Thinking to inspire the Navy football players, the boys in the Navy band threw aside their tubas and trombones. They ran to the end zone and cheered like crazy for the Navy defense, at that moment under goal line siege by Pitt. It was a warm and wonderful sight, which just goes to show you that warm and wonderful ain't no help when your two best tackles are on crutches.
Pitt scored on the next play. Ahead, 7-3, at the time and eager to remain undefeated, Navy finally lost to Pitt, 24-7. Instead of cherring like crazy, better the boys in the band had thrown their tubas and trombones at the Pitt quarterback, Dan Marino. He completed 22 of 30 passes, which, to most of the 51,332 spectators today, was probably pretty warm and wonderful stuff, too.
No longer perfect, Navy is practically immobile. Its two best runners can't run, its two best defensive tackles can't tackle. Feet, knees, hamstrings -- all kaput. The surprise today was not that Navy lost, but that it led Pitt, 7-3, until midway in the third quarter. Now 6-1 this season, 12th-ranked Pitt scored on two long drives 15 minutes apart and added a cheapie touchdown after a Navy fumble at its own eight.
Navy's problem, as always, is that it can ill afford injuries. The coach, George Welsh, could figure a way to lift the Pentagon with a double team block, and the Navy player would ask how far he wanted it carried. Neither genius nor perseverance, however warm and wonderful they be, is much good when your really good players can't walk.
"I can't pin it on anything except bad luck," said Steve Chambers, a two-year regular at defensive tackle who lasted three plays today before his knee went pop. Banged up a month ago, Chambers had persevered for Navy. He practiced only one day this week, hoping the swelling would go away. It didn't. So he wore a big pad on the knee today.
"It felt good this morning," Chambers said. "But I got hit on a running play and I heard it pop. The doctor says it's a first-degree tear of the medial collateral ligament on the inside of the knee."
In English, that means it hurt like hell. The Navy defensive star, tackle John Merrill, already was in a cast with a broken bone in his foot. Chambers' departure today immediately preceded that of Merrill's replacement, Mike Matthes, who wrenched a knee.
With Merrill, Chambers and Matthes gone -- "Geez we ran out of tackles today," Welsh said -- Navy reached to its fourth and fifth tackles for replacements.
The fifth tackle is Tom Burke. He will not soon forget this day, for if he did not lift the Pentagon himself, at least he played well enough that an All-America said, "That No. 67, his first game ever, wasn't it? For him, it must have been scary. He surprised me, being a third-teamer, the way he hung in there."
That's what Mark May said about Burke. An All-America, a 6-foot-5, 287-pound offensive tackle, May might tip over the Pentagon with his pinky.
"He looked bigger on the field," said Burke, awed, "than he did on film."
And here was Burke, cannon fodder for four years, going directly against May. In Navy's 24-7 victory over William and Mary three weeks ago, Burke played nine plays -- his only varsity appearance before he entered today's game midway in the first quarter. He played the rest of the exhausting way. He made two tackles and assisted on three others, which isn't bad considering that May's defensive opponent last week -- an All-American candidate at Washington -- managed only one assist.
"The defense did all right," Welsh said. "You can't hold'em off forever. Their defense was the difference. They kicked the hell out of us.
"If you keep working, they say you ultimately get your chance," Burke said afterward. "Today was just an awful way to get my chance, with Steve and Mike getting hurt."
For three years, Burke never played a down.He cared because he wanted to play, but he didn't pout, didn't quit, didn't say the coach is a dummy who couldn't find the Pentagon with a brass detector. What Burke did, in the best sense of it, was be a part of a team.
The pain of stars is relieved by doses of glory. Cannon fodder takes a hot bath. "I always felt I contributed to the team a little, even if it was in practice," Burke said when someone asked why he put up with three years of anonymity. "Being part of a winner really means something, especially to me, because in high school my teams were always losing teams."
Hornell High, in upstate Hornell, N.Y., won five of 18 games in Burke's last two seasons.
Navy last year won nine of 12 games, including the Holiday Bowl. Burke made the bowl trip but did not play.
He knows his limitations. The program says Burke is 6 feet 2, 233 pounds, a senior majoring in resources management. In fact, he might be 6 feet tall. In a foot race at a church social, Burke might win a gold star; on a football field, he doesn't run so you'd notice.
"I don't have too much speed," Burke said, "and I'm too short to do much on a pass rush. I'm better against the run. On a pass, the offensive linemen reach out and shove me -- and I reach out at them like this."
He moved his hands in thin air, as if groping for something to touch. Burke could not reach May's hairy chest, is what he's saying.
Bill Burke, Tom's older brother, attended the Naval Academy, and John, his younger brother, is a junior there now. As a plebe, Tom said, it was very hard because "somebody's always out to get you." But it gets better every year and when his five-year Navy commitment is up, he hopes to use the Academy experience to get a flying job.
"The best part of Navy, though, is being part of this great team," Burke said.
Next week Navy goes to Notre Dame, and if Chambers and Matthes can't play, Burke might be in the starting lineup against the holy warriors of Gipp and Rockne.
"Some more big boys," Burke said, trying to smile.