There are lots of college football rivalries. But the annual collision of Army and Navy is in a league of its own. Even for people who don’t follow either team during the fall, the season-capping Army-Navy game is a big deal.
Part of that is tradition. In the pre-Super Bowl era, the Army-Navy game was widely considered the most important football contest of the year.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that these are true amateurs playing for the love of the sport. Few graduates of Annapolis or West Point will go on to play professional football after completion of their military service.
Instead they’re playing for tradition and honor and inter-service bragging rights – and the fans appreciate that.
They certainly did in 1944. That wartime game is the subject of Purdue historian Randy Roberts’ new book A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game that Rallied a Nation. Roberts will talk about his book on Thursday, February 2, 2012, at 6 p.m. in the Central Library, 14 W. 10th. (RSVP online to attend.)
At the nation’s service academies, football is about a lot more than just a sport, according to Maj. Doug Chadwick, who played offensive guard for Army in the mid-‘90s.
“When West Point and Annapolis began playing football, sports didn’t mean as much in America as it does today,” says Chadwick, currently studying at the Command and General Staff College in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
“A hundred years ago, sports were seen as a very deliberate, mandatory part of cadet development," Chadwick says. "Today it is still seen as a vehicle for developing the sort of leadership and character traits that, in McArthur’s words, ‘in other fields on other days will bear the fruits of victory.’”
The Army-Navy game has a public relations function as well, Chadwick says.
“This was something people all over the world could identify with. The Army-Navy game has been the lens for the world to see into our academies. For 60 years it’s been televised and people have been able to see into our world for a few hours.”
Dan Prather, who played for Navy in the early ‘90s, calls the annual game the highlight of the year.
“How can I explain it?” says Prather, an operations manager for Wabtec in Kansas City. “There are always college rivalries. But Army-Navy … that’s a huge deal.
“One of the first things a plebe at Annapolis learns to say is ‘Beat Army.’ Plebes are required to shout something every time they go around a corner. And what they usually shout is ‘Go Navy! Beat Army!’ You hear it a thousand times a day.”
Preparing for his first game against Army, Prather was told by a senior on the squad: “For this game, you’ve got to hate these guys.”
“Which is kind of odd because there’s also a great deal of respect between the two teams,” Prather says. “We might not like each other on the field, but otherwise we do respect each other.”
While Prather was basically a bench warmer – “I did get to play in the ’91 Army-Navy game … but only because we were winning” – Chadwick went with his Army squad to a winning season and a bowl game.
His connection to Army football didn’t end with graduation. He returned to West Point for three years to work in a program to enhance athletic performance.
One of his specialties was helping the players lose the weight they put on to compete on the field.
“To get your commission you have to make a certain weight based on your height,” Chadwick says. “That’s a real problem if you’re a senior football player. Especially if you’re a lineman.
“I know. After my senior season I had to lose 70 pounds between January 1 and April. I did it because the motivation was there.”