PHILADELPHIA — For years, there was a sign over the Army locker-room door that every football player would touch before heading to the field. It was a quote from a John Dryden poem: “I will lay me down and bleed a while and then rise up to fight again.”
When Todd Berry became Army’s coach in 2000, he had the sign taken down. He wanted everything about Army football to be new. He changed the offense, changed the recruiting approach, and by the time he left midway through his fourth season, Army was on its way to an 0-13 finish and in the midst of what would become a 14-game losing streak to Navy.
It wasn’t until Jeff Monken — a former Navy assistant — arrived at West Point five years ago that Army began to dig out of the ditch that had been dug so many years ago.
Which is why it made perfect sense Saturday evening to see Monken in the middle of the Army locker room after the Black Knights had escaped Navy, 17-10, for a third straight victory in this historic rivalry, waving a giant Army flag and screaming above the din:
“I WILL FIGHT, I WILL FIGHT. I WILL BLEED AND THEN I WILL FIGHT AGAIN!”
He repeated those words at least a dozen times, waving the flag nonstop while his players screamed the words back at him.
John Dryden is back in the Army locker room. And for the first time in history, the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy has been held by Army for consecutive years.
For Navy, the loss marked a bitter ending to a bitter season, one that ended 3-10. The defense was heroic for almost the entire afternoon, but once again the Midshipmen found ways to beat themselves — four turnovers, including one inside the 5-yard line.
There was no mistaking this, though: Army was the better team. Neither team had much luck moving the ball for most of the day, but Navy didn’t go over 200 yards until its final drive, when it moved into field goal range against Army’s prevent defense.
The fact that the Mids trailed only 10-7 after finally getting into the end zone on a one-yard keeper by Garret Lewis with 7:10 left in the game was a tribute to a superb defensive effort. After Army opened the game by going 82 yards in five plays, the only other touchdown the Navy defense gave up was on a 22-yard drive set up when Army held on fourth and 12 and Kenneth Brinson sacked Zach Abey, forcing a fumble.
Navy had nothing to be ashamed of on a cold afternoon that turned biting as the sun went down, but there’s no such thing as a moral victory in this game. You win or you lose. The details really don’t matter.
Which is why the joy in the Army locker room was so unbridled. The only disappointment came when the academy’s dean of academics, Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb, refused to give in to the players pleas to cancel TEEs — term-end exams.
“You’re going to go out and win the bowl game in two weeks,” she said. “And before that, you’re going to do an equally great job on your TEEs.”
It was the only thing said by the many “stars” — Army brass — in the locker room that wasn’t met with hearty cheers.
There was a good deal of tension throughout the day. Army came in as the favorite for the first time since 2001, having already clinched a successful season by almost any measure. The Black Knights were 9-2 and going to a bowl for a third straight season for the first time in program history. They had guaranteed that the CIC would stay at West Point in 2019 by beating Air Force after Navy had lost to the Falcons.
Meanwhile, Navy was trying to salvage a lost season. For only the second time in 16 seasons, Navy won’t be going to a bowl, and the dream of returning the CIC to Annapolis had died in Colorado in October.
But a win over Army, the chance to stop all the talk that the Black Knights had flipped the script, would be a huge boost for the seniors and for the underclassmen heading into the offseason.
Monken knew all that. He knew that the words spoken years ago by former Army coach Bob Sutton were true: “The more desperate team wins the Army-Navy game.”
And so he preached to his team how much Navy would enjoy re-flipping the script and how Army could not let that happen.
“You didn’t listen to all the talk about how we were just going to walk in here and win this game because we were 9-2 and they were . . . whatever,” he told his players, choosing not to bring up Navy’s record. “That’s what I’m most proud of. You understood that this game is always a fight. We made some mistakes, but you never took your foot off the pedal. And you had to keep it there for four quarters.”
Before kickoff, the teams passed in the hallway under the stands in Lincoln Financial Field heading to their respective tunnels. Separated only by a thin curtain, they began barking at one another.
“There was a moment there when I thought they might go after each other,” said Tim Kelly, who has been Army’s trainer for 32 years. “It was tense. I’ve never seen that before in all the years I’ve been around this game. Never.”
There was chippiness throughout, pushing and shoving after whistles and a good deal of the kind of trash talk not usually evident in this game.
Navy was desperate to win. Army was able to match that desperation.
It can be argued that the emotions in the locker rooms after this game contrast more radically than in any college football game. While the Army players were dancing — yes, dancing — and screaming at the top of their lungs, the Navy locker room was virtually silent.
“It’s an emotional locker room right now,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said quietly. “You have to give Army credit. I was proud of the way our guys fought. I thought we bounced back. It was hard to have that many turnovers, but to our guys’ credit, they continued to keep battling. We had a chance at the end.”
They did, after cutting the lead to 17-10 on a 45-yard Bennett Moehring field goal with 29 seconds left. It was a long shot, but a recovered onside kick and a Hail Mary . . .
It wasn’t to be. Army senior Jordan Asberry recovered the onside kick, and a few moments later, the Army players got to sing their alma mater second, while the cadets chanted “three-peat.”
A three-peat doesn’t match a 14-peat, but, as Army Athletic Director Boo Corrigan said to the players, “These are much better days than those that came before.”
Army football lay down and bled for a long time at the start of this century. It has now risen again to fight.
Nothing matches the joy of victory in the Army-Navy game. And nothing matches the agony of defeat. Nowhere are those emotions felt more passionately than when these teams rise — again — to fight each other.
Every single year.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
Read more college football coverage: