Some months back, my younger brother Alan said, “Let’s go to the Army-Navy game this year.” He had been watching the game for years, and us three brothers, including youngest bro Brian, have been football fans since we were kids.
So I said, “Sure.”
Growing up in a football-crazy state.
It is the rare kid who grew up in Wisconsin in the sixties and seventies who didn’t become a football fan, and almost all of us followed our state’s only NFL team, the Green Bay Packers. Alan toed the party line, but Brian and I were the rebels. Each of us had a favorite team, and a favorite player for that team.
Like untold numbers of Wisconsin boys, Alan’s guy was Bart Starr, the quarterback of the Packers. Drafted out of Alabama in 1956, Starr became the Packers’ starter in ’59, the year Vince Lombardi became head coach. The team had a winning season, its first in some time, and the next year made it to the championship game, losing a tough one on the road to Philadelphia. Lombardi told his players after the game that they would never lose another playoff game, and they never did. Starr was one of the main reasons why the Packers would win five championships, and the first two Super Bowls, over the next seven years. He was MVP of the league once and won the award for those Super Bowl wins. Starr’s statistics were never terribly snazzy, but he was always regarded as a class act, a strong Christian gentleman, and he was a winner.
My guy was not Starr, but the other player regarded as the elite quarterback of pro football in the sixties, and I followed him because he was the favorite player of my favorite uncle, Dennis Carpenter. Johnny Unitas was a native of Pittsburgh who played his college ball at Louisville and like Starr, had a career that didn’t merit much attention from the NFL. He was drafted by his hometown Steelers in 1955 but cut before the season began; head coach Walt Kiesling reportedly felt Unitas wasn’t smart enough to play the position. Unitas spent the ’55 season working construction and playing semi-pro ball with an outfit called the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game. The following summer, one of his Rams teammates was invited to try out for the Baltimore Colts. Unitas went along; the two prospects had to borrow gas money for the trip. Unitas was signed and made the team. In the third game of the regular season, starter George Shaw suffered a broken leg against the Chicago Bears. Unitas came in and his first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. On his next play, he fumbled the ball away to the Bears. But Unitas recovered from that debacle and in 1957 won the first of his four NFL MVP awards. He would play through the 1972 season, all but the last one with the Colts, with whom he won four NFL titles and one Super Bowl. His characteristic flattop haircut and black high-topped shoes were as recognizable as the number 19 on his jersey. When the chips were down and the game was on the line, every coach in the league, with the possible exception of Lombardi, wanted to have Unitas at the controls of his offense.
Starr and Unitas were more than highly-skilled contemporaries. They were also good friends; Starr once said that he valued his conversations with Unitas because he could talk to his on-field rival about things “only John can understand.” They are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Starr is still with us at 82, although in frail health. Unitas died in 2002 at age 69. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover one last time, showing him calling signals for the Colts in their epic 1958 overtime championship game victory over the New York Giants, with the headline, “The Best There Ever Was.”
Starr’s Packers and Unitas’ Colts were in the same division until the NFL realigned in 1967, so up until then they met on the field twice a year. As kids we didn’t really appreciate how many opportunities we had to see two of the game’s greatest ever face off; modern-day fans got a taste of that when the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady played against Peyton Manning during his years with the Colts and Denver Broncos. Two of those Colts-Packers classics come to mind, and one of them didn’t even have Unitas in uniform. That was in 1965, when Unitas went down with a season-ending injury late in the campaign as the Colts and Packers battled for the division title. His capable backup, Gary Cuozzo, also got hurt, but the Colts still managed to tie the Packers for first, forcing a playoff in Green Bay to see who would go on to host Cleveland the following week in the championship game. Without Unitas and Cuozzo, the Colts had signed journeyman Ed Brown for the last few weeks of the regular season, but under the rules of the day he was ineligible for playoff games. That forced Colts coach Don Shula to use running back Tom Matte at quarterback. Matte had played the position in college at Ohio State. Matte threw only 12 passes in the game, completing five, and was unable to get the Baltimore offense into the end zone. The stout Colts defense, which scored the team’s only touchdown of the game on a fumble return, sent Starr to the bench on the first play, but the Packers had a more than capable backup in Zeke Bratkowski. The Packers outgained the Colts 370 yards to 183, but Baltimore’s defense got the stops when it had to and the game went to overtime after Don Chandler kicked a late field goal. The defensive slugfest continued deep into the extra period, and with 1:23 to go Chandler put another one through the uprights for the win. Or did he? The goalposts in those days were about half the height of today’s, and Colts fans to this day say the kick was a tad wide. But the referees disagreed, and the Packers went on to beat the Browns for the first of three consecutive championships.
