It never fails. Every year when I go to Army-Navy I wonder if THIS is going to be the year when the alma maters don’t get to me, when I don’t turn into a whimpering puddle when they play those two songs. After all, I’ve witnessed the scene 21 times now. The last really close game was in 2000—when Bill Clinton for crying out loud was still the President.
And yet, it doesn’t matter. Saturday’s game WAS more competitive. It could have been a classic if things hadn’t turned upside down on one play at the end of the first half. Trailing 17-7 (after being down 17-0 early) Army drove to the Navy three-yard line after a Ricky Dobbs fumble and had a first and goal with the clock ticking towards a minute to go. An Army touchdown just before halftime would have given the Cadets all the momentum starting the third quarter—especially since they were receiving the second half kickoff.
Quarterback Trent Steelman, who I think is going to be a star the next two years, ran right and tried to push his way forward to reach the end zone. He was stopped at the one and as he struggled for extra yardage—which is an instinct but often a mistake on the goal line if you don’t have the ball covered up—Navy linebackers Jerry Hauberger and Tyler Simmons punched at it. It popped loose into the arms of Wyatt Middleton. Middleton was in full stride when he found himself with the ball and no one was going to catch him. He went 98 yards. Suddenly, shockingly it was 24-7 when Army had been a yard from cutting the margin to 17-14.
In my mind, it was appropriate that Middleton made the biggest play of the game—with help from his linebackers—because he has been Navy’s most consistent player all season. Dobbs is the most spectacular and he has gotten BY FAR the most publicity—as happens with quarterbacks, especially when they say they want to run for President someday—but Dobbs has also been mistake-prone at times. Saturday he turned the ball over four times—twice when he fumbled; once when he and Alex Teich (again) couldn’t get their timing down on the quarterback/fullback mesh and once on an interception on a ball he never should have thrown.
Middleton just makes plays. He’s the best pure tackler I’ve seen in a long time. His touchdown put Navy in control and, even though Army hung in and battled to the end the outcome was never in serious doubt. That made nine in a row for Navy—the previous record streak before this one on either side was FIVE—which is simply remarkable.
You just don’t expect either of these schools to dominate the other. They’re too much alike. But Navy has put together a wonderful program since Paul Johnson took over in 2002 and then handed the reins to Kenny Niumatalolo three years ago. During that same period Army made more mistakes than The Washington Redskins—if that’s possible. They finally have hired the right coach in Rich Ellerson but it looks like they’re going to botch their search for a new athletic director by letting a search firm control who gets final interviews. That will be a huge mistake.
Saturday night, after I got home from the game, a note was waiting for me from Andrew Thompson, who was the defensive captain at Navy in 1995, the year I wrote, ‘A Civil War.’ That team actually began a turnaround at Navy, going 5-5-1 and losing the Army-Navy game, 14-13 when Army drove 99 yards late in the game—converting a fourth-and-24 along the way—to pull the game out. A year later the Mids were 9-3 and went to their first bowl game in 15 years.
The last line of Drew’s note—after talking about how happy he was for Navy, said this: “I feel, I really do feel, for those Army seniors.”
Thompson, who is now a marine and has been deployed to Iraq, KNOWS what it feels like to stand there for the playing of the alma maters after losing Army-Navy as a senior. The only difference is he and his teammates lost in absolutely heartbreaking fashion. In the case of these Army seniors it was simply heartbreaking for them to lose and know they will never have a chance to beat Navy. They knew they had improved the last two years, that they had been part of turning the Army program back in the right direction but that they still weren’t as good as Navy.
That’s what got to me during the alma maters. I love seeing the joy on the faces of the winners after this game, but it always breaks my heart to see the faces of the losers. I’ve had the chance to be on the field when they play the alma maters and when you see those tears close up, it gets to you—it has to.
It gets to me in the radio booth too. I don’t just look at the players, I look at the cadets and the midshipmen in the stands—all at attention while they play those songs. There’s a photo in ‘A Civil War,’ of the two team doctors, Bob Arciero and Eddie McDevitt, standing next to one another. Both men have their hands on their hearts while the Army alma mater is being played. That’s why I always tell Bob Socci, who has been my partner in the Navy radio booth for 14 years now (Omar Nelson joined us eight years ago) not to ask me a question when the alma maters are over because I’m not going to be able to answer at that moment.
Saturday was a long hectic day. Having been a bit sleep-deprived the last few weeks, I felt a little worn out during the game after arriving at the stadium four hours before kickoff because I had made quite a few pre-game commitments. I literally had to sprint through the crowds to get from the CBS College Tailgate set at one end of the stadium to the press box elevator at the other end of the stadium so I could arrive in the radio booth with a good 30 seconds to spare before we went on the air.
So maybe, I thought, it won’t get to me this time, I’ll just be too tired; I made it about halfway through ‘Alma Mater,’—the Army song. For some reason I spotted the Navy cheerleaders, lined up, standing at rigid attention for the Army song. That’s when my eyes starting getting wet. I remember thinking I liked the old noon kickoffs because the game would end with the sun still up at about 3 o’clock and I had an excuse to keep my eyes covered with sunglasses.
Then the players and coaches crossed the field. They started, ‘Blue-and-Gold.’ Understand this: ‘Blue-and-Gold,’ can make me cry standing in the shower. It is a hauntingly beautiful song. (I always say that Navy has the better alma mater; Army the better fight song. ‘Alma Mater,’ is wonderful, especially those last few notes and ‘Anchors Aweigh,’ is terrific but you just don’t top ‘Blue-and-Gold,’ or ‘On Brave Old Army Team.’) So there I am—again—the tears running down my face, again remembering who all these kids are—not just the players, all 8,000 of them—and where they may be going. I’m thinking, as I always do, of Kevin Norman, who was Jim Cantelupe’s roommate the year I did ‘Civil War.’ Cantelupe was Army’s defensive captain that year. He was in the stadium Saturday and I know he was thinking about Kevin too. Kevin died overseas when he crashed his helicopter into a bridge after maneuvering it in his final seconds so it wouldn’t crash into a heavily-populated civilian area.
Kevin Norman is who all those kids are, the ones wearing the football uniforms on Saturday, the ones wearing the cadet and midshipmen uniforms. Damn right I cried. And no doubt, a year from now, when many of those kids will be in harm’s way, I will cry again.