By John Feinstein
Monday, November 5, 2007
When the U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the seemingly unbeatable Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980 en route to the gold medal, it was hailed as the most stunning upset in sports history.
It may be difficult for an outsider to understand, but the Navy football team's 46-44 triple-overtime victory over Notre Dame on Saturday may rank, at the very least, a close second to that storied miracle on ice. This was a miracle on turf. Notre Dame had beaten Navy 43 straight times, dating back to 1963 when Roger Staubach was Navy's quarterback and officers in the military made salaries comparable to those of players in the National Football League.
It was before Vietnam, before Iraq, before any high school athlete who had any notion that he could play in the NFL someday ran screaming from the room at the thought of attending a college with a five-year post-graduate military commitment. It was, in short, a very different world.
Skeptics will point out that this is a bad (now 1-8) Notre Dame team. It doesn't matter. Every Notre Dame team should dominate Navy on the football field. At one point during the game, NBC -- also known as the Notre Dame Broadcasting Co. because it pays the school millions of dollars a year to televise all its home games -- did a promo for a high school All-Star game it televises in January. Only the country's top-rated high school seniors are invited to play.
"Twenty-one of the current Irish players have played in that game in past years," NBC play-by-play announcer Tom Hammond said.
That would be exactly 21 more than are currently playing at Navy. Or, as Hammond's partner Pat Haden pointed out: "With all due respect, Navy doesn't get to recruit blue-chip football players."
Just blue-chip people.
Navy's first touchdown on Saturday was scored by Zerbin Singleton, an aerospace engineering major with a 3.14 grade point average who hopes to be an astronaut. As an 11-year-old, Singleton watched as a bounty hunter shot and arrested his mother. He was accepted at the Naval Academy as a high school senior, but he could not report for plebe summer after he was injured when a car he was in was hit by a drunk driver. He tried to join the football team at Georgia Tech but was told, "Don't waste our time, kid, you're too small." He re-applied to Navy, was accepted, then had to deal with the suicide of his father during his freshman year.
Of course at 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds, Singleton is bigger than Reggie Campbell, the 5-foot-6-inch, 168-pound offensive captain who scored the winning points on Saturday.
Notre Dame has every advantage a football power can possibly have: an 80,000-seat stadium; its own TV network; arguably the greatest tradition in college football history ("win one for the Gipper," Knute Rockne, Touchdown Jesus, the fight song); more money than it knows what to do with; and a great academic reputation.
What does Navy sell to recruits? The chance to play against Notre Dame.
Or maybe it's the chance to wake up at 6 o'clock every morning; the chance to be screamed at by upperclassmen; the chance to lose your weekend liberty for carrying a book-bag improperly or for being 30 seconds late to class. Not to mention the chance to get shot at when you graduate.
The players Coach Paul Johnson recruits are frequently like Campbell and Singleton: too small for big-time programs like Notre Dame to bother with; tough kids who love a challenge and love proving they can do things that "can't" be done.
Like beating Notre Dame in Notre Dame Stadium.
The best description I ever heard of what it is like to play football at Navy, Army and Air Force came from Fred Goldsmith, who coached at Air Force: "At a civilian school the hardest part of a football player's day is football practice," he said. "At an academy, the easiest part of a football player's day is football practice."
Navy can't possibly beat Notre Dame. Except on Saturday a group of youngsters who were too small or too slow (or both) to play big-time college football did just that.
With all due respect to Notre Dame and all its blue-chip players, Navy's celebration should be our celebration.
John Feinstein is the author of "A Civil War: A Year Inside Army vs. Navy, College Football's Purest Rivalry." He has been a commentator for the Navy football radio network for 11 years.