Jim Nantz can be heard every year referring to The Masters golf tournament as “a tradition unlike any other.” Respectfully, I must disagree with Jim. There is one tradition even more distinct than The Masters.
The American sports tradition that tops them all is the annual football game between the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. More commonly known as the Army/Navy game, the matchup pits the two oldest service academies against each other on the football field for one final regular season game.
The rivalry between Army and Navy, while longstanding, is not a rivalry filled with the animosity that you would see between Ohio State and Michigan. However, the rivalry is still full of passion and pride at a level that is rarely seen in American sports. The love for their team runs deep on the football field, but everyone knows that upon graduation, all of the players in the Army/Navy game will play for the same team on the field of battle.
Historically, the game has been the final one played during a given season, and that remains true today. One week after all of the conference championship games have been played, Army and Navy will square off in the only college football game on December 9, 2017. With the day to themselves, the spotlight on the great tradition of the rivalry only shines brighter.
Along with the game taking place after all other regular season games have been played, the site of the Army/Navy game has traditionally been Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ranging from Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania, to old John F. Kennedy Philadelphia Municipal Stadium that was torn down several decades ago, to the current Lincoln Financial Field, Philly has hosted 86 of the 117 Army/Navy games. Serving as a central location between Annapolis, Maryland, and West Point, New York, the city is well set as a truly neutral location for the two academies.
While the Army and Navy football teams today may resemble middle of the road football programs from smaller conferences, both academies actually boast long and storied football histories. The Army Cadets claim three national championships, having won in 1944, 1945, and 1946. Meanwhile, the Navy Midshipmen point to 1926 for their lone national championship.
After the game is over and a winner is determined, both teams stay out on the field with their heads held high. The fans do not leave, the students do not quiet down, and the bands stand still. In a great show of respect, both teams stand with each other on the field as the respective bands play the alma mater of both the Army and the Navy. However, to the victor goes the spoils, as the winning band is given the honor to play their alma mater last.
In a rivalry so rich in history, there are, of course, a few games that stand out over the others. Let us look at some of the greatest moments in the storied history of the rivalry between Army and Navy.
NOVEMBER 27, 1926 SOLDIER FIELD, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
NAVY 21, ARMY 21
It is not often when a tie ends up on a list of greatest games in a rivalry. Alas, that is exactly the case with the 1926 Army/Navy game.
The matchup pitted undefeated Navy against an Army team whose only defeat was to Knute Rockne and the University of Notre Dame. On top of the already increased drama, the game would be the first to be played at the then brand new, now historic Soldier Field in Chicago. Over 100,000 people would be on hand to witness the historic battle.
With all of that history in play, it was only fitting that nobody would lose that day. With forgotten names to many, such as Tom Hamilton and Frank Wickhorst of Navy and Chris Cagle and Chuck Born of Army, leading the way in 1926, Navy and Army would fight to a 21-21 tie. With Navy having no losses to their record, the Midshipmen would be awarded the national championship that year, in what would prove to be their only championship season. Had they lost to Army, it is likely that Army would have won their first championship instead.
DECEMBER 1, 1945 PHILADELPHIA MUNICIPAL STADIUM, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA
#1 ARMY 32, #2 NAVY 13
“THE GAME OF THE CENTURY”
When a contest is labeled “the game of the century” before it is even played, you know the stakes at play are astronomically high. The stakes certainly could not have been higher for the 1945 contest between Army and Navy. With the game returning to Philadelphia after two seasons of being played on campus due to travel restrictions during World War II, the #1 ranked and undefeated Army Cadets took on the #2 ranked Navy Midshipmen. Navy entered the game with only a tie to their resume, thus ensuring that the winner of the game would decide the National Championship that day.
Army was dominant early on in the game, scoring 20 points in the first quarter alone. Navy never really came close, trailing 20-7 at halftime, and then 26-7 by the end of the third quarter. Despite the fact that President Harry Truman was in attendance, the game had lost its luster before the fourth quarter had even begun.
Navy would score again in the fourth quarter, but it was far too little, far too late. Army would go on to win convincingly, 32-13, clinching an undefeated season and another victory over their rival Midshipmen. Army would eventually be crowned national champions for the second consecutive year for their efforts in 1945.
DECEMBER 7, 1963 PHILADELPHIA MUNICIPAL STADIUM, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA
#2 NAVY 21, ARMY 15
The 1963 matchup between Army and Navy is among the most documented and most dramatic college football games ever to have been played. The game was originally scheduled to be played on November 30, but just over a week prior to that date was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Both sides contemplated cancelling the game out of respect for the fallen President. However, former first lady Jackie Kennedy pushed for both academies to play the game. The two academies would eventually decide to play, albeit a week later than was originally planned.
