Monday, December 10, 2012
Army/Navy is What Football is All About
This is what college football is all about.
I had the privilege of catching the final two minutes of the Army/Navy game today, and that 120 seconds of game time — along with the few minutes after it ended — exemplified everything that I love about the game. It also resurrected some old sentimental feelings about the greatest rivalry in college sports that I had somehow forgotten over the years.
I remember as a child anticipating the final couple weeks of the college football season because all the great rivalries seemed to be televised, even though there were only two networks that broadcasted games, and I looked forward to each game as if it was the national championship. Pitt/Penn State, Ohio State/Michigan, Alabama/Auburn, Oklahoma/Nebraska, USC/UCLA, Army/Navy, and the list could continue. These bitter rivalry games held such a higher level of intensity and pageantry as compared to other games, even conference rivalries, that they were much more intriguing and fun to watch. When I saw this year that USC and UCLA were both wearing their home uniforms for their game a couple weeks ago, it brought back the days of my youth when the schools shared the L.A. Coliseum and wore their dark jerseys for the game. Good times.
But watching the end of the Army/Navy game took me back to a time when college football was such a simpler game, at least aesthetically. Games were only played on Saturdays; ABC and CBS were the only place one could watch college football on TV; only the best of the best got into bowl games. And this game reminded me of the reason most college football players don the pads every weekend and play their hearts out for 60 minutes — simply because they love the game and they're proud of their school.
The Army/Navy rivalry embodies all that is right with college football, or at least what used to be right with it. These kids play because they love it, not because of the prospect of a big paycheck in the pros, or for the notoriety on campus that being a student-athlete brings, or for any other reason. They know that their future includes a prescribed stint, possibly a career, in the military, and rarely does it include a life in the NFL thereafter. Yet they leave every ounce of energy on the field every Saturday.
Watching Army quarterback Trent Steelman sob uncontrollably on the bench after the Black Knights lost a fumble on the potential game-winning drive at first offended me. "Come on," I beckoned toward the TV. "You're a Soldier; you're supposed to be a tough guy! It's a freaking football game! Man up, quit your crying and take the loss gracefully!" But then, the more I thought about it, the more I actually empathized with him. It was the final game of his career. He probably would never play football again. He was about to break a 10-game losing streak to his arch-rival and he had some responsibility in botching the final play. He only had a life of military service to look forward to and not one of fame and fortune as an NFL star. It might even have been the final time he could cry openly. This kid had a lot more on the line than most college football players, and he wore his emotions on his sleeve — more commendable than condemnable.
Aside from the late-game drama, just seeing the stands filled with young men in uniform chanting and singing really caused me to recall what a great rivalry this game really is — arguably the greatest rivalry in all of sports. This game doesn't just hold bragging rights for a geographic region or a state or even a city; it holds them for an entire branch of the military, something that involves hundreds of thousands of people scattered all around the world. It's the most patriotic sporting event in the country, and holds enough weight that the president or vice-president shows up every year to watch. What other sporting event can do that?
With all the changes occurring on the college football landscape, including watching old rivalries being brushed aside for a better paycheck in a more prestigious conference, I hope the one thing that is never affected by them is the Army-Navy game. The pageantry, prestige and emotion that envelops this game every year is something that should never be altered. In fact, I would suggest that Congress enact a law designating the Army/Navy game as national historic event, like a landmark or district that can never be touched by modernization. Keep it the way it is and never change it; that way we'll always have something to remind us of simpler times without having to rely on our fading memories.