None of the players in this football game could have made it in the NFL. They were all amateurs in the truest sense of that corrupted word. But, then, when it comes to football they have bigger fish to fry. More important objectives than the big professional contract or the Super Bowl victory. They are, paradoxically, the good news about the sport.
One element of this good news is that none of these players were likely to feel sorry for themselves for not having an opportunity to play professionally. They get it that this is a game. For them, real life begins after flight school, Ranger school, jump school, or … whatever they are assigned to do. Then, comes, that first deployment.
Still, they played as hard — maybe harder — than some of the highly paid professionals who punched the time card the next day, around the country, and then preened and posed and brawled. Another part of the good news is that there are still players out there who give the game everything but for whom it is… well, a small part of a life that might include orders to Afghanistan shortly after graduation in June.
Army/Navy is, of course, among the great college football rivalries. There was a time when it was, perhaps, the game of the year. When the great Army running back combination of Doc Blanchard and Glen Davis — “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside” — ruled college football. Or Pete Dawkins won a Heisman at West Point. Or Roger Staubach did when he was at Annapolis.
Army/Navy was, in those days, the iconic college football rivalry. Which seems odd when you consider that, ultimately, they are both playing for the same team. But, then, this accounts for one of the most appealing aspects of the rivalry — an abiding sense of sportsmanship. That the opposing players are, ultimately, teammates.
This, of course, is old and quaint stuff which big time football has long since left behind. This is the age of in-your-face football. Of the end zone dance. Of taunting right up to the point — and maybe beyond — where the penalty flags come out. Of fights between players. Or near fights, between players and fans, as occurred the following day in Jacksonville.
But in Philadelphia, last Saturday, old-fashioned sportsmanship ruled in a game that was as well played and hard fought and thrilling as anything the NFL could muster up twenty-four hours later.
The game was played in the snow, so the footing was tough and the ball was wet. Players at the academies are not, in general, as big as the behemoths who attend, say, Michigan in order to polish their résumés before submitting to the NFL draft. Therefore, the academies’ teams depend on skillful ball handling and fakes and blocking schemes. They play with speed and finesse and timing. When it works, it is a thing of beauty.
But it takes discipline. Which you breathe in with the air at the academies. In those exceedingly tough weather conditions in Philadelphia last Saturday, neither team committed a turnover.
The game was close. Exceedingly close. And in the end, it came down to a long field goal attempt by Navy. The kicker’s plant was true and the kick had, as they say, “plenty of leg.” But the ball sailed outside the uprights by a couple of feet.
Army 14, Navy 13.
After the game, the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen assembled, in turn, on the field to sing their alma maters. It was a throat tightening scene.
But the real moment of the game occurred prior to kickoff when a combined chorus of cadets and midshipmen stood headgear on, at attention in the snow, and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in way that would have sent chills up the spines of patriots from Francis Marion to Audie Murphy to … well, to a lot of people who can’t understand this whole “take a knee” business.
The cameras closed in on the young men and women singing those stirring verses. They were black and white and whatever…just call them Americans. They stood tall and they all looked sincerely proud. Of country and this opportunity.
You watched and thought… “Well, yes. This is how it ought to be.”
And, in some places, thanks be to God, still is.
(Note: You can see the singing of the national anthem, by the cadets and midshipmen, here.)
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