Army-Navy uniforms for 2019.
U.S. Army, U.S. Navy
Here is why the 120th Army-Navy Game, to be played Saturday in Philadelphia (CBS-TV, 3 p.m.), is still the best athletic event in America, and not just for its substantial history and pageantry:
After an Army fumble deep in Navy territory late in the fourth quarter sealed a 17-13 victory for the Midshipmen in Philadelphia in 2012, coach Ken Niumatololo was asked about Army quarterback Trent Steelman, who took the blame for botching the game’s deciding play.
“We should all be proud as Americans that the guy is going to go protect our country,” Niumatololo said. “They don’t get any tougher than Trent Steelman. Four years starting at West Point, a military service academy. I know everyone in our locker room has nothing but respect for that young man.”
Niumatololo was not Steelman’s coach; he was Navy’s coach. Football coaches offer platitudes about opponents after many games, but this was genuine, because Niumatololo coached — and still coaches — young men at Navy who are exactly like Steelman.
“I’m going to put that on me,” Steelman had said of the fumble. “There’s no way I’d ever put that on Larry,” referring to the running back Larry Dixon.
But later, Dixon told Washington Post columnist John Feinstein that he was actually to blame for the fumble; he was tired and not in a position to take the handoff, but he badly wanted the chance to end Army’s 10-game losing streak in the game, which eventually grew to 14.
Army has won the last three games in the series. Although the Black Knights (5-7) are having an off-year compared with Navy (9-2), a victory for the Midshipmen is certainly not guaranteed. They never are in this rivalry. Army finished 2-10 in 2012.
The football programs at Army and Navy are not as powerful as they were in the past, but that actually enhances the game’s significance because most seniors are done with football after this game and will move into their service commitments — and often into harm’s way.
It adds deep luster to the game that simply can’t be replicated: The players on the field, and the impeccable Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen in the stands have died serving their country, together, in battles far more consequential than a football game.
PHILADELPHIA, PA December 8: Navy Midshipmen linebacker Keegan Wetzel (48)sacks Army Black Knights … [+]
The Washington Post via Getty Images
I covered the Army-Navy Game for the The New York Times from 2004 to 2012 and again in 2016. The pre-game march-on by the two academies was always patriotic. I saw two commanders-in-Chief from different political parties, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, stride onto the field to warm applause, then spending one half of the game on the Army side and a half on the Navy side.
During the long Army losing streak, I was assigned by an editor at another publication to ask Navy players about maybe, just maybe, letting a game slip away to Army to keep the rivalry pertinent. The Navy players were pleasant in answering, but their responses were clipped.
“We can’t do that,” Noah Copeland, a senior co-captain and fullback from San Antonio, told me before the 2014 game. “We have a lot of respect for them. We love those guys just like they love us. We just want to go out and play.”
Army and Navy also each play Air Force in football, and the winner of the series receives the Commander-in-Chief Trophy. But the Army-Navy Game has been around since 1890 (with a few breaks here and there), and it always attracts a sellout crowd.
In recent years, Army and Navy wear special uniforms that are evocative of the units in each service. Army will wear uniforms this year honoring the 1st Cavalry Division; Navy will wear uniforms honoring the nationally famous Midshipmen teams from the 1960s.
Then they will line up and go right at each other, because anything less than a full effort would be disrespectful — not just to their teammates, but to the opponents.
When Army finally beat Navy in Baltimore in December 2016 before a capacity crowd and President-elect Donald Trump (who plans to attend this year), Black Knights wide receiver Edgar Poe said: “I can’t put words to it. It doesn’t even feel like it’s for real.”
Disclosure: I always rooted for Army when I was a kid because my father had served in the U.S. Army after the Korean War. So I found tears in my eyes when Army ended the streak in 2016. But I am sure I would have found tears in my eyes if Navy had ended a long losing streak, too.
BALTIMORE, MD – DECEMBER 10: Army Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken runs onto the field as time … [+]
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