Much to my late father’s chagrin, I was not, and am not, a football fan. Oh, I know the rules and can follow the game, if I have to watch one. I know who the teams are (most of them), and I know who on the field does what, and I know about downs, field goals, extra points, and so forth. It’s just that I pretty much don’t care about it. If given the choice between watching the Super Bowl and a Gilligan’s Island marathon, I’ll be tuning in to see Gilligan get turned into a radio, for the hundredth time.
But even someone as uninterested in football as myself is aware of one of the biggest grid-iron rivalries---the biggest, when it comes to college teams. Of course, I'm talking about the Army-Navy game. Once each year, the Black Knights of the U.S. Military Academy play the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy.
It’s a contest dating back to 1890, when the Midshipmen football team challenged players of the Military Academy to a game. At the time, West Point had no inter-collegiate sports programme, and only three of its cadets had ever played football before. (One of these, Cadet Dennis M. Michie, had actually instigated the Naval Academy’s challenge by goading friends on the Middie football team.) Nevertheless, Army accepted, on the condition that the game would be played at West Point. Cadet Michie was pressed into service as the team’s coach, trainer, and captain.
The cadets’ inexperience showed, and the Midshipmen walked away with a 24-to-0 victory. But a tradition was launched. The following year, the Navy hosted and, this time, a much-improved Army team won, 32-to-16. For the next two years, the venue alternated again between West Point and Annapolis.
However, the 1893 game, which saw another Navy win, threatened to end the tradition after it had barely begun. That first match, four years earlier, had been little more than a pick-up game, viewed by only around five hundred people. But the annual contest quickly became a point of pride for the two armed services, and the 1893 game boasted over eight thousand spectators! At the final gun, the Middies had squeaked out a narrow 6-to-4 over the Army Cadets. The score was hotly contested, and in the worst case possible, pride boiled over into fanaticism. Derisive comments between a brigadier general and a rear admiral on the grandstand exploded into a shouting match. The two high-ranking officers had challenged each other to a duel, before being separated by cooler heads.
In the more genteel times of the nineteenth century, this kind of thing was enough to demand the attention of the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland called a special Cabinet meeting to decide the future of service-academy football. The President was inclined to prohibit the academies from playing football at all. But, instead, Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont and Secretary of the Navy Hilary A. Herbert forged a compromise: both the Military Academy and the Naval Academy would play home games only. Since neither the Cadets, nor the Middies, could go on the road, they wouldn’t be able to play each other. Cleveland signed off on this.
Though West Point and Annapolis were prevented from facing each other on the field, their respective sports programmes continued to develop and the popularity of their football teams soared. That helped in 1897, when Theodore Roosevelt, then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, petitioned the new Secretary of War, Russell A. Alger, to restore the annual Army-Navy game. It also helped that there was a different President---William McKinley---now.
McKinley and Alger agreed, but with some conditions. Academic standards would be maintained, with no reduction of classroom training to accommodate the sport. Measures would be taken to prevent undesirable excesses, such as unsportsmanlike behaviour, and illegal activities, such as gambling.
There were also concerns about the venue. If the games continued to be played at West Point or Annapolis, the hosting students, it was feared, might subject the visiting players to mischievous pranks or vandalism or even physical threats. And if a fight broke out, the visitors would be vastly outnumbered. So, lastly, in the interests of fair play, all future Army-Navy games would be held at a neutral site.
It’s that last requirement which sets the stage for a forgotten piece of Thanksgiving lore I’m about to rescue from the dustbin. Well, kinda-sorta Thanksgiving. For most of its history, the Army-Navy Game was played on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. (In 1984, it was moved to the first Saturday in December; then in 2009, it shifted again, to the second Saturday in December.) But given how popular football is on Turkey Day, that’s close enough.
When the Army-Navy game was reïnstated in 1899, the first “neutral site” to hold it was Franklin Field, in Philadelphia. Over the next one-hundred-seventeen years, the City of Brotherly Love would host more Army-Navy games than any other, thanks to its advantage of being equidistant to both service academies. But never again was the annual contest played at either the Military or the Naval Academy.
