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Reflections on the Army Navy Game 2011

Last weekend Sally and I went to the Army Navy football game for the first time since I graduated from the Naval Academy.  I rarely miss the game each year on television, and I follow Navy football closely over the season.  Most seasons we will go to Annapolis for at least one game.  However, we just have never taken that early December trip to Philadelphia – where the game is usually played.  Inertia, I guess.


This year the game was played at Fedex Field in Washington, DC.  A group of military Rhodes Scholars in Washington organized a black-tie dinner on Friday evening.  This proved to be the catalyst that moved us to go this year.  We enlisted three other couples who are old friends and fellow Rhodes Scholars to join us for a weekend of festivities.  Since we lived in the DC area for many years, we thought it would be a grand occasion to connect with friends and revisit our old haunts.


While this was something of a nostalgia trip, the centerpiece was the game.  Army-Navy is a special rivalry.  This was the 112th time the two teams had met.  Thanks to the recent Navy win streak, Navy holds a seven game advantage in the series, 56 – 47 – with seven ties.  It is  special because the teams represent the two senior armed forces of our country.  The third component of our Armed Forces, the Air Force did not have its own service academy until the late 1950’s.


Ironically, the Air Force Academy quickly developed a strong football team.  Air Force, in fact, beat both Army and Navy this year – though let it be noted that Navy lost by only one point.  More unfortunately, Air Force holds a decisive edge in the three-service rivalry.


A casual observer of the college football scene would never know this, of course, because the long tradition of Army-Navy overshadows the three-service rivalry.  This is a source of some consternation to two close friends who are Air Force Academy graduates, fellow Rhodes Scholars and part of our group this year. Gentlemen true, they did not once refer to our contest as the match of the also-rans – although that term was used by other less-refined Air Force Academy grads.


Army entered the contest with a 3 – 7 record, Navy slightly better at 4 – 6.  Navy football has had considerable success over the past several years so this season was a tough one for us.  We lost four games (including the Air Force game) for want of decent kicking.  Navy was a slight favorite, but smart money suggested it would be a close game.  Army’s offense was formidable.  They were the number one rushing team in the country, and they had lived through nine years of failure.  Their motivation was high.


Game day was clear and cold, unseasonably cold for Washington.  At game time the temperature was 41 degrees with a stiff wind.  Our group was bundled up – gloves, scarves, blankets, and still we were chilled through.  We tried several infusions of  hot chocolate from the stadium vendors who came through.  However, by the time it got to us it was only slightly warm chocolate – and $6 a pop.  Nonetheless, it tasted great and was probably the reason we were able to last out the full sixty minutes.


Of course the sixty minutes of football took a lot longer.  Game time was 2:40, and, largely due to the unrelenting efforts of CBS sports to sell advertising time, the game ended sometime after 6:30. Truly, the TV time outs have become so intrusive that they interrupt the natural flow of play and the quality of the fan experience.


What sustained us, other than the hot chocolate, was the game itself.  This one lived up to its billing.  Navy jumped out to an early two touchdown lead, but Army came storming back with two quick scores before half-time to tie the game.


Without question the momentum was with the Black Knights.  I said to my friends that Navy Coach Ken Niamatalolo had better come up with some half-time inspiration or all was lost.  He did.  Navy fullback Alexander Tiesch opened the second half with a 48 yard return that quickly led to another Navy score.


Undaunted, Army marched back down the field and tied the game at 21 with a score of its own.  At this point it didn’t look like either offense could be stopped. Navy replied with a strong drive that brought the midshipmen a 4th and goal inside the Army 1.  What looked like a sure touchdown was thwarted by the false start of one of Navy’s linemen.  Navy had to settle for a (mercifully short) field goal.


On the next drive Army was moving the ball again but fumbled at mid-field.  Navy quickly drove into Army territory, but came away with only a field goal.  This was a 44 yard attempt.  Goodness knows the last time our kicker, Jon Teague, had connected from that range.


By this time the game was well into the fourth quarter.  Army had time for one more drive, and they made the most of it.  Moving the ball well,  Army’s march had a look of inevitability.  A touchdown would give them a win.  They moved inside the Navy twenty. Navy’s defense stiffened. Army soon faced a 4th and  7 yards do or die play.


By this time the stands were bedlam.  The Navy side of the field was screaming for a stop. Army fans were just as loud across the way. Everyone was on their feet.  I don’t know what defense Navy called, but they got it just right.  A Navy linebacker shot the gap and stuffed the Army quarterback before he could do more than look up.  What a moment.


It was just why all of us made the trip to Fedex Field.  To see two valiant teams play their hearts out – as evenly matched as it was possible to be.  And to have the game come down to one play on which all turned.  Who knows why Navy was able to make that critical stop.  The way Army was moving the ball I felt they were going to score.  It just didn’t quite work out that way for them.


I am glad my team won, but I felt for Army’s senior quarterback Trent Steelman, who had a terrific game. Army may win next year, but this young man will probably be watching from a remote outpost someplace far away from football. Of course this is one of the things that makes this game special. These men are on their way to serve their country. God speed to all of them.