Army-Navy: Football's Greatest Rivalry

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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.

HISTORY

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.)
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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.
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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."

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.)

TRADITION

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.
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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.
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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.
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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."
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

ATHLETICS

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.
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The first shut-out in the rivalry since 1978 occurred in 2008, when Navy walloped Army 34 to 0.
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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.
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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).
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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.

PARTING WORDS

"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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December 10, 2011 - 1:01pm
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