The Army-Navy game has a build up through the school year that culminates in the week before the game being the most extraordinary of the year for the two service academies.
Frequently you will see and hear the motto at West Point, "Beat Navy!" At Annapolis, it is "Beat Army!" These cheers have more meaning than you might expect. We have asked a number of officials, players and alumni of both academies about the Army-Navy rivalry and what the cheers mean in terms of the elements of competition and respect that they represent.
Historically, the freshmen, known as plebes at both academies, are expected to recite at a moments notice how many days are left until their respective academy wins that year's Army-Navy game. The week of the game there are spirit videos, pep rallies, bonfires and signs about the game all over both campuses.
Army-Navy week is traditionally an opportunity for the plebes to be a bit rambunctious at the expense of the upperclassmen who have been training them since the summer.
At West Point the goal to beat "Beat Navy" is long established and frequently proclaimed. For the plebes on arrival, they are quickly taught to say only a few key phrases such as "Yes, sir/yes, ma'am," "No, sir/no, ma'am" and "Beat Navy."
After meetings, phone calls and emails, the last words are "Go Army, beat Navy." After every game, West Point teams sing their alma mater, and they finish by yelling "Beat Navy" no matter what team they have just played.
Yes, they also have signs proclaiming "Beat Air Force," but it isn't quite the same thing. The rivalry between Army and Navy goes back to the 19th century when Cadet Denis Michie challenged Navy to the first game between the two. During World War II, West Point graduate General Douglas MacArthur sent the team a famous telegram from the Pacific when Army defeated Navy in 1944, which said, according to goarmsports.com:
"The greatest of all Army teams ... We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur."
The dean of the academic board at West Point, Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, a 1983 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, talked with us last year and described what the Army-Navy rivalry means to the academies:
"Army-Navy is recognized as one of the most intense rivalries in all of college sports. It is a very special time. We respect each other fully, Army and Navy; we respect each other for what we do, our young men and women for what they do each and every day—the commitment they have made to serve our nation.
"There is only one day a year out of the 365 when we are bitter rivals...that is during the Army-Navy game. Worldwide we are brothers and sisters in arms, doing what our country calls us to do in the profession of arms."
From the class of 1997, we spoke with Ben Kotwica, a former Army football captain, who now serves as the assistant special teams coach with the New York Jets. We asked him what the motto, “Go Army, Beat Navy” means to him:
“That motto is a mission that is very clear. You can put it in the context of any of the athletic teams—you are competing against the other academy. Navy obviously at the end of the year is the biggest game of the year. So to me the “Beat Navy," that is the objective, that is the mission, saying that every day just reaffirms what we already know, that is, what the mission has to be, especially on the football field.”
The new West Point athletic director, Boo Corrigan, involved in his first Army-Navy game this year, offered his perspective at the Army-Navy Media Day what the rivalry means:
“Everything is special about Army-Navy. From the march on, to the feeling that America is great, to the competition that you have for 60 minutes, to the alma maters and the feeling of brotherhood after the game. Everything is great about the Army-Navy game.
“Every time when we compete with each other, it is a special competition for our kids, for our coaches, for our alums."
About the motto, “Go Army, Beat Navy” he said, "At the end of the day, it is about the 60 minutes. It is about the competition at that moment, because the rest of the time we are fighting with, but during those 60 minutes we are fighting against, that is what makes Army-Navy special.”
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has coached in 14 Army-Navy games as both an assistant and head coach at Annapolis. We asked him about the rivalry with Army and his long association with Army Coach Rich Ellerson.
“[We have] respect for our opponent, who we have great admiration for, respect for. The big thing we are trying to do is get ready for the football game. There is lots of hysteria and hype, surrounding the game that happens outside the white lines. Our preparation is totally between the white lines.
"I have great respect for Coach Ellerson. I would not be here except for him. He recruited me to University of Hawaii. He is a great football coach, a great mind.
"I know that Army will be ready—he will have his team prepared. It is going to be a great challenge. We are looking forward to it."
