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Rivals On The Same Team: The Army-Navy Game Isn’t Just About Football

This Saturday, millions of people will tune in to watch a low-stakes football game. No Heisman Trophy contender will take the field, no NFL scouts will attend, and no divisional championship is on the line. And yet when these two football teams meet on December 14, all eyes in sports fandom will focus on this 114th Army-Navy game.

Why the overwhelming attention?

Certainly the Army Black Knights and the Navy Midshipmen are more skillful fighters on land and sea than on the gridiron. But maybe we find it more palatable to watch young men go into battle decked out in jerseys than flak jackets, wielding pigskin rather than rifles.

One thing’s for sure: no one watches the Army-Navy game for the football.

We watch because supporting the Army and Navy teams is a proxy for supporting our troops. The annual game lets Americans cheer for our heroes in a safe and familiar way.

While the best players at Alabama and Auburn know that their on-field performance can make or their break careers, the Black Knights and Midshipmen know that their biggest tests are yet to come.

In stark contrast to the rest of Division I college football, this game won’t impact the professional futures of its participants. Nothing that happens on Saturday will matter as much as whatever they’ll be doing a year from now. While the best players at Alabama and Auburn know that their on-field performance can make or their break careers, the Black Knights and Midshipmen know that their biggest tests are yet to come.

To many viewers, the annual Army-Navy matchup is a lot like Fourth of July fireworks and Veterans Day parades — a chance to wave flags and enjoy a little “patriotism lite” without thinking too hard. I get it. Personally, I watch the game to root for Navy so I can gloat to my Army pals. (Navy has won the past 11 meetings and comes into 2013’s game favored.)

Army Cadets march onto the filed before an NCAA college football game between the Army and the Navy Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Army Cadets march onto the filed before an NCAA college football game between the Army and the Navy Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

My first introduction to the game was in 1992, when I was stationed in Newport, R.I. at officer training school. Many of my classmates were graduates of the United States Naval Academy, and I tagged along on a road trip to root for their alma mater. It was bitterly cold so we spent the game tailgating in the heated RV’s of other Navy fans, a mixed bag of veterans and young officers like ourselves. The day was about camaraderie and friendship (and beer) way more than it was about football.

Two years later, while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, I joined some of my shipmates to record one of those ubiquitous motivational messages from the troops that air during breaks in the game. We stood on the flight deck and shouted “Go Navy! Beat Army!” while someone made a video tape and mailed it to ABC. But the cliché “all these players are on the same team” had recently been our reality. Just months before we recorded ourselves cheering “Beat Army,” we had transported the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and all their equipment down to Haiti in support of Operation Support Democracy. A young army intelligence officer slept in the rack above mine. We weren’t only all on the same team; we were all in the same boat. And no one in that boat was interested in the outcome of a football game.

This game is about honoring those who are soon to be commissioned in our armed forces, who have agreed to make sacrifices most of us will never contemplate.

So don’t be fooled by Saturday’s pregame flyovers and the parades of cheering students (even if they are better dressed and more sober than typical college fans). This game isn’t about athletic superstars or school records.

This game is about honoring those who are soon to be commissioned in our armed forces, who have agreed to make sacrifices most of us will never contemplate.

As the rest of us watch Saturday’s game from the comfort and security of our sofas, the players from last year’s matchup are now stationed around the world, far away from their families, in places where the stakes are high. They probably won’t watch the game.

They know Army-Navy isn’t about football.


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This program aired on December 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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