When crossing off an item from a personal "Sports Bucket List," it should be a meaningful experience. It should be a unique experience. It should be an experience that generates chills lasting well beyond the final whistle. In sum, it should be an experience that justifies its status as something that simply had to be attended during one's lifetime. Yesterday, in attending the 112th annual Army/Navy game, I got all of that and more.
It's possible my feelings over the game were affected by outside factors. The decade of dominance from the Texas Longhorns is officially over. The Realignment Chronicles have eradicated countless rivalry games. The BCS just unveiled an indefensible MNC game. Ohio State was "punished" for Jim Tressel's (in)actions by hiring Urban Meyer. A seemingly never-ending series of scandals continues to plague program after program. Any last vestiges of amateurism in big-money programs perpetually seem to be hanging by a thread. I could list a dozen more examples off the top of my head. As I've written before, there is no shortage of negative stories surrounding CFB.
It's also possible that my feelings were affected by internal factors. Back in 2007, I wrote my Undergraduate Thesis over the modern-day challenges facing Junior Officers. That same year, I pinned on the gold bar of a Second Lieutenant. The Army Combat Uniform the Army cadets will wear upon their graduation is the same uniform that I wear to work every single day. This connection made me feel closer to each of the Army cadets than any connection I've ever felt with a UT Athlete.
For whatever reason, the Army/Navy game affected me. It moved me. It made me feel sorry for all the fans who denigrate the rivalry as "meaningless" due to the mediocrity of the teams. As I'll explain below, it is my own personal opinion that this statement could not be further from the truth.
In my opinion, the most interesting dynamic of the Army/Navy game is that the players are not honored for what they are--they are honored for what they will become upon their graduation. Before going any further, I'd like to attempt to properly contextualize this transformation. Within my Senior Thesis, I wrote the following passages in honor of my ROTC classmates and other commissioning officers:
The tendency of wars being discussed in generalities, themes, or progressions glosses over the responsibilities and plight of individual positions. Fifty years ago, Lieutenants led Soldiers into battle; fifty years from now, they will do the same. The differences exist within the world itself. By highlighting the real-life challenges facing Junior Officers throughout this paper, I hope to create a higher level of awareness regarding the human aspects of warfare. In my opinion, the real nature of warfare tends to reside within human relationships: between Soldiers, their families, and foreign populations. In a few short months, many current college students will become these Soldiers and incur these relationships, with a single bar of gold signifying their ascendance into command.
In conclusion, while the sacrifices and difficulties of Junior Officers within this paper may appear almost superhuman, my final point revolves around the fact that both of these are made every single day by actual Americans. Seamlessly blending into the normal hustle and bustle of the Forty Acres, I remain astounded by the future transformations awaiting my classmates and other commissionees. Their courage and willingness to serve remains a constant source of inspiration, as well as being the backbone of this essay.
The acknowledgment of the future transformations for each of the players on the field serves as the catalyst for the mutual respect between the fanbases. This respect was apparent before even walking in the stadium. There is definitely some good-natured ribbing (more on this later), but watching the fans interact was a jarring contrast to the other rivalry games that I've attended. In fact, the knowing nods of respect exchanged between all the fans at yesterday's game really hammered home the silliness of the incidents from other rivalry games. The idea of an Army fan being beaten or abused for wearing a "Go Army, Beat Navy" shirt is simply inconceivable. The Army/Navy rivalry is real, but it involves something far bigger than state or institutional pride. It involves the constant acknowledgment of the past, present, and future sacrifices of every single graduate.
As everyone knows, these sacrifices of the players extend to any professional aspirations. Following the case of Caleb Campbell, every single player for Army and Navy must temporarily eschew any dreams of playing professional football. Regardless of one's personal feelings over what happened to Caleb Campbell, the fallout from the incident gives yet another level of meaning to the game. Based on the circumstances, the players on the field are perhaps the purest amateur athletes in all of college football, as they have already incurred an service obligation following their graduation. Essentially, the game feels more meaningful because it lacks any meaning outside of its own limited context.
To this extent, in attending the game, I received the biggest sports related chill of my entire life. And, interestingly enough, this chill had absolutely nothing to do with sports. During the game, a tribute video reminded the fans that some of the graduates of each academy had lost their lives defending our country since 9-11. As the pictures of these fallen heroes flashed across the Jumbotron, the entire stadium went into complete silence. My companion at the game--half of the 40AS writing duo--aptly summarized the effect of the tribute video by saying "Whoa. That kinda puts everything into perspective."
And, in the end, that's what the Army/Navy game is all about: putting everything into perspective. I couldn't help but feel a swelling sense of pride at seeing the Navy UnderArmour design, which contained a "Don't Tread on Me" flag across the front. Seeing the Army uniforms--with the combat patches, American flags, and tan cleats--caused a similar effect. But not everything about the game was overtly serious. As mentioned above, the good-natured ribbing between the services generated plenty of chuckles between the fanbases. This ribbing was primarily accomplished via pre-recorded commercials on the Jumbotron. This was one of the commercials:
USNA Spirit Spot: SPCA 2011 (24th Company) (via avetere71092)
As for the game, it was a good one. The teams fought hard, and Army had a chance to win the game in the final minutes. But, unlike perhaps any rivalry in the country, the game's outcome is tertiary to what the game itself represents. In fact, the title of the recent Showtime documentary is just about perfect--more than anything, the Army/Navy game is "A Game of Honor." And, as someone who has been beaten down by all the scandals and shenanigans surrounding the past two seasons of college football, the game was a much-needed breath of fresh air.
When looking back on this season, most fans will probably think of the outcome of the LSU/Alabama rematch. But I wont. Instead, I'll think about attending the Army/Navy game and how it represented everything that I love about college football. While it wasn't a National Championship game, a World Series game, or even a Conference Championship game, it didnt have to be. By focusing on what the game lacks, one can easily lose sight of what the game represents. It represents "A Game of Honor," and it was truly an honor to be there.