When the typical college football fan has troubled himself to
think of one (2-8 before last Saturday) or the other (0-9), he
has pictured the nation's hoarier service academies as little
more than stooge teams for Notre Dame, Army and Navy having lost
a combined 50 straight to the Irish starting in 1964. Then came
Sept. 11, and with it a sea change--or disturbance in the field,
if you prefer West Point black, not Annapolis blue, with your
Last Saturday's Army-Navy game delivered not only the usual
sellout but also the largest football crowd (69,708) at
Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium since the building was
reconfigured in the mid-1980s. Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf took
roost in a booth at the Vet, having been reassigned by CBS from
NFL business as usual. A war-hero alumnus turned up for a
pregame talk in each team's locker room, Senator John McCain for
the Midshipmen and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf for the Cadets, while
the commander in chief, George W. Bush, gave each side equal
time, sitting on the Navy side during the first half and the
Army side during the second. Even the civilians got with the
program. "Best-behaved 700-level in the history of the Vet," one
longtime Philly press-box wag said, surveying the decorous fans
in the nether reaches of a stadium that during Eagles and
Phillies games are usually a Romper Room for delinquent adults.
All the gravitas and VIPs did nothing for the Midshipmen's
fortunes. Winless going into the game, Navy returned to
Annapolis the same way after losing 26-17, a score that
undersold how the Cadets had had their way. Army held the ball
for more than 35 minutes and outgained the Middies 341 yards to
239, and Navy's only touchdown, a four-yard pass from
quarterback Craig Candeto to tight end Steve Mercer, came with
23 seconds left. Circumstances nonetheless served as a reminder
that the veterans referred to in the stadium's name aren't what
rookies and free agents become. Even the weather, clear and a
mid-Septemberish 63 degrees, refused to put any meteorological
distance between that day of infamy and Dec. 1. "Before
attending the academy, every one of us sat down with our parents
and had that talk," Navy senior wide receiver Jeff Gaddy said
last week. "'Junior'll be off to the military. He might be put
in harm's way.' That's now in the forefront of everyone's mind."
"Yeah, it's scary," added Army linebacker and co-captain Brian
Zickefoose. "No one wants to go to war. But we accept we may have
to. That's why we're here."
The two academies have long shared the same sense of mission,
the same straitening rules and the same contempt for the Zoomies
at easy-come, easy-go Air Force, where the dorm rooms come
carpeted. On Sept. 11, Annapolis and West Point went to
Threatcon Delta, the highest stage of readiness, which alerts
the brigade and corps to imminent attack. Once the immediate
threat subsided, the remainder of the road schedules for both
teams became victory tours of sorts, even as neither could bring
back a win: At Notre Dame, where the Middies lost 34-16, Irish
fans cheered as Navy filed from the bus to the stadium; at
Alabama-Birmingham, before Army fell 55-3, bystanders broke into
spontaneous applause when the Cadets entered their hotel. "You
hate for something like 11 September to dictate this," Army
coach Todd Berry said last Friday as practice wound down, "but
it's great that these young people are being appreciated."
As he spoke, six Apache helicopters, practicing for the pregame
flyover, beat their blades overhead, drowning out Berry. Once
they'd disappeared beyond the rim of the stadium, he said,
"Those Apaches have a way of sneaking up on people."
Despite all its figurative bombs and blitzes and sudden deaths,
football can't approximate or even simulate war. Nothing can. As
the renowned military-affairs writer Drew Middleton put it,
those who see parallels between war and sports know little about
either. There was nevertheless a gunship stealth to the way the
Cadets struck on Saturday. On their fifth play from scrimmage
they bamboozled Navy with a draw play, springing running back
Ardell Daniels 60 yards for a touchdown. It wasn't yet noon. On
Army's next possession, wide receiver Brian Bruenton took
advantage of Midshipmen cornerback Clyde Clark's unavailing
lunge for an interception to complete a 42-yard pass-and-run
play that ended in a touchdown.
Most of the rest of Army's points came just as suddenly, on
three plays straddling halftime. Right before the break, the
Cadets' Anthony Miller knifed in to block a punt, setting up
Derek Jacobs's 39-yard field goal as time expired to give Army a
16-3 lead. Then West Point's Omari Thompson took the second-half
kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. When Army audaciously popped
up and ran down an onside boot on the ensuing kickoff, Navy had
been out-special op'ed.
No doubt the 60,000 or so civilians at the game had all, at
least fleetingly, entertained the thought everyone who gathers
in public places has these days: that they might be putting
themselves in harm's way. That realization could only redouble
civilian sympathy for the players and 8,000 members of the
brigade and the corps cheering on the teams. The Cadets and the
Middies, in turn, have reaffirmed their commitments in the
aftermath of Sept. 11. Shortly after the attacks Army seniors,
or firsties in West Point parlance, had to declare the branch of
the service in which they want to serve, and this year the quota
for the infantry was quickly filled up. The first classmen at
Annapolis will make their elections in January, and they, too,
are more likely than ever to select risky, if only because Army
has thrown down a marker for Navy to beat.
Cadets tight end and co-captain Clint Dodson will become a field
artillery officer, so it would be appropriate if he were
descended from, say, Von Clausewitz. As it happens Dodson is the
great-great-great-grandson of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a.k.a.
Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Carroll gave us the phrase curiouser and curiouser, an
all-purpose reference to the bizarre and unforeseen, of which
current historical circumstances are an example.
Service members do what they do so others might live longer and
longer, better and better, securer and securer. So Americans
might ponder questions such as this: Given recent events, did
this Army-Navy game mean more? Or did it mean less?
"You can look at it both ways," Navy co-captain and backup
quarterback Ed Malinowski said. "More, because the American
people get a chance to see what kinds of leaders they'll have.
Less, because in the back of your head you're thinking, Guys are
risking their lives, getting shot at, so we can play this game.
But no matter what, the game has meaning to somebody."
this game," said Malinowski.