Every Year at the Army-Navy game, college football and its patron, television, go to church. The sermon is on service, patriotism and football as preparation for life. The camera lingers on the fresh-faced cadets and midshipmen marching into the stadium, and then on the playing of the National Anthem.
During the game, the commentators make much of the fact that although the level of play may not be as high as at most of the academic football factories whose products usually appear on network television, the spirited rivalry between the two academies generally makes theirs one of the best games of the year. And they are right.
What is left unsaid is that it's not only a good game but also a most unusual one, because the players -- almost every one of them -- will graduate and then go on to pursuits they consider more important than football, beginning with at least five years in the service. There is an unstated theme of "Wouldn't it be nice if all college football were like this?" -- as if television and the colleges that can't quite control themselves in their pursuit of the money television offers weren't some of the chief reasons that it isn't.
This week the Naval Academy held a special graduation ceremony for two midshipmen. One of them was Napoleon McCallum, Navy's All-America running back, who had led his team to victory over Army a week and a half before. Mr. McCallum, when he realized a few years ago that he could have a lucrative career in pro football, was tempted to leave the academy, and thereby shed his service obligation. He stayed on, at the urging of his father, and became something of a hero at Annapolis for doing so.
At the ceremony, however, he put things in perspective by noting that the man graduating with him, Bernard Mimms, had done something a good bit harder than knock down linebackers. He had battled a cancer since his second year at the academy (the doctors believe he is cured) and then overcome the objections of a bureaucracy that would have denied him a Marine Corps commission for reasons of health.
It's true there's a certain Frank Merriwell quality about all this, and Frank Merriwell was a long time ago. But according to the ratings, far more people watched this year's Army-Navy game than watched a big-time college game on a competing network. Apparently there's still some interest in amateur football played by people who can see beyond the goal posts.