By John Feinstein ColumnistDec. 5, 2018 at 9:46 a.m. CST
At about 6:30 on Saturday evening, I will be standing on the field at Lincoln Financial Field while the Army and Navy alma maters are being played.
I have no idea who will sing second, as the winners always do, but I know one thing for certain.
As the last notes die out, my wife — who watches exactly one football game a year — will send me a text.
It will say, “Are you crying yet?”
And I know exactly what my answer will be: “Absolutely.”
It doesn’t matter who wins the game; when they play the alma maters, I cry. For 14 years, when I was the color commentator on the Navy radio network, I would tell Bob Socci, who did play-by-play: “When the alma maters end, don’t ask me a question right away. I’m going to need a minute.”
I have been fortunate enough to cover most major sporting events in my lifetime and lots of not-so-major ones, too. None of them affect me the way Army-Navy affects me.AD
I didn’t graduate from either school. I never served in the military (although my father served overseas in the Army during World War II). But both schools are very much a part of my life. In 1995, when I was researching the book I wrote on the rivalry, I had the privilege of being in both locker rooms before, during and after the game. I believe I might be the only person who was not president of the United States at the time to do that.
But that’s not why Army-Navy is the one and only annual sporting event I never miss. Without doubt, some of it is about the traditions: the “March On” of the cadets and the midshipmen hours before the game; the pregame exchange of “prisoners” (the handful of cadets spending the semester at Navy and their counterparts from Navy who have been at Army being “returned” to their classmates); the snapping of 8,000 hands to salute position at the start of the national anthem.
And, finally, the playing of the alma maters.
There is no moment like that anywhere else in college sports. Players and coaches from both teams stand at attention during the other team’s alma mater. There are no exceptions.
Last year, during the playing of “Navy Blue and Gold,” the hauntingly beautiful alma mater, an Army plebe named Camden Harrison had forgotten to remove the ski hat he had been wearing in the day-long snowfall.
Standing behind him, Army strength coach Scott Swanson tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the hat. Harrison understood instantly and whipped it off.
Why do those few moments bring me to tears every year without fail?
Because I understand — as do so many who are similarly moved — that as much as the players desperately want to beat each other on the football field, they recognize that in a much larger sense, they’re all on the same side.
Only a cadet can have some understanding of what it’s like to be a midshipman and only a midshipman can understand what it’s like to be a cadet. Each will claim, of course, that their school is tougher or better, but they all know that, in the end, all 8,000 of them are the same.AD
Maybe that’s why I choke up just a little at the start of the anthem at Army-Navy. As those 8,000 hands go to salute position, I remember something Jim Cantelupe, who was the defensive captain of that 1995 Army team, said to me in 2003 when Kevin Norman, his senior roommate, was killed overseas.
When he called to tell me Kevin had been killed, I said something about Kevin dying a hero because he had died fighting for his country.
“Kevin was a hero,” Jim said, “because he was willing to die for his country.”
That’s why the 8,000 salutes get to me: Every one of those men and women has volunteered to die for the rest of us if need be. And that’s why my wife knows the answer she will get when she texts at the conclusion of the alma maters: Seeing those kids — and to me they’re all kids at that moment — and knowing what they’re going to do when they graduate always gets to me.AD
That’s the ultimate reason Army-Navy is so special: The young men who play in the game and their classmates who march into the stadium and watch the game. Do a handful of them get into trouble or fail at times? Sure, just like kids from every school and every walk of life.
But the vast majority not only will go on to serve when they graduate, they will do important things regardless of whether they stay in the Army, Navy or Marines.
There are so many stories I can tell about the players through the years. Many are about who they have become away from the football field.
But one purely football memory stands out. In 2012, Army was trying to break a 10-game losing streak in the series. Trailing 17-13, the Black Knights drove to a first down at the Navy 14-yard line with 1:04 left in the game.
Quarterback Trent Steelman turned to hand off to fullback Larry Dixon. The exchange was never completed. The ball dropped to the ground, and Navy recovered. Game over; the streak swelled to 14 straight Navy wins before Army finally won again in 2016.AD
When the game ended, almost the entire Navy team went to console Steelman, who had been a four-year starter and had just played his last game.
“It was my fault,” Steelman told members of the media a few minutes later. “I just didn’t get the ball into Larry’s stomach the way I needed to. That was my job. I didn’t do it.”
Almost a year later, I talked to Dixon about that play. “Trent took the bullet for me; it was my fault,” Dixon said. “Not 50-50 or 75-25; it was 100 percent my fault.”
When I started to argue, pointing out that Steelman had insisted it was his fault, Dixon grew animated.
“Listen to me,” he said. “I’ll show you the play again if I have to. Trent was the senior, the captain, our leader, so he took the blame. He was the big brother covering up for the little brother.
“I put on some weight during the fall. I wasn’t in perfect shape. We were out there a long time [11 plays]. I probably should have taken myself out, but no way I was doing that. On the last play, because I was tired, my first step wasn’t straight forward, it was a tiny bit to the right. When Trent turned, I was that much too far from him, and the ball went into my side, not my belly. That was my fault, not his. He did his job. I didn’t do mine.”AD
To me, that was the ultimate example of the answer plebes at both academies must give when asked to explain a mistake: “No excuse, sir.”
No one who plays in the Army-Navy game makes excuses — not on the football field, not on the battlefield. And every cadet and every midshipman in that stadium is a hero.
If that sounds corny, fine. It’s also true. And it’s why, when they play the alma maters Saturday, I won’t be the only one crying.