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
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.


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