BALTIMORE – In a major way, the 115th rendition of Army-Navy was like the first 114 meetings, because it was more than just a game.
On the field, though, it resembled the previous 13 contests in the only way that matters; Navy extended it series-record win streak Saturday with a 17-10 victory.
The outcome at MT&T Stadium disappointed the Black Knights and their followers, who must endure another year of ribbing from the Midshipmen family. Army hasn’t had the last word since it capped Navy’s 0-10 season in 2001, one month before George W. Bush was sworn in as president.
But an event earlier that year – hijacked jetliners crashing in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania – reminded us that the Army-Navy rivalry is unparalleled in all of sports. Its beats anything that college offers, in addition to Yankees-Red Sox, Lakers-Celtics, Cowboys-Washington or you name it.
It’s easy to become jaded watching Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Oklahoma-Texas and other noted football clashes each year. Even if you believe those athletes are inadequately compensated for their time and trouble, you know they’re enjoying at least some fruit from a million-dollar industry. You also know they’re free to pursue whatever they chose when their college days end.
That’s not the case with players in the Army-Navy series, who have five-year military commitments awaiting after graduation. The solemn nature of their pledge is drummed in when the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen, dressed in their gray and blue uniforms, respectively, march onto the field during pre-game ceremonies.
If you don’t feel a surge of emotion watching those young men and women representing their service academies and their country with pride, then something is wrong with your wiring.
When the game begins, you’re not just watching student-athletes. You’re watching student-soldiers and student-sailors. You never forget that fact as the action unfolds, which on Saturday included a blocked punt Army returned for a touchdown and a touchdown run by Navy junior Keenan Reynolds, who tied the NCAA record for most points by a quarterback (374, also held by Nebraska’s Eric Crouch).
Reynolds led all rushers with 100 yards and threw a short TD pass that tied the game at 7-apiece just 18 seconds before halftime. He said despite everything, playing Army is still just a football game.
But it’s different.
“Not only just for the commitment, because we all know what that entails for all the service academies,” said Reynolds, who turned 21 on Saturday. “I think it’s like playing a mirror image almost. Everybody knows they’re undersized. Most of the guys weren’t really recruited. We weren’t five-star athletes.
“But they’re going to fight and they’re going to play hard. So every time we play a service academy, it’s really almost like we’re playing ourselves. And that mentality we have as a team – the toughness to play to the whistle, the never quit – we see that when we play them.”
The blocked punt return marked the first time Army scored first since 2009. The Knights did an excellent job shutting down Navy’s potent triple-option early, forcing punts on the Midshipmen’s first three possessions.
But after scoring on the late touchdown pass to Jamir Tillman, Navy took the second-half kickoff and went ahead for good on a 45-yard field goal by Austin Grebe. Army closed out the scoring on a 52-yard field goal by Daniel Grochowski with 1:56 left in the game but lost its chance for dramatics when it failed to recover the onside kick.
With the victory, Ken Niumatalolo became the winningest football coach in Naval Academy history, not bad for someone who as offensive coordinator was fired by the school 16 years ago. He choked up with emotion during his postgame conference, overwhelmed by the 13-game streak against Army (he’s 7-0) as much as the 56 career victories that moved him ahead of George Welsh.
Like Reynolds, Niumatalolo said the game is the same between the lines.
But it’s different, due to the participants.
“Our country is in good hands with both sides,” he said. “They have great kids at West Point, too. It’s kind of cool when you have things going on like who’s in the final four, players trying to unionize, get more pay – whatever the case may be. You have two schools that just want to beat each other up and shake each other’s hand after the game, and then in a year or so, be serving together to protect our freedoms.”
It’s hard to not think about their service and our freedoms when Army and Navy play.
That makes up for whatever these players lack in speed, size or athleticism.
That’s what makes this series more than just a game.