Friday, December 24, 2010

At Your Service

Earlier this month, Army and Navy played their annual rivalry football game in Philadelphia. It caused me to reflect upon my very 1st college football game, the 1989 Army-Navy game. The memories are still fresh in my mind, 21 years later...

Some sporting events can transcend the sport itself.

When the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy set foot on the football field to figuratively do battle, it's more than just a game. It is one of the best rivalries in sports -- filled with pomp, pageantry, tradition and a burning desire by both sides to win. There is also the knowledge that after they graduate, these young men -- who are now entertaining us -- will be among those who defend our nation.

My very first college football game was the 1989 Army-Navy game...and even as a 10-year-old kid, I could feel the importance of it as I set foot inside Giants Stadium. It was a freezing December day at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Despite being bundled up in a heavy winter coat, hat and gloves, the wind and frozen air permeated my slender frame. The sky was overcast, giving the sun no chance to offer relief.

Upon reaching our seats behind the end zone, two rows off the field, one question remained in my mind: "Why, on a freezing day, would my father want us in our seats almost two hours before the opening kickoff?" At the time, there was no one on the field going through warm-up drills, and there were almost no spectators in the seats. It was just a barren stretch of kelly-green artificial turf -- with end zones painted in Navy blue and Army gray, and a sea of empty red and blue seats.

Without words being spoken, I soon received my answer. About 10 minutes after we sat down, the attending cadets from the U.S. Military Academy marched onto the field. Wearing charcoal gray dress-uniforms, with long coats and hats, the cadets slowly took over the field. They marched in units of about 50, in form with everyone else. It was an awesome sight to behold. Once the procession was complete, The Army band played music while the cadets chanted along. They then made their way to the seating bowl, occupying almost the entire sideline in the lower seating bowl to our right.

After that, the U.S. Naval Academy followed suit. Dressed in Navy peacoats with shiny brass buttons and white hats, the cadets also marched in formation onto the Giants Stadium turf. The Navy's cadet representation was not as significant as Army's, though it was just as impressive. Following the Navy's procession, they took their seats along the lower sideline to our left, filling about two-thirds of the sideline seats.

With about an hour before gametime, Army and Navy took the field for practice drills. At one point, the Army kickers were practicing field goals on our end of the field. The catch nets were not up behind the goal posts, so the footballs were sailing into the stands! At first, I was just watching the scene unfold...but after a couple minutes, I took it upon myself to be helpful. As the practice kicks reached the seats, I would retrieve the balls (or just catch them out of the sky) and throw them back to the appreciative Army staffers. It was fun...but frankly, the running around was also a way to keep warm!

The Navy Midshipmen were decided underdogs. Coming into the 1989 game, Navy was just 2-8 on the season, with one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the NCAA. Their head coach, Elliott Uzelac, was hours away from being replaced. He -- and his players -- knew it, providing extra motivation for a game that doesn't need any. Despite a disappointing season, a Navy win over their archrivals would salvage it.

The Army Black Knights, on the other hand, were in the middle-of-the-pack in the NCAA's Division I with a 6-4 record. Their high-powered rushing offense averaged almost 29 points-per-game. On top of that, the Black Knights had won 3 consecutive meetings with Navy, and 4 out of the last 5 contests. The all-time series was now deadlocked at 41-41-7, and Army was determined to take the edge.

The atmosphere was electric throughout the game. Despite the cold weather, roughly 80,000 filled the stands, with both sets of cadets chanting and cheering on each side of the field. The Army cadets appeared stoic in their dress grays, while the Navy side waved yellow towels and generally appeared more boisterous.

On the field, Army had a live mascot, a mule, standing on the sideline, with a black and gold "A" draped over its back. They also (naturally) had a howitzer cannon behind the end zone on the far side of the field, which a few cadets fired after every Black Knights' score. The Navy sideline featured an assortment of toys, including a small motorized battleship and plane, which were driven around the field during timeouts. Their live mascot was Bill the Goat, which had its horns painted in blue-and-gold.

The game itself featured some classic, old-time college football, with a lot of wishbone formations and rushing plays. Passing was essentially used as a deception for both sides. Although Army led for most of the game, neither team established its dominance...and the two teams were in for a fight to the finish.

Wearing white jerseys with gold helmets and gold pants, Navy trailed 17-16 as it embarked on a late 4th quarter drive. Nightfall had set over the Meadowlands, and the temperature had become even colder...but the adrenaline of the moment was warming everyone in attendance. With 15 seconds left, Navy's drive had reached the Army 15-yard-line. The game now rested on the foot of kicker Frank Schenk. If Schenk makes the 32-yard field goal attempt, his name will forever be remembered in Navy football history. If he misses, the misery will continue for the Midshipmen.

As Schenk stepped onto the field to line up his kick, Army coach Jim Young called a time out, in an attempt to "ice" Schenk. The tension inside the stadium was ratcheted up another notch, as the teams met on their respective sidelines. The Army defense, dressed in their black jerseys, with old-gold pants and old-gold helmets, would try to block the kick.

The crowd buzzes as Navy goes into its field goal formation. The ball is snapped, the holder makes the placement. Schenk takes his approach, driving his right foot into the ball. The ball comes our way, heading toward the goalposts that are located mere feet from where my father and I were seated. It splits the uprights, right down the middle. The kick was good!!!

The Navy sideline and rooting section went into bedlam. Screams alternated with cheers, while high-fives and hugs dominated half of the Giants Stadium landscape. On the Army side of the field, it was stunned silence. The Black Knights and their cadets simply stood there, attempting to process what was happening. The decided underdog was about to win one of the greatest rivalry games in sports.

Seconds later, time expired. The final score read: Navy 19, Army 17. The Midshipmen had ended its losing streak against the Black Knights, and salvaged their season in the process.

The final seconds and game-winning kick.

After the game, the schools gathered on the field for their respective alma maters. Army's played first -- and at the end, a half-hearted "Beat Navy" chant emanated from the gray-clad portion of the crowd. When the Navy alma mater played, there was impassioned singing from the Midshipmen -- ending with a "Beat Army!" scream that echoed throughout the stadium.

As my father and I walked out of Giants Stadium, I noticed that I no longer felt cold. The intensity of that game -- my first college football game in-person -- was pulsating throughout my 10-year-old body. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction.

It is a sport that occasionally becomes embroiled in controversy and scandal. To some, college football is viewed as a minor league to the pros. Yet, when it comes to the Army-Navy game, there is no such cynicism. It is a pure contest of athletes who will someday be defending the United States, either at home or overseas. If one of those players reaches the NFL, it is the exception, instead of the rule. If you can attend an Army-Navy game someday, I highly recommend it. It may change your perception of college football forever.

Pennant from the 1989 Army-Navy Game

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