Except once, in 1942, it was held at Annapolis. And then the next year, it was played at West Point. For reasons, and with consequences, that no-one remembers anymore, except perhaps sports fanatics and military historians.
It was the rocky first year of America’s involvement in World War II, and the United States military effort was still playing catch-up. The President and the generals and the admirals had more important things to worry about when, in the autumn of 1942, the matter of the Army-Navy game arose.
In Washington, a debate waged over whether it was a good idea for the two services to play a major football game during wartime. It would seem too frivolous, argued some civilian leaders. It would send the wrong message, insisted some military heads, showing the two services in bitter competition when they needed to work in solidarity to defeat the Axis. Furthermore, inviting large crowds to attend a football game would thumb its nose at rubber- and gasoline-rationing and other travel restrictions being imposed on the country.
Furthermore, there was precedent for cancelling the game; it had not been held in 1917 or 1918, during our country’s participation in the first World War.
Others argued that the Army-Navy Game was vital to the morale of the troops. It would also be a good boost for the general public, who sorely needed one in light of the U.S.’s unsteady prosecution of the war effort so far. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, and in October, declared that the Army-Navy game would be held, as scheduled. But, acknowledging the need for rationing, he placed two restrictions on the event.
First, there would be no travelling to a neutral venue; the game would be played at Annapolis.
It was the second restriction that was more of a problem. No-one residing outside of a ten-mile radius of Thompson Stadium, at Annapolis, would be permitted to attend the game. And F.D.R. meant it. He wouldn’t be there. Eleanor wouldn’t be there. The service chiefs wouldn’t be there. Representatives of the Office of Price Administration, the bureau in charge of rationing, would inspect each car arriving for the game, turning back those that had come from outside the ten-mile boundary.
But most critically, outside of the West Point football team itself, none of the Corps of Cadets would be present in the stands. When the Point players took the field, they would be surrounded by empty seats on one side and an ocean of blue-suited midshipmen on the other.
The Navy team would get all the cheers, while the Army team would get nothing but boos. Anyone who’s ever played a spectator sport will see the psychological disadvantage there. It’s isolating and makes one feel he’s lost before the game even starts. The West Point Cadets would feel half-beaten just taking the field.
Rear Admiral Beardall selected two battalions---half of the academy’s 3,200 midshipmen---and ordered them to sit in the Army stands to root for the Cadet team. Cheer books were brought down from West Point and distributed to the drafted middies, to instruct them in the Army’s cheers and songs.
So, for the entire span of the game, the team of West Point Cadets was cheered on by members of the United States Naval Academy.
And they did. To be sure, there were a couple of moments when they forgot themselves and celebrated a Navy gain. But otherwise, the “turncoat” midshipmen cheered loudly at the West Point team’s successes and jeered when it was the Naval Academy team moving the ball. They sang the Army fight song with the fervour of cadet plebes. At one point during the hard-pitched action on the field, a tackle for West Point, Robin Olds, had his front teeth smashed out by lineman’s errant elbow. When the bloodied Olds returned to the game, the “cadets-in-blue” rose to their feet in ovation.
There’s no way to know if it influenced the game’s outcome---the Navy won, 14-to-0---but the efforts of the “Army” midshipmen certainly made the West Pointers feel much less alone and abandoned.
The following year, the game was held at the Military Academy’s Michie Stadium, and with the same travel restrictions in place, the Army returned the favour. Half of its Corps of Cadets occupied the visitors’ stands and rooted for Navy. Apparently, the designated “middies” did a better job of it, for the Naval Academy team won this one, too---13-to-0.
But the point here isn’t in the final score. It lies in the fact that, regardless of their bitter, long-standing rivalry, the students of both academies provided a demonstration of good sportsmanship and mutual respect. An embodiment of the ideal that, despite their differences, Army and Navy stood together in support of our nation.
To-day, with Americans more divisive than ever, there’s a lesson there for us all.
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From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, and many more of them!