It's Army-Navy week, the time when football and the rivalry between America's longest-standing service academies takes center stage in Philadelphia, culminating in an intense atmosphere on Saturday before 67,000 fans and a national television audience on CBS.
A major element this year is to play for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, given to the team who wins two of the three games played between Army, Navy and Air Force. Navy defeated Air Force in Colorado Springs in October, 42-21, and Army defeated Air Force, 41-21, at Michie Stadium in November. The trophy will be presented to the winner after this game and taken home to its academy as a prized icon to display for the upcoming year. There is also a traditional White House visit for the winners to contemplate.
Several of the team players, head coaches and school officials gathered at the Lincoln Financial Field last week to talk about the game and the rivalry. For players at these schools, their football careers are largely remembered by how they do as seniors in this game.
This is a rivalry that goes back well over a hundred years to the nineteenth century and reflects the military history of the United States. Prior to World War One, Douglas MacArthur was a team manager, and later, Dwight David Eisenhower briefly played and coached football. During the World War II era, Army, coached by legendary Earl "Red" Blaik, was national champion three years in a row from 1944-1946, with General MacArthur as one of the team's biggest fans.
Later, many players went from this game to serve in Korea and Vietnam, like Navy's Roger Staubach. Today at practices and games, we often see military leadership visiting the team, such as the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Raymond Odierno, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey.
Many graduates of the Army, Navy and Air Force have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. One player who played in this game two years ago, Chase Prasnicki, died serving in Afghanistan this summer.
When you visit West Point, literally all over the post, as it is called, are signs proclaiming, "Beat Navy." Very early on in basic training, the new cadets are taught to respond "Beat Navy." At the close of meetings, meals, after singing their "Alma Mater," the cadets yell, "Beat Navy." Many will tell you this is a sign of respect for those they will serve with. At Annapolis, I understand they treat Army in a similar way.
Adding to the lore, are the legendary goat and mule capers, in which the mascots have been kidnapped and taken to the rival academies. Now spirit videos placed on YouTube and Facebook are the subject of amazing preparation.
Then there is interest from the alumni serving overseas in places like Afghanistan, Korea, Africa, ships at sea and some places where they cannot even tell you where they are.
Former New York Giant-turned-broadcaster Beasley Reese was the Master of Ceremonies for the press luncheon, and described Army-Navy as simply, "The greatest rivalry in all of sports."
For Army, the goal is clear, find a way to break the ten-year winning streak by Navy in this game. Black Knight quarterback Trent Steelman just broke the Academy's 66-year-old record held by Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis for career touchdowns. Steelman has led the option offense since the first game of his freshman year, averaging 16.7 carries per game over his 45-game career. That is a lot of pounding, and the Bowling Green, Kentucky has the scars to show for it, which they never mention.
For Steelman, his fellow captains Nate Combs and Jarrett Mackey and the seniors on the team, it is all about being the Army team that breaks the streak, and this year the chance to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Doing that will make this a memorable season for Army football.
For Navy and its senior class, it is about not being the team which gives up the streak to Army—and bringing the prized trophy back to Annapolis. Navy has won the famed trophy 12 times. including seven times in a row from 2003-09. The Mids have won 18 of their last 20 games played against Army and Air Force.
Navy has been dealing with the news that one of its freshman players, quarterback Ralph Montalvo from Miami, Florida, was seriously injured in a car accident just after returning home for Thanksgiving break. Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo provided an update,
Believe he is doing better, he is still in a coma, so it is still very, very serious but according to the reports we received today, there is some decrease in swelling, and we are all praying for him.
This season, Navy had a big change at quarterback from junior Trey Miller to freshman Keenan Reynolds, who has a 57.5 completion percentage, eight touchdown passes and has run for nine more. Coach Niumatalolo commented about the play of his high energy freshman,
[Keenan Reynolds] has executed and has made some plays, does some good things taking care of the football, so right now he is playing very well for us, hopefully he plays well next week.
Army head coach Rich Ellerson has learned how to channel the excitement and attention his team receives before the game both on campus and from alumni serving around the world. I asked him about how it is possible to channel the excitement about the game into positives his team can benefit from,
In the early preparation, the rivalry, the focus, the institutional voices that you grow up with as a cadet can really help in preparation, but as you get closer, we try and turn the volume down. You have to focus on what correlates with success on the football field and not get distracted.
The Army defense has struggled during the year, often playing with eight freshman and sophomores in the starting lineup. Holding the defense together has often fallen on the shoulders of senior Nate Combs, a hybrid defensive lineman-linebacker that Army calls a "Bandit."
I asked the Indiana native about playing in the Army-Navy game and he said, "This game has been going on forever, you have those Ohio State-Michigan rivalries, but the Army-Navy games mean a lot more. It is an unbelievable feeling being in that game."
Army quarterback Trent Steelman will be starting his fourth Army-Navy game. He has, in his fourth year at West Point after a year at the U.S. Army Prep School, the excitement and the pressure of playing a key role in the Army-Navy game has never been far.
I asked the Bowling Green, Kentucky native about the rivalry: "It is just an honor, to go out and play in a game of this magnitude, is an opportunity only a few will experience," Steelman said. "Our job, is to go out, take it all in, and play to the best of our abilities."
Both Army and Navy will wear special uniforms for this year's game. The black Army jerseys will include numbers composed of maps of the areas of France and Belgium that the Battle of the Bulge was fought in by the U.S. Army from December 1944 to January 1945. That victory over a force including 1,000 German tanks resulted in 90,000 American casualties.
Combs described the opportunity to recognize the hundreds of thousands of Army veterans who served in that battle during the Army-Navy game: "It is awesome, to wear that with pride, I hope we represent well the guys in that battle. I just hope we go out and make those guys proud."
Last year, the game was played near Washington D.C. at Fedex Field. This year, the game is back in Philadelphia for the 84th time in 113 meetings. Mayor Michael Nutter attended the press event and expressed appreciation for Philadelphia's ability to host the game and recognize the service provided by the two academies and the U.S. military:
Philadelphians love the game, there is a passion for this game, There is tremendous amount respect for men and women in our armed forces, we express our deepest appreciation for who you are, what you are doing now with your lives, and what you may do going forward. This is really the Philadelphia Bowl game.
Ken Kraetzer covers West Point football for WVOX in New Rochelle, NY, and Sons of the American Legion Radio.
His Twitter is @SAL50NYRadio.