By Mandy Howard
On a cold November afternoon in 1890, two branches of the U.S. armed forces turned to face one another on the field of battle.
The New York Sun warned of freezing temperatures that Nov. 24 and reported in a blurb on page 2: “About 180 New Yorkers will go up to West Point at 11 o'clock this morning on a special train. The game will be called at 2 o'clock and will be followed by a hop.”
A century and a quarter later, the college football rivalry between the Army Black Knights of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Navy Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., has become one of the greatest of all time.
An impressive history
In 1961, a Plebe named Roger Staubach sat in the stands at the Army-Navy game. “There were 100,000 people there, and [President] John Kennedy was there,” Staubach recalls. “I was thinking, What's going to happen next year? I don't think I can play in this thing. It's too big of a deal.”
But in 1962, Staubach thrilled audiences nationwide. “My first Army-Navy game and when I played Super Bowl VI against the Dolphins [were] by far the most nervous I've ever been,” he says. “We beat Army that year, and that was as big a thrill as I've ever had winning a football game, when we beat Army in 1962.”
After that, the stage was set for the 1963 epic battle between Staubach, who had just won the Heisman Trophy, and Army star quarterback Rollie Stichweh.
That game, however, unexpectedly was postponed, following the tragic assassination of Kennedy, who hadn't missed an Army-Navy game during his presidency.
After a week's postponement, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked that the game still be played. So Dec. 7, 1963, the nation turned its eyes to Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia (later renamed John F. Kennedy Stadium). “We played the game on behalf of the Kennedy family,” Staubach says.
The 1963 matchup also was the first time college football fans witnessed instant replay. The instant replay machine was equipped with videotapes that had episodes of I Love Lucy on them, so if the tapes did not record correctly, there was a distinct possibility the biggest game in the country would be interrupted by a Lucy rerun. CBS Sports Director Tony Verna said in a CBS News interview, “If you foul with the Army-Navy game and mess that up, that was the end of your career.” They tempted fate only once, replaying a Stichweh touchdown, which prompted commentator Lindsey Nelson to advise viewers, “Ladies and gentlemen, Army has not scored again.”
Unmatched rivalry and tradition
The 1963 game and the rivalry between the two academies have been the subject of numerous articles, documentaries, and books.
In 1995, both academies allowed unfettered access to bestselling sports author John Feinstein, who chronicled the college football year for the book A Civil War: Army vs. Navy.
The book takes an inside look at the locker rooms, classes, and minds of the young men who have chosen a path that combines intense football and selfless service and opens the door to understanding the unique difficulties that come with playing Division I football at a service academy today. The book proves that though this game is unshakably woven into college football history, the passion and desperate drive to win are what continue to make this rivalry great.
“There's nothing like Army-Navy,” Feinstein says, “not just because of the tradition but because of who plays the game.”
Lee Fitting, senior coordinating producer with ESPN College GameDay, which visited the Army-Navy game for the first time in 2014, agrees. “I'd argue that it may be the greatest rivalry out there,” he says. “A lot of these other rivalries, it's only football, football, football, and that's the end goal. That's not the end goal for the cadets and midshipmen. There's a bigger picture and a bigger perspective, and when you bottle that all together, it's unbelievable.”
West Point graduate and Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski says, “The very nature of collegiate sport is to get our student-athletes to put into practice what they learn in the classroom: loyalty, teamwork, trust, competitiveness, all of these important values. You watch the [Army-Navy] game, and you realize they are going to take it even further. They are going to take it to a real battlefield to protect America and to protect our freedoms.”
The desire to win might be greater than in any other rivalry, argues the Naval Academy's first Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Bellino, who won the award in 1960. “They are not only playing for themselves or for their schools but for the millions of veterans who are watching the game.”
With such great rivalry comes great tradition, and the Army-Navy game does not disappoint.
Krzyzewski remembers marching onto the field as a cadet: “We all want that feeling of being part of something bigger than you,” he says. “You're out there on the field and you think, Wow, I'm a lucky guy. You get chills.”
Staubach's favorite tradition comes at the end of the game, when the two teams stand together and sing both academy alma maters. “When the game is over, despite this fierce competitiveness that we have, this history, this rivalry, we become one. Midshipmen going over to the Army side, and Army going over to the Navy side. I just think that is really special. I still get emotional,” Staubach says.
Bellino agrees the singing of the alma maters still brings tears to his eyes but shares, with a grin, a lesser-known tradition.
“If you could find a plebe cadet that'd bet you, you'd bet his West Point bathrobe that you'd win the game,” Bellino says.
The idea of this surprises Army Maj. Jim Nemec, a former officer representative for the Army football team: “I never heard of plebes betting their bathrobes, at least not in the company I was responsible for. They love their bathrobes. Douglas MacArthur famously wore his in three wars!”
“It gets better,” promises Bellino. “If you're lucky enough to win a robe, and you are a varsity athlete, you have the option of putting your varsity letter 'N' on your West Point bathrobe. If you beat Army as an athlete, you receive a star to add to it. It's one of the most beautiful things I own,” says Bellino of his West Point bathrobe, covered in six varsity letter N's (three for baseball and three for football) and five stars.
On the 2014 College GameDay telecast, ESPN analyst Lee Corso famously showed off the bathrobe he won while he was a Navy assistant.
Add to all of that the feeling of being at the game itself, which, by all accounts, is something you have to experience to understand. “You have to be in the stadium and feel the emotion when the teams come on the field and feel the emotion when they play the national anthem and 8,000 hands snap to attention and understand that every one of the cadets in that stadium and every one of the midshipmen in that stadium have volunteered to die for our country if need be,” Feinstein says.
Closing the gap
Currently, Navy is boasting a 14-game streak, the longest in this rivalry's history.
Bellino says sooner or later, Army is going to break Navy's winning streak. “But,” he continues, “Navy's going to be tough for a number of years, believe me.”
In the realm of college football, region to region, fans will claim their rivalry is the greatest. But Army-Navy belongs to the entire nation. The players are future U.S. military officers.
“What replaces Army-Navy?” Krzyzewski asks. “There's nothing,”
The only question left to ask is: “Go Army, beat Navy, or go Navy, beat Army?”