When Army and Navy meet for the 118th time Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, the FBS playoff committee will not be obliged to watch. In no way will this game between the 8-3 Black Knights of the Hudson and the 6-5 Midshipmen rearrange the furniture of college football.
When considering the only college game of this day, reserved for after the glut of conference championship games like brandy after the meal, it is necessary to adopt a slightly different view. It is required to look beyond standings and rankings – all of college football’s usual trappings of success – to the other stories Army-Navy has to tell.
The Army-Navy game is:
A patch story.
Before last year’s game, in which Army snapped a 14-year losing streak, Black Knights coach Jeff Monken received a precious token.
Each year, each academy wiith its uniform pays tribute to some noted part of its fighting force. In 2016, for Army, it was the 82nd Airborne. Knowing that, a West Point grad had sent Monken the All-American patch his grandfather wore as part of the 82nd in World War II.
“I wore it on the sleeve of my jacket during the game. It was pretty special to wear a family heirloom,” Monken said.
“What that patch saw, I’ll never know. It was pretty humbling to wear that patch. Just to know that performance by our team touched the hearts of soldiers all over the world. That means the most to me personally, and I think it means a lot to our team.”
A shoe story.
Where else across the landscape of college football would the everyday footwear of the players be an issue?
At the conclusion of last season, alarmed by the number of foot and ankle injuries his team had suffered, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo began looking at the academy’s strict dress code as a possible culprit.
As they go about their school day, Midshipmen are required to wear their hard-soled Oxford shoes – the ones with a high shine – with one pair often lasting the entire four years. No sneakers or sandals in these classrooms.
Niumatalolo and his training staff began to suspect that the many hours a day spent in these uncompromising shoes – some with heels worn away through the years – was weakening his guys’ feet.
As a result, the coach issued an edict: Men, keep those shoes cobbled (there is a cobbler shop in the main dorm, Bancroft Hall). Players visited specialists at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to have their feet analyzed. Some were issued orthotics fitted to their uniform shoes.
Navy feels much better now entering Saturday’s game. “I think it has made a difference,” said slotback Josh Brown, a Lilburn native who missed last year’s big game with a torn ankle ligament. “It’s sure more comfortable walking around school nowadays.”
A story with little drama off the field.
Where discipline is a part of the everyday life, a football coach at a service academy should have to spend less time and effort keeping his guys in line than one at other places, right?
Shouldn’t the knucklehead factor be significantly reduced at a school that demands a certain code of behavior from the moment a student arrives? Isn’t that why Army and Navy go about their business so quietly, without all the other unpleasant headlines and news updates that dog other big programs?
“The problems are not necessarily the same, but we all have our own set of problems,” Army’s Monken said. “It’s relative to West Point. The expectations are very high for professionalism here. For a young person who’s college age, that’s not always easy to do all the time. Sometimes they’re going to make mistakes. When you deal with human beings, they’re going to disappoint you sometimes. Sometimes you got to discipline, but those are opportunities to learn.
“What I will say about our guys here is that when they have to be disciplined, they learn their lesson. It’s not often you have a guy make the same mistake twice.”
A story to be continued.
For the seniors in Saturday’s game, they are fast approaching life beyond the academy. They already have in hand their assignments. These graduates are facing a little more than some low-paid internship or a gig writing code in a thoroughly ergonomic office.
Army safety Rhyan England (Suwanee), for one, is thinking big guns. “I’m going to be an air-defense officer – being able to take down any ballistic missiles, any missiles coming toward anything you’re trying to protect. Taking out helicopters and airplanes. Being able to maintain dominance in the sky.”
Navy tackle Michael Raiford (Stockbridge) always wanted to be a Marine officer. Even when he was playing the tuba at Heritage High, two years before the football coach was finally able to get the big kid out to play the line, he saw himself in another kind of field, leading others.
So, on his way to his martial-arts class Thursday – he was a black belt in karate even before landing in Annapolis – Raiford outlined his graduation itinerary: “Go to TBS (The Basic School in Quantico, Va.) for six months, and try to do well enough to get my first or second choice. I’m torn between infantry or artillery, one of those two ideally.”
An oft-repeated story.
If a freshman at Navy (a plebe) learns nothing else, there is this: “There are not many things you can say as a freshman,” Niumatalolo said. “‘Go Navy, Beat Army’ is one of the few things you can.”
In fact, those four words become drilled into the new Midshipmen, until they almost genetically bond with them. For the entire freshman year, each time a plebe turns a corner inside Bancroft Hall – sharply and with purpose – he is expected to call out, “Go Navy, Beat Army.” Or at the very least, one half of that sentiment.
The imperative to beat the Black Knights becomes as natural as breathing.
A truly infantile prank story.
Strange things happen on campus during Army-Navy week.
Food fights break out like brush fires. Plebes, given leave to exact revenge on their tormentors, go on silly little tears. “Some senior leader is eating and their plebes always play pranks on them. Like squirting ketchup on them – ruins their whole uniform,” Navy quarterback Zach Abey said.
“There is a lot of chaos.”
Best prank of this week has to be the revenge of one of those leaders on one of those plebes. During a pep rally Wednesday night, an aggrieved leader, with some help, stole into a plebe’s room, removed his bunk, his books, his belongings and set it all back up outside on the waterfront near campus. That’s the kind of logistics and effort you’re looking for in your officers.
One of the greatest rivalry stories ever told.
OK, it got off to a rocky start. In 1893 President Grover Cleveland canceled the series after a 6-4 Army victory reportedly led to “postgame brawls and possibly the threat of a duel between an admiral and general.” President William McKinley reinstituted the game in 1899.
No, today, these are not choirboys engaged in happy play. Even if the game lacks much of the obvious posturing and peacocking that goes on in other venues, don’t think there’s not plenty of junk being spoken down there.
“There is a lot of trash talk going on between the lines,” Abey said.
But, he quickly adds, “No one is going to disrespect for each other. At the end of the day we all have respect for each other because we’re all going through the same stuff at our respective academies.”
They like to call this “the greatest rivalry in all of sports” (first sentence of this week’s Navy game notes). That’s up for debate. Although don’t engage the Navy coach in that debate.
As Niumatalolo told a CBS reporter earlier this week, explaining why he believes this game rises above all others: “The purity of the competition.
“You’ve got two schools that, as passionate as they both are about sports and football, it’s not everything for them. We want to win in the worst way, but there’s a bigger calling, there’s a bigger mission. I love how it touches the whole country. There are a lot of great rivalries, but most of them are regional in various states. This one, it touches our whole country.”