There's always been a certain feel and distinctive charm to the Army-Navy football game that has endured since the academies' first meeting 100 years ago in a meadow above the Hudson. Saturday's game -- the 91st, because of periodic lapses -- promises more of what always has been a great social occasion for the military brass, a symbol of what's right about college sports and higher education and a rivalry that wouldn't quit even when service life was temporarily out of fashion.
Once, each team had its share of all-Americans (Davis, Blanchard, Dawkins, Bellino, Staubach) and could play with any power in the country. Not any more, but if you think that matters you missed last year's game when Navy's Frank Schenk won it, 19-17, with a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining that brought tears to his eyes (and a lot of others) as he stood there at the end when the stadium fell silent, the Navy Blue and Gold was sung and a haze from all the cannon fire hung in the air.
This Saturday's game is back in Philadelphia, where it belongs if you can say that it belongs to a city and not a nation. It's a game meant for South Philly, where patriotism runs deep and sports is important. It's kind of midway between academies, and to the present time spectators board trains to take them to the battle front. It used to be that you'd line up early at the train station to ensure a seat in the dining car, where time could be passed with leisurely talk over brunch served on thick tableclothes with heavy silverware.
Army-Navy usually means cold weather, sometimes brutally so, and often fierce winds. It can be a day for big coats and gloves, a hat and blankets, especially if one is to be out early to see the corps of cadets and brigade of midshipmen parade into the stadium. If the sun shines, the gold helmets atop the classically plain uniforms seem all the brighter. The winning kids get to be hugged by old soldiers or admirals, still straight and keen of mind.
They know what it means to win this game. MacArthur is remembered, among other things, for having sent this cable to West Point after a victory over Navy: "We have stopped the war to celebrate your success." Gen. George C. Marshall during World War II said: "I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player."
Messages from former players and graduates continue to pour in on the eve of this year's game -- calls, letters and telegrams from around the world. "They're writing us from Saudi Arabia, telling us how important this game is," said Gene McIntyre, who played for Army in the late '70s and is now a volunteer assistant coach at West Point. McIntyre already has used up a lifetime of emotion on this game.
As a junior in 1977, he experienced victory, "the first year the corps of cadets wore the yellow 12th man T-shirts." But as a senior, he suffered defeat that he feels to this day, "one of the big failures of my life -- although it sounds ridiculous that a game could mean that much." And yet: "You can't put that much effort, enthusiasm and intensity into something without coming away from it changed somehow."
Navy's Phil McConkey, who went on to play for the New York Giants, was in those games too. In 1977, he endured "the hardest loss I've ever been associated with. But that one loss, one game, provided the impetus for the following season when we won our first seven games and went to a bowl." And, of course, beat Army.
Saturday's game will be the last for Jim Young, retiring after eight successful years as Army coach. Right there, the Cadets should have extra incentive, even if Young has deemphasized his departure. He's told the players not to win for him. "Win it for yourselves," he said to them, according to McIntyre. The Cadets can hardly wait.
There's nothing like the start of an Army-Navy game, unless it's the finish and you're on the winning side. The feeling in the locker room is one of anticipated explosion, and then everything goes flying as the players jam through the doorway and roar down the tunnel to the field, shouting and pounding one another. "You actually come out with a headache, you're so intense," McIntyre said.
Navy's Joe Bellino, 1960 Heisman Trophy winner, remembers the roar of 100,000 people in what became John F. Kennedy Stadium as he waited for the kickoff.
Who could forget the '60 game, especially Bellino? It remains vivid in his mind, especially the play when he fumbled late in the game and deep in Navy territory, giving the Cadets the chance to win. They didn't; Bellino intercepted to save a 17-12 victory. An offensive thunderbolt who as a junior scored three touchdowns to lead a 43-12 rout of Army, Bellino treasures most his defensive effort that prevented what seemed at that desperate moment an intolerable ending.
"I got patted on the back," he said. " 'Great play.'
" 'Yeah,' I thought, 'but I was almost the goat.' "
Roger Staubach, 1963 Heisman winner, was the quintessential midshipman who adorned national magazine covers and was celebrated as a good student, a churchgoer and a player of extraordinary calm and grace. Staubach only embellished those qualities in his pro career, right up to leading Dallas over Miami in the Super Bowl. But he claims, "The only time I was too excited to sleep before a football game was as a sophomore at the Naval Academy the night before we played Army."
Old soldiers may fade away, but who could forget the "lonesome end" or "lonely end," Bill Carpenter (How did he know what play was called when he never huddled up? everyone wondered back then in '58), or a Zug Zastrow, the quarterback who led a spectacular Navy upset in 1950? You know, 14-2, by a team that took a 2-6 record against an 8-0 one.
Name your memory or vision of the day: a long gray line on the move, Navy's "Team of Desire," Napoleon McCallum's 217 yards rushing in 1985, 90,000 to 100,000 filling the splintery JFK across the street from the current site, Veterans Stadium. Feelings run deep on this day for young men and Old Glory.
The buildup takes an entire year. Bill Elias, a former Navy coach, kept a sign in his office that asked, "What have you done today that will help beat Army?"
The week of the game usually brings on pranks by one school against the other, pep rallies and bonfires and those incomparable cheers and fight songs by whole companies of men that echo inside the West Point fortress and among the massive buildings at Annapolis.
When Schenk kicked his game-winning field goal last year, it made a 3-8 season memorable. What game has that power? "It was a true classic," said Navy quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers, "that I will remember for the rest of my life -- a storybook football game."
To an Army man like McIntyre, "It was terrible, like watching everything you worked for go up in smoke."
Bellino was there. "One of the great Army-Navy games ever."
"I hope Frank Schenk doesn't wait until the last minute for his kick this year," said William F. Fitzgerald Jr., a retired rear admiral who frequents Navy's practices. "My 90-year-old heart can't take too many of those."
Occasionally, academy grads get awfully sentimental about this game and being comrades-in-arms every day of the year except for game day. But it's perfectly appropriate as even a cynic would agree if he had enough interest to seek out a purely good time and could appreciate a rivalry in which everyone's best effort is given. So what if Army runs the ball almost every play? It makes for a quick, crisp game.
Fitzgerald, whose Sunday at Pearl Harbor 49 years ago today was interrupted by the Japanese, seems to have it right about what elevates this game: "It represents the two services that have been working together for the United States for so, so long" -- not a meeting of enemies but two sides that deeply respect and like each other, the friendly strife "symbolic of the best there is in sports."