It is hard to describe what is at stake for the Army seniors led by quarterback Trent Steelman in this year’s Army-Navy Game. This is a chance to end a 10-game winning streak by the Midshipmen, win the coveted Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time in 17 years and cap off their football careers with a day when they fulfill the school's motto, which has been drummed into them since "R Day," their first day of basic training at West Point: Beat Navy!
The seniors on the Black Knight football team have lived four years in a culture at West Point that is dedicated to “Duty, Honor, Country” but expresses their mission by constantly proclaiming to “Beat Navy.” Every time they walk the campus or into Michie Stadium, they see the signs: “Beat Navy.” Okay, sometimes they add “Beat Air Force.” Freshman, or plebes, as they are known, are required to know throughout the year how many days are left until “Army Beats Navy in Football.” They have been at countless team meetings, dinners and classes where the last words spoken in unison are “Beat Navy.” After games, the team lines up in front of its band and the Corps of Cadets for the singing of the “Alma Mater” at the conclusion of which, no matter who the opponent was that day, they yell, “Beat Navy.”
At the Army-Navy press conference, I asked Army captain defensive end Jarrett Mackey about the "Beat Navy" emphasis at West Point, the Snellville, Georgia native said:
It is basically indoctrinated during our Beast Barracks, before you sit down to eat at Beast Barracks you say "Beat Navy." You greet people and you say "Beat Navy." They are our sister academy but you want to beat them, we have not done that lately, but this Saturday is going to be different story. We are going to do our best and win that CIC Trophy.
Trent Steelman has been the starting quarterback for the Black Knights for every game since the first day of his freshman year except for three games his junior year when he was injured. There have been considerable highlights, with wins over Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Boston College. In 2010, Steelman’s sophomore year, the team qualified for the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and defeated SMU in Dallas at its home stadium to win their first bowl game in nearly 25 years, and achieved their first winning season in over a decade. This November, Army beat Air Force, which was a huge breakthrough for West Point.
In the last home game at Michie Stadium, Trent Steelman ran for three touchdowns, giving him a career total of 44, breaking the record set in 1946 by Army Heisman Trophy Winner Glenn Davis.
We have also watched Steelman take numerous hits running the ball himself nearly 30 times per game, suffering rib, shoulder, elbow and ankle injuries but never complaining about them. When we have the chance to talk to Trent, he is smiling, enthusiastic and encouraging. During games, he will run over to the defensive guys and give them encouragement.
When I talked to the Army quarterback at the Army-Navy press conference, he seemed confident in describing how he planned to approach the game. We have watched him play in the Army-Navy game for the past three years, suffering the highs and lows of three losses to Navy. Saturday could be the day those painful lessons provide considerable value as he leads his team into the last chance to "Beat Navy" by this class.
When I asked the Bowling Green, Kentucky native if Army will focus on what they do well or try to come up with something new to show Navy, the senior quarterback said:
Just do what you do well, that is what it will come down to, it is going to come down to what team execute their offense or defense, hold on the ball, who can control their emotions. I don’t think wrinkles will not win this game, It’s going to come down to determination and hard work.
Army Head Coach Rich Ellerson works very hard to balance opportunities for inspiration (from the many Army alumni and veterans interested in the team) with the team's need to focus on what they need to do to play well and come out ahead on the scoreboard. I asked Steelman how he handles the attention and the excitement surrounding the Army-Navy game:
Just another game, that is how you have to look at it as, because if you don’t you are going to get caught up in everything that surrounds the game, and the media, the fans, all the festivities that surround the game, that can get the best of you, I believe who ever controls their emotions is going to be the winner.
The outcome of Saturday's game will be long remembered by the players and fans, especially if Army wins. But what makes this game different is that the players on both teams are preparing for their commissions as officers in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps to defend our country.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX and Sons of the American Legion Radio.