At West Point, the beat-Navy mindset is everywhere
Army defensive back Gervon Simon has never played against Navy, and he's a senior. Even if he doesn't get his first chance on Saturday when the archrivals meet in Baltimore, he's more than ready for what will be the biggest football game of his life.
''This is the most excited I've been and the most confident I've felt in our team in all four years,'' Simon said. ''I don't think there needs to be any more motivation. As a team, we understand the significance of this game.''
Army coach Jeff Monken is in his third year at West Point, and he marvels at the passion of players like Simon, whose Army resume is scant. Simon, also a member of special teams, has played in only four games this season and has assisted on two tackles. Those are the only four games Simon has played in his Army career.
When you consider that Simon was a standout quarterback in high school in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and that his father, Geroy, was a star receiver at Maryland and one of the most decorated players in Canadian Football League history, you understand why Monken heaps praise on this senior class.
''They decided that it was time for us to get it done,'' Monken said. ''They've worked tirelessly. Tough, resilient, hard-working group of guys that believe in each other. No matter what's come our way, they found a way to claw back and come back the next week and prepare for the next day.
''What a great example for the young guys coming behind them. I hope this is only just the beginning.''
Army (6-5) is in sort of rarefied air for a program that's been down and out for the past two decades. With a date in a bowl game this month, the Black Knights have a chance to post only their second winning season since 1996.
First things first, though, for the firsties (seniors) - stopping the 14-game winning streak fashioned by Navy (9-3) in the series.
''It feels good being able to go to a bowl game, but definitely not thinking about that right now,'' senior linebacker Jeremy Timpf said.
''We need to get it done,'' added Simon. ''There's no substitute for it at the end of the day. We need to win. That's it.''
That streak-ending victory nearly came a year ago with freshman quarterback Chris Carter playing in only his second game for Army. A Hail Mary on the final play of the game fell short and the Midshipmen held on for a 21-17 triumph in Philadelphia.
And so it's been another 362 days - and counting - of the same dialogue, the same mindset that is everywhere at West Point.
''There's no other program that wants to beat the other academy (as Army does),'' said Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a star at Army who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and won a Bronze Star before getting a chance to play in the NFL. ''You say `Beat Navy!' a thousand times a day at the academy. You say it when you salute somebody. It gets ingrained.
''It sucks to lose to Navy, but it's for school pride,'' Villanueva said. ''We beat Navy in basketball, we beat Navy in rugby, we beat Navy in other sports. You love that. But football is one of those things we haven't won in a long time.''
Monken, a former assistant at Navy, has placed his imprint on the Army program, and it's trending up. A victory over Navy would be another step in the right direction.
''It would mean a lot to the program,'' Simon said. ''It'll mean so much going forward and bring momentum for the years to come - to be able to change the result this year and get the win. The culture has changed so much from my first year here to now. It's a better culture.''
Regardless of the outcome, there's always one constant for the players.
''I think Army is on the right path, but football is never a priority in the hearts and minds of a player. It wasn't for my class,'' said Villanueva, who graduated from West Point in 2009. ''The last time we played Navy, we lost and obviously it sucks, but immediately after I pulled off my cleats II said, `My career in the Army is the one thing that takes (precedent).'
''My heart was on serving after getting done with four years at the academy. It was never going to the academy to play football.''
AP Sports Writers Dave Ginsburg in Baltimore and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.
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