Leading the charge for the #2 ranked Navy Midshipmen was none other than Heisman Trophy winner and Cincinnatian, Roger Staubach. If Navy could win, it would set up a national championship matchup with the #1 ranked Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day. Army, however, would not go down without a fight, and the two schools would go on to play an instant classic.
During a game that would feature the first ever instance of instant replay on American television, Army would have the ball late in the fourth quarter down by just six points. Quarterback Rollie Stichweh had a chance with under a minute to go to run a play and potentially win the game. Unfortunately, he never got the opportunity to snap the ball. Time expired, allowing Navy to walk away victorious 21-15, clinching an undefeated season and a date with destiny against Texas. To date, the 1963 Army/Navy game is the last instance where either academy was in a position to compete for a national championship going into the game.
On a side note, during the next season, Philadelphia Memorial Stadium, where the games were being contested, was named in honor of the late President John F. Kennedy.
DECEMBER 10, 2016 M&T BANK STADIUM, BALTIMORE, MARYLAND
ARMY 21, NAVY 17
Imagine a football game where both teams combined to throw the ball just 14 times, relying almost exclusively on the running game to move the ball offensively. Amazingly, that exact scenario took place during the most recent contest between Army and Navy. Navy Quarterback Zach Abey completed only six of his ten passes, while Army Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw threw attempted a mere four passes, completing just two of them.
Going into the 2016 Army/Navy game, the Midshipmen were riding high on a 14 game winning streak over the Cadets. Every time they had met since 2002, Navy had defeated Army, and in almost every instance, it was a blowout from the start. Navy had become a quietly successful football program during that stretch, even competing for an American Athletic Conference Championship, which they lost to Temple, the week before the 2016 game against Army. While Army had struggled throughout the 14-year losing streak, they had built themselves up over the past few years into a team that could at least compete with Navy, as well as the rest of the teams on their schedule. For the first time in a long time, the game would turn out to be competitive.
Army led 14-0 at halftime, thanks to two Andy Davidson short touchdown runs. Navy came storming back in the second half, with Zach Abey scoring a touchdown within the first four minutes of the third quarter. After a field goal cut the lead to 14-10, Navy seemed poised to take the lead in the fourth quarter. As fate would see fit, Quarterback Zach Abey broke off a 41 yard run early in the fourth quarter, scoring the go-ahead touchdown for Navy. In years past, that would have been it for Army, and Navy would have pulled away.
The 2016 Army/Navy game was not like most years for the Army Cadets. Refusing to give up, Army responded with an Ahmad Touchdown run with just six minutes to go. After a Navy three and out, Army would proceed to run out the final four minutes of the clock, sealing the 21-17 victory, their first over Navy since 2002.
Ahmad Bradshaw and Zach Abey both return for the 2017 edition of Army vs. Navy. Army has had the better season so far, having won eight games to just three defeats. Navy, while in no way is having a bad season, has struggled compared to their recent standards, coming in with a 6-5 record for the year. Navy is favored to win by three points, but in a rivalry as intense as Army vs. Navy, a point spread such as that means nothing.
Navy will be seeking revenge for their loss in 2016 to Army, while Army will look to win back-to-back games against their rivals for the first time since they won five straight between 1992 and 1996. Neither team has a statistical advantage over the other in 2017, with both Army and Navy showing great strength running the ball, and both defenses looking very similar from the standpoint of success. With both Army and Navy bringing back their quarterbacks from a season ago, there will be no excuses for poor judgements or bad decisions from the quarterbacks during the game.
I predicted before the season started that the Army Cadets would go 8-4 and defeat the Navy Midshipmen. While the overall record would be incorrect should Army win the game, I am sticking with my pick from the summer. In another close and exciting game, I believe the Army Cadets will emerge victorious over the Navy Midshipmen, 20-17.
Whichever prediction we make is far less important in the Army/Navy game than what happens after the game. When everyone graduates, players will be required to serve a commitment as an officer in their respective armed forces branch. The odds of anyone playing in the game on Saturday are nearly zero as a direct result to that commitment. The Army/Navy game is so much more than a football game for both academies. It is an American tradition, contested between young men who are enemies today, but starting tomorrow and lasting forever, each opponent on the football field will become a brother in a far different field. Enjoy the game, and remember that those kids are playing for the love of the game, and the love of their country.
I do not think anything in American sports can, or will, ever top that tradition.