No Navy team — especially the seniors — wants to be the one that allows the streak to end. Needless to say each group of Army seniors wants to be the one to hear the alma mater played second at least once before graduation. Steelman’s class became the eighth class to leave without a win over Navy.
“I really can’t believe football’s over,” Steelman said. “I don’t even want to take my pads off because when I do I know it’ll hit me.”
If there was one person in the building who could understand what Steelman was feeling, he was on the Navy sideline during the game wearing a Marine major’s uniform. Andrew Thompson was captain of the 1995 Navy team, the leader of a group of Navy seniors that lost four times to Army — by a total of nine points.
Thompson has been a Marine for 16 years now. He has served in Iraq and is married with three children.
“All of that changes your perspective,” he said. “I wish I had a chance to talk to that kid tonight, although honestly, right now, there’s nothing I could say that would console him. It takes more time than that.
“If I did see him tonight, the first thing I’d do is buy him several drinks. Then I’d say to him, ‘I know this won’t mean much to you right now, but you’re going to have a chance to lead men and women and you’re going to do great things in your life because I believe that.
“After a while, you’ll remember the competition more than the losses. That doesn’t mean the losses won’t hurt, but you’ll see your career and Army-Navy as more than that — a lot more than that.”
Because the game had been so one-sided for the last 10 years, it had lost some luster. Army-Navy games aren’t supposed to be over in less than three quarters. When Army-Navy is over, everyone is supposed to cry: the winners joyfully, filled with relief and exhaustion; the losers dealing with the agony of being so close and yet being forced to sing their alma mater first.
This Army-Navy game had all of that. For Army, the heartbreak is especially poignant because if any player has ever deserved to take his team down the field to score the winning touchdown in the final minute of his final game, it is Steelman.
And yet he handled it with the class and dignity you would expect. In the locker room, Bob Beretta, who has handled media relations at Army for 26 years, told Steelman if he wanted to skip the postgame ritual with the media, no one would blame him under the circumstances.
“He’s talked to the media after every single game for four years,” Beretta said. “He was just so torn up. I thought I should give him the option even though I knew what he would say.”
Steelman didn’t disappoint. “I’m the captain,” he told Beretta. “I’m ready when you need me.”
That’s a pretty good legacy for any football player from Army or Navy: “I’m ready when you need me.”
No excuse, sir. Even when football has broken your heart one last time.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/