About what “Beat Army” means at Annapolis, Coach Niumatalolo said: “From an athletic standpoint it means everything. When you come here in an athletic or sporting event, our No. 1 goal is to beat Army.”
Navy fullback and captain Alexander Teach has run, caught passes and returned kicks for nearly 2,00 yards in three years of varsity play at Navy. He plans to take on the challenge of being a U.S. Navy Seal after graduation from Annapolis.
He describes the Army-Navy rivalry in terms of the respect felt between the two teams: “It is a mutual respect between the two Academies, and all of those who serve. There is a passion that you get about this game. There is a love among the brothers on your team, and your brothers you will be serving with one day."
Midshipman Teich described the game in old fashioned terms: “[It's] hard-hitting—the way the game was meant to be played. Run the ball, hit each other in the mouth, get up and do it again.”
About the “Beat Army” cheers he will hear during the rambunctious week before the game at the Academy he said: “I’ll hear it, 'Beat Army,' about a million times this week, during Army-Navy Week when the hall goes nuts. You hear it all the time from the plebes, 'Beat Army.' It is going to be fun.”
Backup quarterback Max Jenkins plans to be an infantry officer. He serves as the Deputy Brigade Commander for the Corps of Cadets. He, like the other Army seniors, would dearly like to win one against Navy and break the nine-year Navy streak. I asked him about the "Beat Navy!" cheer he often is called on to lead:
“That is exactly what it means, unfortunately. It has kind of lost a little bit of its meaning here lately, but we still believe in it wholeheartedly. We are excited to get there next Saturday and hopefully get to make that come true. We look forward to serving along side them.
"At the end of the day, we are all serving on the same team. We respect each other for the decisions that we have made and the experience that we have had. We are just competing in a game of football. Later on we know there will be a lot more important things that are going to happen.”
Lt. Col. Christopher "Sam" Houston, '87, is possibly the most passionate Army football fan we have met. During his undergraduate years at West Point he was a sprint football player—a football competition for those below typical varsity weight.
Currently LTC Houston is stationed somewhere between Iraq and Kuwait, commanding a unit that is pulling equipment out of the area. Before he left on this deployment, his fifth, I asked him his favorite Army-Navy moment:
“My favorite moment is when Army beats Navy in football. There is no feeling when you are a cadet and then after you graduate, (like) the feeling when you know that your class beat Navy. Our class of '87 beat Navy twice, including my Firstie (senior) year and also won the Commanders in Chief Trophy both of the years we beat Navy. It is truly something that you wear as a badge of honor for the rest of your career and rest of your life."
The veteran U.S. Army officer went on to describe the rivalry and the respect that the two academies and their graduates have for each other:
"There are 52 weeks in a year. Fifty-one of those weeks we are all on the same team, but I can promise you during 'Beat Navy' week, there is no one we want to beat more than Navy."
Describing the significance of the motto “Beat Navy” LTC. Houston said: “Just about every major college has a rivalry, especially when you are talking about football programs. I don’t think there is any time honored tradition that is as large or important to our nation as the annual Army-Navy game."
Lt. Col. Houston added: "'Beat Navy' after the end of practically everything we do, is not just a desire to beat the Naval Academy in football but is also a symbol of respect for our brother and sisters who are at the Naval Academy. And knowing that when we do graduate, when we do commission we are all out there serving a portion of the larger mission, which is protecting the fabric of freedom of our nation.
"And so 'Beat Navy' is spoken as much [as] our desire for what we intend to do on the fields of friendly strife as a symbol of respect for our greatest rival while we are cadets, is also our greatest ally once we commission."
The Army-Navy game is an amazing day to be a part of. Tomorrow will be my sixth Army-Navy game to attend in person. I took my Dad to three of the games in the mid-90s when Army beat Navy two of the three times, then for a number of years we had an American Legion Post party to watch the game. This will be my third opportunity to report on the game, a very special occasion for the son of an Army officer with five other aunts and uncles who were also WWII veterans.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football and Iona basketball for WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. Follow Ken at the game on Twitter at SAL50NYRadio.