Army-Navy: The very best of college football

Dan WetzelColumnist

The plaque sits just outside Michie Stadium, on the crisp, immaculate and glorious campus of the United States Military Academy. It relays a quote attributed to Gen. George C. Marshall, who led the Army to victory in World War II.

“I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission,” the plaque reads. “I want a West Point football player.”

It serves as a forever reminder that the football program at Army — or Navy and Air Force — is unlike any other in America. 

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There may be better teams that play in bigger stages, but the training, the lessons, the entire ethos of this goes far, far beyond a 60-minute game. This is part of the education and development of the leaders of the American military, part of the long line that has fought and protected the country for generations upon generations. 

On Saturday, college football turns its collective eyes to the annual Army-Navy game, a celebration of the players, of the sacrifice and of the purpose of these military academies as much as the game. 

It won’t get the television rating of LSU-Alabama. It won’t have the national title significance of the Clemson-Ohio State playoff semifinal. 

It will, in its own right, mean much, much more. 

It is the very best of college football specifically and college athletics in general.

“The Army-Navy game is the only game where both teams are willing, in our life of service, [to] put their life on the line for everyone that is watching,” said Army coach Jeff Monken.

This remains a timeless celebration of America. Each school is filled with many of not just the best and brightest students in the country — they could have studied anywhere — but were so inspired by service that they gladly do it at places that require morning drills and extreme discipline. 

They do it because they wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves, to serve as much as learn, to impact others and their country as much as better themselves and their families.

The Cadets and Midshipmen’s role in this football rivalry is so ingrained that before the game the entire student bodies of each institution — about 9,000 people combined — will march onto the field to both be honored and to themselves honor what this is about. 

Navy Midshipman Frey Pankratz signals his classmates as they march onto the field ahead of their game against Army in 2018. (AP)
Navy Midshipman Frey Pankratz signals his classmates as they march onto the field ahead of their game against Army in 2018. (AP)

Meanwhile after the game, no matter how bitter the outcome, both teams will gather in front of each student body and sing the alma mater of that institution. 

That’s respect breeding competition and competition breeding respect.

These are just the most well-known and visually moving traditions among the dozens of smaller ones that surround the game. It is incredible to witness, whether on CBS’s annual top-line national broadcast (with no other games taking place anywhere) or in person. 

The game is the game, often thrilling but in many ways a backdrop to everything else. It’s a script flip for most of college football. The players appreciate the fans as much as the fans appreciate the players.

“It’s troops from all over the world, huddled around one TV, watching the game,” Nizaire Cromartie, Navy team captain, said. “It’s an honor to know people are watching.”

This year Army (5-7) looks to extend a three-game winning streak over Navy (9-2 and ranked No. 23 in the nation). The result will matter a great deal to the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and their peers in the stands. 

For the rest of the country, the outcome isn’t the point. It is simply a reminder — or perhaps for young people an invitation to try to join — that these incredible institutions, and the kids that flock to them, exist.

And no matter how much America changes, this churns on, because there will never not be secret and dangerous missions that need to be filled.

Ex scientia tridens. 

Duty. Honor. Country. 

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