One of the reasons I consider myself lucky is that I’m still passionate about sports. I’ve been around games for my entire life, I’ve had the chance to cover just about every major sporting event and a lot of not-so-major ones that I found just as intriguing or thrilling in their own way and I still care.
But I don’t get EMOTIONAL, choked up, teary-eyed very often at this point although the McLean Mustangs winning the fifth-to-eighth grade league championship in girls volleyball last month was pretty cool.
Saturday was different. You see I wasn’t there two years ago when Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in 43 years. I was in my house screaming profanities at the TV set when the official threw the bogus pass interference flag in the third overtime and then completely losing my mind when Navy got the stop a moment later on the two point conversion to win the game, 46-44.
I’ve been around Navy football since I first went to work at The Washington Post. The first Navy football game I ever covered was in 1978 when the Mids play at Connecticut. The late Tom Bates was the SID back then, a truly great man. When I called Tom to tell him I was going to be covering the game he said to me, ‘aren’t you about 14-years-old?’ I told him I was 22. “Listen,” he said. “This is important. Don’t screw it up.”
Since I was actually on The Metro staff at the time and had almost gotten arrested at the scene of a quadruple-murder drug-deal-gone-bad (the cops weren’t too happy when I started asking two suspects in handcuffs questions) earlier that week I thought I could handle the pressure of Navy-UConn football.
Years later, I wrote ‘A Civil War,’ and I’ve done Navy radio the last 13 years. So, I’m absolutely, totally biased when it comes to Navy and, for that matter, Army. I also root for Air Force, even though I don’t know the people out there as well as I know the people at Army and Navy.
I drive people crazy constantly telling them just how HARD it is to play football and play it well at the Division 1-A level at the academies. Doing the book, I not only came to like the kids I was writing about but also to admire them. I feel that way perhaps even more strongly today because the young men at the schools today signed up in the middle of a war.
What Navy has accomplished the last seven years is, well, just about impossible. In the three year prior to 2003, the Mids were 3-30, two of those wins coming in 2002, Paul Johnson’s first year as head coach. Most of the losses weren’t close. I still remember Georgia Tech scoring 70 and North Carolina State 65, neither opposing coach caring very much about how humiliating the final score might be. Those were some long broadcasts.
Johnson turned it around with his option offense, his remarkable offensive mind and his sheer chutzpah. He believes he’s the best coach going, he sells that to his players in recruiting and on the practice field and they buy in. He also hired a truly GREAT defensive coordinator in Buddy Green, a move that has been critical to Navy’s success.
The Mids have now gone to seven straight bowls. They have beaten Air Force (which dominated them for years) seven times in a row and Army seven times in a row—NONE of those games close. And, in 2007, they finally, finally beat Notre Dame.
There had been other close calls during the losing streak, notably 1999 when a line judge named Perry Hudspeth absolutely blew a spot—moving the ball up a full yard—to give Notre Dame a first down by an inch when Navy should have gotten the ball back on down at that point with a four point lead, a minute to go and Notre Dame out of time outs. At halftime this past Saturday a friend of mine left a message on my cell phone: “I just hope Perry Hudspeth isn’t in the stadium today,” the message said.
People ask me why I won’t forgive Hudspeth ten years later. Here’s my answer: the day he admits he screwed up is the day I’ll forgive him.
Last Saturday, I finally made it back to Notre Dame after boycotting the games out there for years, partly because I knew Navy was going to lose one way or the other. If the Irish didn’t beat them, the officials would. Plus, the weather was always terrible—“it’s just lake effect snow,” they always told us as if that didn’t count—and Navy had to stay in a dreary motel in Michigan because the South Bend hotels will only give you a room if you guarantee a two night stay on Notre Dame football weekends. So, I took a pass on a long trip, a bumpy plane ride and an almost certain Navy loss.
That’s why I missed the win in ’07. I was okay with it—they won the game, I was thrilled. This year though, when I accepted the speaking engagement in Phoenix and saw Notre Dame on the calendar two days later, I decided to go. I flew to Chicago and drove from there to South Bend.
Amazingly, the weather was spectacular on Saturday—the temperature in the mid-60s in bright sunshine. I got to campus early enough to walk around, buy a very good hamburger on the quad (Notre Dame for all its NBC millions serves only hot dogs in the press box and I don’t like hot dogs at any hour, much less 11:30 in the morning) and sort of revel in all those fired up Irish fans. Everyone was very nice, even though I had on a Navy shirt although I did get a glare from one couple when they heard me explain to a friend on the phone that I thought a helicopter passing overhead was delivering Charlie Weis's ego to the stadium.
You see, I LIKE Notre Dame. I respect the school and I have a lot of friends from there, including Roger Valdiserri—the man who turned being an SID into an art-form years ago—who is one of the world’s all time good people; John Heisler, his successor, who is now one of those senior, associate, senior again AD’s; Digger Phelps (who still lives in South Bend) and current basketball coach Mike Brey. I love the fight song (who doesn’t) although I don’t need the long-winded PA guy to say, “the greatest fight song of them all," when the band comes on the field. Let the music speak for itself pal.
I don’t like Charlie Weis. I think he’s a preening, blow hard and not a very good coach. He’s got a top ten draft pick at quarterback (Jimmy Clausen up-close is VERY impressive) and two wide receivers who are a lock first rounder (Michael Floyd) and a possible first rounder (Golden Tate). Five years in, he still has a mediocre defense and firing coordinators hasn’t made them better.
Honestly, I don’t care if he’s fired. As a Notre Dame friend said after the game Saturday, “Navy may beat us quite a few more times if this guy (Weis) is still the coach.”
What matters is that Navy won Saturday and I was right there to see it. It was a great, back-and-forth game, the Navy kids making plays when they absolutely had to. Ram Vela, the 5-foot-9, 193 pounds linebacker (seriously, that’s how big he is) recovered a fumble and had an interception. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs and the two Navy fullbacks ran wild. Weis made some weird calls in the red zone and, after the usual almost four hours thanks to the endless NBC commercials, Navy WON 23-21.
“All I want to say,” I said on the air when it was over, “is that I’m very glad I lived to see this.”
Bob Socci, my co-partner on-air along with Omar Nelson said, “Your heart held up well.”
It did—barely in that final minute. Watching the Navy kids belting out ‘blue-and-gold,’ I had chills. I will say one more time that people can’t possibly understand how remarkable it is for Navy to compete against Notre Dame, much less win in Notre Dame Stadium.
And this time I got to see it. Wow. I’ve got chills again just writing about it.