school's buildings, and USNA midshipmen living "Beat Army," which can even be seen stamped on the weight plates in the school's weight room.

Each year, on the Friday before the game, the Army and Navy Pep Bands enter the Pentagon, where they march through the halls, stopping at the offices of senior leaders and throwing pep rallies. (The above photo is from the 2003 Pentagon rallies.) This year, the Navy pep rally was in the morning and the Army one in the afternoon.
Both schools send out a team of students to run footballs from their campuses to the stadium. The midshipmen of the 13th Company have been running the game football from Annapolis to the playing field since 1982, a tradition that originated in an attempt to get the "unlucky" company off the campus. The USMA marathon team runs the ceremonial ball from West Point to the playing field. Both relay teams usually have to run through the night; it can get so cold that iPods will literally freeze and stop working and ice will form on the hands and gloves of the runners. The Army relay team practices for their duty with a large rock as somewhat of a joke, but also to convey the deeper message that they cannot drop the ball.
One of the pre-game activities is a "prisoner exchange." The prisoners? Juniors from each academy who are spending the semester in "enemy territory." The juniors are exchanged and allowed a brief reprieve to spend the game with their own schools' students.
Both the Brigade of Midshipmen (the USNA students) and the Corps of Cadets (the USMA students) march onto the field just before kick-off. Dennis Herring, mass communications chief in the USNA public affairs office, called the march on "truly one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports."
The "finest moment" of this rivalry comes at the conclusion of the game in a show of "mutual respect and solidarity": the teams stand together to sing both schools' alma maters. First, the winning and losing team face the losing academy's students to sing that school's alma mater; then, the losing team joins the winning team on the other side of the field to sing the alma mater of the winning academy to its students. Tears stream down the faces of players and students alike.
The winning team of the Army-Navy game is awarded the Thompson Cup, named for donor Robert M. Thompson. Thompson was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1864 and graduated 10th in the class of 1868; he served as a Naval officer, then became a lawyer, business magnate, philanthropist, and president of the American Olympic Association.
USNA has two "Victory Bells" that flank the steps of Bancroft Hall, which is home to the entire brigade of midshipmen and is the largest single dormitory in the world. Each time Navy defeats Army, the Enterprise Bell (from WWII's most decorated ship, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise) rings continually from the announcement of the final score until the team returns to Bancroft Hall. Once the team returns, the Navy score is rung on the Japanese Bell (a replica of the bell presented to Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1854) by the team captain, coach, superintendent, and commandant, followed by each team member.
While the game is always emotional, especially for "firsties" or seniors, it becomes even more emotionally significant in times of war. The Army-Navy game is the last competitive football game the seniors will play before being deployed to war zones, with some players never to return. By the 2004 game, at least one '03 graduate, Navy's J.P. Blecksmith, had been killed in Iraq; he was remembered at the '04 game, his pads and jerseys placed on chairs on the sidelines.


Navy midshipman Joseph Mason Reeves (who went on to become an admiral) wore the first football helmet in the 1893 Army-Navy game. A Navy doctor had informed Reeves that one more kick to the head could result in "instant insanity" or death. An shoemaker from Annapolis crafted the leather helmet that Reeves sported to protect his noggin.
The first shut-out in the rivalry since 1978 occurred in 2008, when Navy walloped Army 34 to 0.
The Army-Navy game has been, for the majority of its history, the last regular-season contest in college football. It was historically played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but was moved to the second Saturday in December to avoid it being on the same weekend as other college games.
5 Heisman Trophy winners have played in the historic game: Doc Blanchard (Army, 1945), Glenn Davis (Army, 1946), Pete Dawkins (Army, 1958), Joe Bellino (Navy, 1960), and Roger Staubach (Navy, 1963).
While the Army-Navy game is usually the last competitive game of the players' lives, due to their commitments to the military, at least a handful of players have gone on to professional football careers, including the following 5 USNA alumni and 1 USMA alumnus:
- Joe Bellino (Navy '61) played in the AFL for the Boston Patriots.
- Roger Staubach (Navy '65) played for the Dallas Cowboys, was the MVP of Super Bowl VI, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
- John Dickson Stufflebeem (Navy '75) was a punter for the Detroit Lions.
- Phil McConkey (Navy '79) played for the New York Giants, including at Super Bowl XXI.
- Napoleon McCallum (Navy '85) concurrently served his Navy commitment and played for the (then) Los Angeles Raiders; he played for the Raiders full-time once he satisfied his commitment to the Navy.
- Caleb Campbell (Army '08) was the first USMA player selected in the draft in more than a decade, but he served two years in the Army before joining the Detroit Lions last year.


"Our guys understand that the entire Marine Corps and the entire Navy are watching them. They want it so bad for the ones that have come before them, the ones who have fallen and aren't here anymore. ...They know what this game means." —Buddy Green, former Navy defensive coordinator

"It's more than football. This isn't the biggest rivalry in college football. It is the biggest rivalry in sports. ...If not for these guys doing what they do, you wouldn't have football. America understands that, because of these young men, they allow us to have freedoms in this great country." —Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.


Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.


Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.


Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.


In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.


A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
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Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.


Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.


For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)


While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.


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