Navy's win over Notre Dame provides real inspiration

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

One of the more overused terms in sports these days is "inspirational," which is sometimes used to describe anything from a golfer making a putt to a millionaire athlete playing despite a minor injury. But real inspiration could be found on a football field this past weekend, in South Bend, Ind., where Navy again beat Notre Dame.

Inspiration is a division I-A college football team with a 5-foot-9, 193-pound linebacker and exactly zero future NFL players beating a team that has a quarterback who will go in the top 10 of the 2010 draft, one receiver who is a lock first-round pick and another who won't be far behind.

Inspiration is a team filled with players who weren't offered scholarships or even recruited by any division I-A schools -- kids who are up before dawn most mornings, who spend their summers on ships and who will someday soon be sent overseas to fight and perhaps die for their country -- beating a team that has its very own TV network, more money than any of us can imagine and a coach who thinks Knute Rockne might have qualified to be one of his coordinators.

(Pause here for the required disclaimer: I wrote a book on the Army-Navy rivalry and have done color on the Navy radio network for 13 years.)

Until 2007, Navy had lost to Notre Dame 43 years in a row. John F. Kennedy was president when Roger Staubach and Navy beat Notre Dame early in November 1963. Navy and Notre Dame played every year after that through the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush (1), Bill Clinton and George Bush (2).

Most of the games during that period weren't close. To be honest, Navy-Notre Dame should never be close. The talent gap, the size gap, the speed gap, the money gap, the mystique gap is gaping. Navy has a great fight song. But it can't even win that contest either, can it?

Some of the games were close. In 1997, Navy's Patrick McGrew was tackled on the 2-yard line on the game's final play, allowing Notre Dame to escape with a win. Two years later, a line judge named Perry Hudspeth moved the ball up a full yard after Navy had stopped Notre Dame short on a fourth-down play with a minute left, a four-point lead and the Irish out of timeouts. NBC's Pat Haden declared on the air, "Oh my, the Irish certainly got a very favorable spot right there." No kidding. Notre Dame picked up the first down by an inch and scored a few seconds later to win.

In 2003, Notre Dame made a field goal as time expired to win. In 2006, Navy led in the fourth quarter, and Notre Dame rallied to win.

Then came 2007. On what should have been the last play of the third overtime, a two-point conversion attempt Notre Dame needed to tie the score, the officials called a mysterious penalty to give the Irish another chance. Haden's view of it: "You can't make that call. You just can't throw that flag right there, right now."

Except they did. But Navy got the stop after the penalty and won, 46-44. Even amid the celebration, there were those who said, 'Yeah, but Notre Dame's terrible this year.' Notre Dame finished 3-9. Even so, there was no way it should have lost to Navy.

This Notre Dame team is now 6-3. It's prior losses had been to Michigan and USC -- who aren't having vintage seasons but still have a few future NFL players on their rosters, too. Notre Dame was ranked 19th in the country entering Saturday, and Coach Charlie Weis was all but predicting a BCS bid if Notre Dame won out and finished 10-2.

"Every week we win, other teams lose and we move up," he said prior to the game. "We just have to keep winning."

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