Army-Navy Game

Army-Navy still standard for rivalries (Baltimore Sun)

The game Navy coach Paul Johnson labels “college football in its purest form” has arrived for the 105th time. Unbridled intensity and passion. Brethren in uniform who might be side by side in combat in the near future. A world-wide audience. All the trappings associated with the United States military. Honoring each other by standing and singing the respective alma maters when the game ends, win or lose. Those elements will flood Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field today at 2:30 p.m. when Army confronts Navy before a sellout crowd and servicemen and women listening and watching at home and at far-flung stations abroad. President Bush will attend the game.

“Being on an academy team is so much more than just playing football,” said Army linebacker Greg Washington. “We’re there also thinking about what we’re going to be doing when we graduate. We’re putting on Army and Navy jerseys. We know who we represent. “We hold ourselves to a higher prestige. We don’t play the game for glory; we play it because we love it.” Although Navy has the Emerald Bowl remaining, this is The Game. Perish the thought of losing to the Black Knights. “That’s something you don’t even fathom at all,” said Navy cornerback Vaughn Kelley. “That would definitely hurt.” Both teams sacrificed their holiday to practice on Thanksgiving, normal procedure for a Johnson team, but a new practice at Army under Bobby Ross. For Navy, winning the Commander in Chief’s Trophy is paramount; for Army, gaining a share would be a major step forward for a previously downtrodden program. “We haven’t won it outright, just retained it,” said Navy fullback Kyle Eckel, whose team has beaten Air Force while Army lost to the Falcons. “We want to win it.”

Ross has generated new excitement at West Point, where a national-worst 19-game losing streak ended in October. The hope is that the Black Knights can match the turnaround achieved by Johnson and the Midshipmen, who have won 16 games the last two seasons.

The danger is that the players will get too caught up in the pre-game hype. “If anything in this game, sometimes you have to temper it [the emotion] because you want to play with fanaticism, but it needs to be intelligent fanaticism,” said Johnson. “You can’t just go out there and go crazy and not know where you’re going and what you’re doing.” “It’s in the preparation that you win, not in the emotions,” said Ross.

For 77 seniors on the two sides, this represents their final fling at what has been called the greatest rivalry in sports. They will never forget it – wherever the future may take them.

NOTE: The jerseys of three former Midshipmen who have been killed in action while on active duty this year will be draped over empty chairs in the Navy locker room and on the sidelines. To be honored are Scott Zellem (No. 31), Ron Winchester (No. 73) and J.P. Blecksmith (No. 10).

Other rivalries are bigger in some ways. Alabama-Auburn is huge because everyone in the state takes sides and there are no big league professional teams to dilute the intensity. The rivalries between Florida, Florida State, and Miami are big because they’ve often had national title implications in the last 20 years. Ohio State-Michigan, UCLA-USC, and others also have rich histories.

The unique experience of service academy life, though, makes the Army-Navy rivalry more special than the rest. Other schools graduate players to the NFL. West Point and Annapolis send their players off to war.

What other schools have awards like this?

On Wednesday, Army head coach Bobby Ross announced the winner of what he considers to be one of the most prestigious and important awards his coaching staff will hand out this year, and it wasn’t any most valuable player honor. It was the Black Lion Award, presented in memory of former Army football great Don Holleder, who was killed in combat in Vietnam on Oct. 17, 1967, and the men of the 28th Infantry Regiment (nicknamed the Black Lions), who died with him that day. Ross announced that senior defensive end Will Sullivan would be the first Army player to earn the award.

Holleder was an All-American end as a junior at West Point in 1954 and appeared headed for an even more successful senior campaign before head coach Earl “Red” Blaik approached him the following spring and asked if he would begin learning the quarterback position for the 1955 season. Blaik knew that Holleder had never played the position before, but felt his team’s best all-around athlete could learn to handle the ball well. He also wanted someone to provide a match for Navy’s brilliant quarterback, George Welsh, so that Army would have a decent chance to beat the Mids at year’s end. Blaik left the final decision to Holleder, with the provision that if he became truly unhappy with the experiment, he could return to his end position. Holleder agreed, foregoing All-America honors and the personal notoriety that it brought.

The “Great Experiment” or “Blaik’s Folly,” as it became known was not well received by the Academy or its administrators. While Holleder struggled at times at quarterback during the uneven season, he engineered a season-ending 14-6 upset of heavily favored Navy.

Holleder would go on to a decorated military career before that fateful day in October 1967. On that day, a savage battle between a 1st Infantry Division battalion and the Viet Cong was fought in a thick jungle about 40 miles north of Saigon. Holleder, second in command, assumed control of the troops after battalion commander Col. Terry de la Mesa Allen Jr. was killed during the early stages of the skirmish. Holleder and several other solders boarded a helicopter and flew over the area of conflict. After viewing wounded in the field, Holleder ordered the copter to land. Holleder raced into the heart of the battle in an attempt to recover the wounded men, but was killed by enemy sniper fire.

The Black Lion Award was first established in 2001, the 100th anniversary of the forming of the 28th Infantry Regiment – the famed Black Lions of Cantigny, who were the first Americans to see combat duty oversees, engaged in World War I. It has been presented to high school and college players of various teams since that time, but never before to an Army football player. The award is intended to go to the player “who best exemplifies the character of Don Holleder: leadership, courage, devotion to duty, self sacrifice, and – above all – an unselfish concern for the team ahead of himself.”

It tends to put the football game into its proper context.

Go Army! Beat Navy!

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    While I’m usually (and understandably) a fervent Navy supporter, the service academies leave me ambivalent.

  2. Robin Burk says:

    Will Sullivan is my student this term — he’s an outstanding leader of character who puts the team effort above his own credit. A very good choice for the 3rd award of the Black Lion and the first to USMA.

  3. jen says:

    I’m sorry that you were doomed to disappointment with Navy’s win yesterday. 😉