Renaissance Online Magazine Sports

FEBRUARY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 2



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MARK DEWING, a freelance writer and British expatriate, moved to the U.S.A. partly to experience heavy snowfall, but primarily because he got tired of having to wait until 2:00 a.m. to watch the Super Bowl live. He has worked as a social worker, freelance photographer, tomato picker, mortuary cleaner and bookstore buyer/manager. He most recently worked within the publishing industry as a PR consultant. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and he wishes the Dodgers still lived there too.




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Tradition & Honor
Army vs. Navy: The Greatest, and Most Closely Contested, Rivalry in All of Sports Turns 100

MARK DEWING

1963 Army-Navy game
LONG-TIME RIVALS The service academies, Army and Navy, meet each year in a proud and tradition laden game. (1963 game)

Happy Birthday Army-Navy! The most closely contested rivalry in all of sports used to be a major annual event, but despite losing much of its national sporting significance -- since the military's double whammy of the Vietnam War and the demise of the draft -- it remains something uniquely special indeed. It may well be the purest least commercialized major sporting event remaining in America. This is despite it being the only Division 1 football game where the seniors know for sure that it's their final organized football game. Their chances of making the Pro's are almost non-existent -- since even those very few that are good enough to jump to the next level (Napoleon McCallum of Navy was the last successful one), have to perform several years of military service immediately after graduation. Yet these guys play their hearts out at this annual December event. No where else have I witnessed such relentless gutsy competition on a field, juxtaposed with such a heated, yet good-natured, rivalry and sportsmanship amongst a loyal corps of spectators.

In Washington during the '50s and early '60s, cavernous Municipal (later renamed JFK, after one of this game's greatest fans) Stadium, 102,000 fans would turn out to cheer, Presidents would attend (changing sides at half time so as not to show favoritism), and millions would watch on TV. It no longer attracts that kind of attention, but as I attended the sold-out centennial game a few weeks ago in Philadelphia, I pondered what makes this game so wonderfully inspiring, as on the field below I observed Navy trouncing Army 19-9. Why has sportswriter John Feinstein called this game's dramatic closing moments: "the best five minutes in all of sports each and every year"? Maybe we should also ask why other excessively hyped events such as the Super Bowl and the NBA playoffs, often seem so shallow and pointless, despite their phenomenal TV ratings. Imagine two football teams who, despite being poorly ranked nationally, possess entire rosters who play this game with the intensity of a Michael Jordan or a Randy Johnson, and you'll begin to realize why it's so special. Also consider that this is the only college football game where the entire student body of both schools actually attends, and that the total won-lost record is so narrow that Army only barely leads it 48-45, with seven ties!

The first Army-Navy game took place on Army's home turf of West Point, New York 110 years ago in 1890. There have been four time periods when the game was not held, and the reasons serve as an interesting primer to modern American history. An 1890's economic Depression, and President Grover Cleveland's feeling that it led to too much in-fighting between his two armed forces (one admiral challenged a general to a duel over it!). The 1909 contest was cancelled when a star Army player died as a result of injuries suffered in a game against Harvard (this was years before adequate padding). The First World War interrupted the event because it was perceived as unseemly during such a crisis, and soldiers should simply be sent off into combat. (Though interestingly during the Second World War, President Roosevelt took an opposite view, and insisted that all sporting events continue in order to boost morale -- which not uncoincidentally led to Army's finest team ever). The only other time it was cancelled was during the Great Depression of the late 1920s -- imagine an economic crisis today leading to the cancellation of national sporting events. What would NBC say? The game was also postponed for a week in 1963 when only days before his traditional presidential appearance, John F. Kennedy Jr. was assassinated.

The inaugural game took place after Army cadet Dennis Mahan Michie, persuaded his Dad -- who was a senior member of the faculty -- that the Military Academy start a football program (baseball was the only true national game in those days), and that they should commence a natural rivalry against their comrades at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Since Navy had already been playing football for a few years they had a distinct advantage over Navy, and crushed them 24-0 in that historic opening game of the series. However by the following year, Army had already picked up a few pointers and they beat Navy 32-16 on Navy's home turf. Thus it all began, and it's been a carefully balanced pendulum ever since, swinging back and forth. Today's Army's home field is called Michie Stadium in honor of this cadet, who later -- in true soldierly fashion - would be killed in battle charging up San Juan Hill.

In 1926, 120,000 fans, including an estimated 10,000 turnstile jumpers, attended the first ever football game held at state of the art Soldier Field in Chicago. After Navy took a 14-0 lead early, Army came back to tie it by halftime, and then take a touchdown lead into the third. However Navy would eventually end up tying the game by intercepting an Army pass on their own 35 yard line, and as darkness fell (this was before floodlights) marching the ball back down the field for the score.

This tie resulted in Navy's only national championship title. Since they began awarding the Heisman trophy in 1935, Army players have won it three times, and Navy's twice. All of these trophies were won between 1944 -- 1963, and that was certainly the golden age of the Army-Navy contest. During these same 19 years the equally prestigious Walker trophy was also awarded to Midship.m.en four times, and to Army players on three occasions! Army were declared national champions in 1944 and 1945, and they would finish in the Top Six for four of the five years following. Between 1944-1950 the Cadets, or Black Knights (one of the very few schools to have two nicknames), would compile the remarkable record of 57-2-4! Army's dominance in the mid-40s was primarily due to their coach Earl "Red" Blaik, and their back-to-back Heisman winners, halfback Glen Davis, and fullback Felix "Doc" Blanchard. Davis is undoubtedly one of college football's greatest players. Between 1944-1946 he amassed 4,129 yards rushing, and scored 59 TDs. Since this was the era of the halfback he also would regularly throw touchdowns, and even play defense (he would average 58 minutes playing time per game!) Whenever he touched the ball he would do something dramatic with it. He's the greatest "go-to" player ever. One of Navy's Heisman winners was QB Roger Staubach, and he is notable as being one of only a handful of players from either academy to become a huge success in the pro leagues, which he did for the Dallas Cowboys.

[ CONTINUED: drastic change in the modern era ]

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PICTURES: 1999 game copyright © AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy; 1963 game copyright © Total Sports, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy.