Nothing academic as armed forces clash in 'nation's rivalry'

 

AMERICAN FOOTBALL SERVING SCHOOL AND COUNTRY:Uniquely perhaps, Army and Navy football players know early on which game they will be most remembered for, writes DAMIAN CULLEN

TONY VERNA’S experiment had failed several times, and the television director had just about given up when Rollie Stichweh, the Army quarterback, broke through the Navy defence late in the game.

The clash had been delayed for two weeks because of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, and now, Verna, who had used the extra time to carefully prepare his brainwave, was finally presented with an opportunity to share it with American football fans.

This time, no technical glitches.

Seconds after Stichweh’s touchdown, television viewers watched him score again.

“This is not live,” presenter Lindsey Nelson screamed, “ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again.”

December 7th, 1963 – a day that may live in some infamy: instant replay was born. If Thierry Henry wants someone to blame, Verna is a good place to start.

Ironically, it took the Pennsylvanian another 45 years to write a book about the event: Instant Replay: The Day That Changed Sports Forever was released only last year.

The choice of match for its debut was not coincidental. College football is, after all, where America first fell in love with the sport, and the rivalry between the US Military Academy and US Naval Academy is, perhaps, the biggest of them all.

The “nation’s rivalry”, which allows football fans from New York to Los Angeles to choose a favourite without needing any alumni affiliation, is back this weekend, and, while the annual match-up has never needed any attachments to its billing, the Army Black Knights know victory would secure a coveted spot in a Bowl game. With Army not having an interest in post-season football since 1996, that bowl date is a big prize, and late, late comebacks in their last two games have kept their hopes alive.

This weekend, though, will provide a far tougher test. Army have lost their last seven meetings with Navy.

In the bizarre world of post-season college football, Navy has already been pencilled in for the Texas Bowl on New Year’s Eve, the first time the school will have gone to seven bowl games in succession.

For top college players, the post-season provides a shop-window for their talents with an NFL berth the ultimate prize. But for the teams of the US Armed Forces, the reward is rather different. For the seniors in particular, a bowl date means prolonging their careers, albeit by just a few weeks.

On both sides, the players’ commitment to armed service means that, rather than college football being the launch-pad for professional careers, it almost certainly signals the pinnacle of their days on the football pitch.

And so, uniquely perhaps, Army and Navy football players know early on which game they will be most remembered for.

Even the few who do make the transition to the NFL know which game truly mattered most.

Four-time Super Bowl winner Roger Staubach was quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys during the 1970s, when their battles with the Washington Redskins was front page news throughout the nation.

But asked which game stood out in his glittering career, Staubach pointed back to December, 1962. “It’s the most nervous I’ve ever been before a game. There were 4,000 Midshipmen at Bancroft Hall counting on me to beat Army, and I knew it would be difficult to go back there that night if we lost.”

Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world, is home to the US Naval Academy in Maryland, with the US Military Academy based at West Point, New York. Roughly halfway between the two sits Philadelphia, making it the natural home for the rivalry.

This weekend will be the 110th edition of the rivalry, with Philly preparing to stage the game for the 82nd time.

The game, which dates from 1890, is the ultimate in interservice rivalry of the US Armed Forces and is, naturally, drenched in patriotic symbolism, particularly during war-time.

Last year, then-President George W Bush flipped the coin at the start, while 70,000 spectators regularly broke from their partisan songs for the unofficial national chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A”. Air Force One flew over Lincoln Financial Field, while Army arrived with new camouflage-style jerseys, with “Duty. Honor. Country” inscribed on the back.

Unfortunately, the outfits worked perfectly, as the Navy players barely noticed their opponents as the Midshipmen ran in 34 points to no reply, a painful, humiliating defeat for Army.

Still, despite Navy’s recent domination, the record between the rivals is remarkably balanced, with the Midshipmen just four ahead of the Black Knights (53-49), with seven games ending without a winner, the last in 1981.

Back in 1912, Dwight Eisenhower was on the Army team, and the rivalry’s heyday came during his presidency in the 1950s, as well as in the previous decade. In fact, when they met at the end of the second World War, Army and Navy were ranked one and two in the country.

The Army, Navy and Airforce academies, however, have struggled in modern decades to compete with the best in America.

However, the lack of national competitiveness has only served to heighten the interest. Signs reading “Beat Navy” or “Beat Army” are hung throughout the academies; at the Naval Academy a clock counts down to each meeting.

Army football supporters don’t expect their team to win national trophies anymore, but they do expect them to compete with the Navy.

Losing eight in a row is unthinkable, and for inspiration Army players go to a plaque that hangs at West Point.

The message, from George Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff during the second World War, reads: “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”

Army v Navy

Saturday: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia Kick-off: 2:30 pm (local), 7.30pm (Irish)

On TV: Live on ESPN America