Army-Navy game worth the wait

It finally happened, Jim Ewan really did attend an Army-Navy game – in person – in Washington, D.C. – in December. Often in life, when we get caught up in the “anticipation” of something, it falls short of our expectations, but not this time. It was all I had hoped it would be and more, if that was even possible.

Now, you need to understand that as an Irish Catholic educated lad, I haven’t always let facts and/or the truth get in the way of a good story. This is different; it was a special experience for me. I have often wondered what it would be like to coach at an academy, where all of the young men are very bright and where guys are still playing because they just simply love the game.

They aren’t playing to earn scholarships or to pay for their educations, or because they want to move on to the pros where they can make, literally, millions of dollars. No, these kids play because they want to; it is important to them. They embody what is right and pure about being a student athlete.

In my mind, The Naval Academy looks like what a college should look like; as a lad it is what I imagined a college to be. Founded in 1845, it looks and feels like “tradition”. Mind you, it is a small college, approximately 4000 Midshipmen. Yet, they compete against the best, the Notre Dame’s and the SMU’s of the world. Navy, as do all of the academies, do more with less in a shorter amount of time and they do it at very high level of competitiveness. Any school that can feed breakfast and lunch to 4000 young people in thirty minutes is doing something right. And yes, that is a FACT.

After coaching forty years at the high school level, junior college and Division II levels, I have seen my share of practice fields. From using Phoenix city parks at St. Mary’s, to a flood retention basin at Mountain Ridge, to a field shared with an Annual Dog Show at MCC, I have seen it all. But I have never seen fields like the Navy’s. Their practice fields, all three of them, are bordered on one side by Chesapeake Bay. Not bad for a back-drop to work out against. But practice is practice, and it was nice to see on Monday of the Army week that Navy was still working on tackling with their LB’s.  And I do mean working as in “taking on a cutting linemen, shedding him and forming up on the ball carrier”.  I witnessed an entire offense having to do up downs for not executing a play correctly, and not one person mumbled under his breath or whispered a negative comment. No comments, just work; in fact, they actually looked happy to be doing it. 

We arrived three and one half hours early to FedEx Field so I could watch the “March In”. Witnessing 4000 Cadets and 4000 Midshipmen march into the stadium in formation being led by bagpipers is awe-inspiring. Now, if you know me, you know that I’m a sucker for bagpipes – I mean, as far as I know, Chandler was the only high school team to walk onto the field led by bagpipers.

What I learned as I watched both academies march onto the field – even to the untrained eye of the casual observer – Army marches better, but Navy’s uniforms look sharper. And a “March In” is a like pre-game; it really doesn’t matter who has the better choreographed pre-game, what matters is who plays football better. I learned that Army marched better, but Navy won the football game. Ten of them in fact, the game marked the exclamation point on a decade of victories.

Now, I know something about losing for ten years, Evil Empire Fans start chuckling; so it was natural for me to root for Army, the underdog. Meanwhile, my wife, so proud of our son-in-law, a graduate of Navy, was dressed in her finest Navy regalia. The problem however, was the fact that we were sitting in the section for the families of the Army coaches! After a few tense introductions, the congeniality factor in our section improved. This is brings me to one of the impressive things from the Army-Navy game. The sense of and appreciation for true competitive spirit, the understanding that this is important, who wins and who loses, but we can do it with class.

There wasn’t any trash talking, no penalties for excessive celebration, no jaw-jacking amongst teams. There was just rock-solid, hard-hitting, old-fashioned, tough, physical football. Four passes between two teams – really, just four passes for the entire game! It was an old-fashioned “we-are-going-to-do-this-and-you-stop-us-if-you-can” type of game.

Realistically, there wasn’t a player on the field who will ever play on TV on Sunday afternoon. These were young men, who in a very short while, may not return from their first deployment. Sobering thought, isn’t it. I watched a dozen young men on each team just compete with all of the fibers of their being. I watched a dozen or so young men leave the field totally spent. Yet, as the game ended, they honored the tradition of going over to the other Corp of Cadets or Brigade of Midshipmen and sing each Academy’s Alma Mater. For Army, it was the last thing in the world that they wanted to do, but they did and they did it with pride and with class. 

No one left the stadium early, everyone stayed to the end, not just of the game, but to the traditional singing of the Alma Maters. I take that back, the only people to leave early were the President and Vice-President of the United States of America. Where else but America can you sit in the same row as the President of the U.S.? We both had seats in the third row, we were on the 30 and the President was on the 50, as it should be. 

It was a good experience, the entire week, from watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery, to walking up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, to seeing where my older brother fits into the Evolutionary Chart of Man at the Museum of Natural History, to standing under the Dome of the Rotunda of our Capitol Building, to seeing the crypt where John Paul Jones is buried, to being at the Army-Navy game the first time that it has ever been played in Washington, DC.

So many of the good things that have happened to me in my lifetime have been in, or through, or around the game of football. And this past week, because of my love of football, I was blessed to witnessed so much more than “just a game”.