It's a Grand Old Game

December 20, 2010

Army-Navy football feels as if it was preserved in a snow globe many years ago. All that's missing for the game in Philadelphia this year is the snow. Everything is blue and gray, even the sky. Older men wear fedoras and homburgs, young couples hold hands, and the gates overflow with happy people in somber overcoats. Someone shouts, "Get your program here!" The sports world, the real world, changes so rapidly, but not Army-Navy. Here it is perpetually 1948, and America is strong. The Midshipmen march into the stadium in perfect rhythm, and the Cadets march in perfect rhythm, and tomorrow looks bright.

Why does Army-Navy still matter? Neither team has been a national championship contender in two generations. Many years, neither team is even a bowl contender. The schools stubbornly cling to the worn-out triple-option offense years after even the most stubborn warhorses, such as Nebraska and Alabama, gave it up. In today's world of wildcats and spreads and pistols, Army-Navy can look more like a reenactment than a football game.

Even on its own terms the rivalry has never been less competitive: Navy came into this year's game having won eight straight, the last three by a combined score of 89--6. Previously neither team had won more than five in a row, and that's over 111 years. In a time when we change our sports focus as fast as we change channels—now NASCAR's hot; no, wait, poker's hot; no, ultimate fighting is hot—why do we still pay attention to Army-Navy?

Well, there are the usual answers: nostalgia, patriotism, that sort of thing. But there might be something else. Take senior safety Wyatt Middleton. He is co-captain of this year's Navy team. His fellow captain, Ricky Dobbs, is a gregarious and wonderfully gifted senior quarterback who already has announced his intention to run for president in 2040 (after he leads an NFL team to the Super Bowl). Middleton is not so outspoken. He comes from an athletic family—his older sister, Kellie, was an All-America softball player at Notre Dame; his older brother, William, is a cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars—and Wyatt had several options coming out of Marist High in Atlanta. He enrolled at the Naval Academy because he craved something, though he couldn't quite find the word for it. Discipline, maybe. But something more.

In his first year Middleton made 88 tackles. After his sophomore season a few NFL scouts had an eye on him. This matters because at Army, Navy and the Air Force Academy, any student can transfer to a civilian school after his sophomore year and walk away from his military commitment. If he stays, though, he must serve at least five years after graduation. It's called "two for seven"—the last two years of college followed by five of military service. For most players, to stay means to give up NFL dreams.

Middleton had NFL dreams. He also felt the same temptation as many other students at the three service academies: to go to a regular school and live a regular life. Those first couple of years at Navy, studies and football and training blend into a white-hot blur, and every moment feels like a test. "It was hard," Middleton says. "There isn't a man at the Academy who hasn't thought, What have I gotten myself into?"

Well, he stayed. He craved something larger than the NFL, though even now he can't quite find the word for it. Meaning, maybe. But something more.

This year he became team co-captain. ("Finally," he says, "top of the food chain.") When Navy lost to Air Force for the first time since 2002, Middleton and Dobbs called a team meeting. "A loss like this can make a team collapse," Middleton remembers telling their teammates, "or it can make us stronger."

Navy grew stronger. The Midshipmen won six of seven, including a convincing pounding of Notre Dame, to raise their record to 8--3. Then came Army-Navy. "We practice all year for this game," says Navy senior linebacker Tyler Simmons. Army, at 6--5, came into the game with its first winning record in 14 years. The Navy winning streak was in doubt for the first time in a long time. Middleton had a strange premonition that he would score a touchdown and be the hero.

In the second quarter, with Navy leading 17--7 on the strength of two Dobbs touchdown passes, Army is at the Navy three-yard line. The Cadets' sophomore quarterback, Trent Steelman, tries to power into the end zone, and Simmons punches at the ball. It jumps into the hands of Wyatt Middleton.

And he runs. The path is clear. He is surrounded by Navy teammates. All he hears are cheers. Next year Middleton will be serving as a duty officer in surface-warfare engineering for the U.S. Navy. Now he runs 98 yards for a touchdown to help clinch Navy's ninth straight victory over Army.

"I think about all the people who played here," he says after the game ends 31--17. "I think about how I didn't want to let any of them down." He points at a few young players. One of them will be next year's Wyatt Middleton. "Now it's up to them," he says. "They're the ones who can't let me down."

Why does Army-Navy still matter when it never changes? Funny thing: Maybe it matters because it never changes. And something more.

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Why does Army-Navy still matter? There are the usual answers: nostalgia, patriotism, that sort of thing. But there might be something else.

PHOTOERICK W. RASCO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)