PHILADELPHIA — It was late in the third quarter on Saturday and the Army-Navy game was still in some doubt. Army had finally scored with 6 minutes 36 seconds left in the quarter to cut Navy’s lead to 17-7 and Navy’s offense was trying to respond.
On their next drive, Midshipmen fullback Noah Copeland picked up a first down at the Navy 45. When the play was over, Army defensive lineman Robert Kough didn’t get up. On the frozen, slippery turf of Lincoln Financial Field, players frequently had trouble keeping their footing through the long day’s journey into night.
The first person to reach Kough was trainer Jeff Fair.
That’s Navy trainer Jeff Fair. Since Kough was closer to the Mids’ sideline when he went down, Fair instantly came off the sideline to check on him. Army trainer Tim Kelly arrived a moment later and the two men made certain that Kough wasn’t seriously hurt.
A little more than an hour later, after Navy had pulled away to win, 34-7, for its 12th straight victory over the Black Knights, Fair and Kelly stood side by side while the alma maters were being played.
Around them, the players on both teams also stood side by side as they always do when this game is over. The Navy players were gleeful; the Army players heartbroken. All season long they had honestly believed this was going to finally be the year they broke the streak. That they were emphatically proven wrong was crushing.
“I thought the last two years we had closed the gap,” said Army Coach Rich Ellerson, who undoubtedly coached his final game at Army on Saturday. “We had chances to win those last two games. Clearly though, the gap has opened up again.”
Quite simply, Navy has better football players than Army. The best offensive player on the field Saturday was Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who somehow managed to stay on his feet in brutal playing conditions to rush for 136 yards and three touchdowns. Reynolds is a sophomore. Navy cornerback Brendan Clements was the best defensive player on the field. He’s a freshman.
Ellerson is a good man and a good coach but his record at Army after five years is 20-42 and, at least as important, he is 0-5 against Navy. Sometime soon — perhaps as early as Sunday — he will become the fourth Army coach to depart since 2003 without a win over Navy.
Ellerson is a realist. Asked about his job status after the game, he shrugged. “I think we’ve made progress,” he said. “But I wasn’t hired to make progress. I was hired to win games and beat Navy. We haven’t won as many games as I’d like and we haven’t beaten Navy.”
In short, he knows what his fate will be.
There was sad irony in the handshake and hug between Ellerson and Navy Coach Ken Ken Niumatalolo when the clock hit zero. When Ellerson was an assistant at Hawaii many years ago he recruited a left-handed quarterback who had grown up on the islands — Niumatalolo. The two are still good friends. And yet in the end, Ellerson’s inability to beat his one-time recruit probably sealed his fate.
“It’s hard, man,” Niumatalolo said when asked about Ellerson’s future. “This is a tough deal but coaching is a bottom-line profession and it’s just hard. I do feel for those guys and their players because they’ve got great kids over there.”
Great kids always play in this game. That’s why it is always special, even when the final score is 34-7, even when nine classes of Army seniors have walked off the field after their final game without ever beating Navy.
When Ellerson gathered his team in the locker room for the final time he told them how proud he was to have coached them. “I told them I loved the fact that I’d had the chance to be a part of their journey,” he said. “Because they’re great young men — all of them.”
Often when coaches say things like that, the words ring empty, but not when Army and Navy are involved.
Army fullback Larry Dixon played on Saturday with a cast on his left hand because he broke a bone in his wrist a month ago against Western Kentucky. The doctors told him then he was done for the season and it devastated him. “I lost it when they told me,” he said. “Just lost it.”
The wrist healed more quickly than expected. “After we got back from Hawaii the docs asked me if I wanted to try it with a cast on,” Dixon said. “I said, ‘If I can walk, I can play.’ ”
He played, though the wrist limited what he could do, and recovered an early Army fumble. He had a key block on a rare big play for the Black Knights and rushed for 33 yards on nine carries. Still, he walked off the field blaming himself for the loss. He was guilty of a false start on a third and one with Army down 20-7. Two plays later, he came up just short trying to convert fourth and three.
“My fault,” he said. “If we can go in and score there and it’s 20-14 it’s a different game. I blame myself.”
To say he was being hard on himself is putting it mildly. The penalty came at the Army 44, a long way from the goal line. Army had three turnovers in the game — none committed by Dixon. The Black Knights committed two personal fouls during the game.
This wasn’t all on one player.
And yet, as the Navy players raced in the direction of the the brigade of Midshipmen to hear their alma mater sung second once again, the Army players walked right behind them, holding on to one another — their heads up, even if many were crying. Offensive captain Michael Kime had his arm around linebacker Jarrett Mackey, who had been injured late in the game. He half-carried his teammate to the other side of the field to hear “Blue-and-Gold.”
As Dixon stood and listened to 4,000 Midshipmen singing their song, he thought about the 4,000 cadets standing at attention on the other side of the field.
“I thought about how they all support us, how they’ve stood with us through everything that’s gone on — through the losses to Navy,” he said. “That’s what I was thinking about — the corps. We wanted to win this game for them.”
When General Douglas MacArthur made his farewell speech at West Point in 1962, his final words were about the corps: “Today marks my final roll call with you,” he said. “But I want you to know, when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of the corps and the corps and the corps.”
That’s what Army-Navy is always about: the corps and the brigade. Today, tomorrow and always.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.