The second game was in 1967, when the teams were in different divisions and played only once. This time, Unitas rallied the Colts with two late touchdown drives for a 13-10 victory. The Packers would go on to win the Central Division, but in the Coastal, the Colts tied the Los Angeles Rams for first at 11-1-2. Under the rules, the Rams got the title because of their 1-0-1 advantage head-to-head. I have always contended that if the Packers hadn’t mailed in a late-season loss to the Rams, allowing their first blocked punt in seven years, the Colts would’ve won the division outright, beaten the Packers and Dallas in the playoffs and then triumphed over Oakland in Super Bowl II. Likewise, I tell Alan, if Unitas had been healthy in ’65, the Colts would have won that division and beaten the Browns. So Unitas should have two more titles and Starr two less. Alan says that is irrelevant. The Packers won, the Colts didn’t. He’s right, of course. Unitas had gaudier numbers and more individual awards, but Starr was healthier, had a few more good players around him and had the benefit of playing for the greatest coach in pro football history.
As Alan and I fought our Starr-Unitas, Packers-Colts battles, youngest brother Brian had to pick his own player, and he chose one named Charley Johnson, who broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1961. Johnson and the Cardinals played in different divisions from the Colts and Packers and the teams rarely faced off, although Johnson did lead St. Louis to victory over Starr and Green Bay in the Playoff Bowl consolation game at the end of the 1964 season. Brian was only a year old at the time, though, so he didn’t have a chance to crow about that one.
Johnson was traded to the Houston Oilers in 1970, so Brian switched his team allegiance, doing it one more time in ’72 when Johnson went to Denver. He retired from the Broncos after the ’75 season, with no MVP trophies and nary a playoff game on his otherwise well-regarded resume. But Brian has stuck with the Broncos to this day, enjoying the team’s run under two of the modern era’s best quarterbacks, John Elway and then Manning. From 1986 through 2015, those two greats led Denver to the Super Bowl seven times, with Elway winning twice and Manning once. Both capped their careers with triumphs in the championship game, something Starr and Unitas never did.
So, all these years after those childhood days, we are still big football fans. When the Colts left Baltimore suddenly for Indianapolis in 1984, Uncle Denny and I, like many other fans, renounced our allegiance. (I asked Denny once why, as a native Wisconsinite, he followed the Colts in the first place. “I have no idea,” he said.) I picked up the Chicago Bears for awhile, just in time for their Super Bowl run in 1985, but after moving up to northwest Wisconsin in ’91 (and later marrying a strong Packer fan) I started going with the green and gold flow. I tend to pay more attention to college football; when the Wisconsin Badgers are on, my attention is pretty much undivided. Alan lives out in Washington state now but still is an avid Packer fan, and has seen them play a few times in Seattle. Brian is in Arizona and his Broncos allegiance has never been stronger, even though his original team, the Cardinals, relocated from St. Louis to Phoenix in the late ’80s.
Alan served in the Army National Guard, and became a fan of the Army-Navy game. He always swore that he would attend the game one day, and early in 2016 he determined this would be the year. So we began laying our plans several months ago. He took care of the tickets, while my wife Sue took care of the travel details. And finally, the week of the game arrived.
Why it’s America’s game.
The first Army-Navy game was played on the Plain at West Point in 1890, and this year’s game would be the 117th meeting between the two teams. They skipped a few years early on, but have played every year since 1930. The longest continuous rivalry in college football belongs to a pair of small Pennsylvania schools, Lehigh and Lafayette, who have met every season since 1884.
To understand the meaning of this game, you must first understand the meaning and purpose of the institutions who send their teams into the fray. The United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., was founded in 1802, and the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., opened in 1845. Since they began, the academies have turned out officers for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps who have served our country, in many cases making the ultimate sacrifice, and then have returned to civilian life and become leaders of industry and politics. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was founded in 1954 and has a fine football program which, in fact, defeated both Army and Navy this year. But Air Force vs. Army or Navy does not have the same lore as Army vs. Navy, and never will.
The academies are very tough to get into. Only top-flight high school students are considered, and in addition to excellence in the classroom, they must have excellence in the community on their resumes as well. Athletic and/or artistic accomplishments certainly help. And the prospective cadet or midshipman must have an appointment from his or her congressman or senator. In rare instances, the president and vice president make appointments as well. But most of these applicants, as accomplished as they are, don’t get in. Army and Navy have an applicant rejection rate on par with America’s best civilian schools, including the Ivy League. But if you get in, you get a first-class education absolutely free, and a guaranteed job after graduation; cadets and mids are required to serve five years on active duty after leaving campus.
Periodically there will be articles, usually in left-leaning publications by writers whose own politics probably skew heavily toward Lenin, that say it’s time for the academies to be closed. They are too expensive, they are anachronisms, and (what is implied, if not outright stated) they are too conservative. But there are far more favorable views of these institutions. One of the best is the book Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, by David Lipsky, the son of hippie parents who in 1998 was assigned by the far-left magazine Rolling Stone to write an article about West Point. He was given virtually unfettered access to the cadets by the academy, and the result was his book, which details the daunting academic and cultural challenges faced by the students. His conclusion: The cadets were, he thought, the happiest college students he had ever seen.
Academy life is not easy. There is extreme discipline, although the hazing allowed in the past has been largely eliminated. The academic load is beyond rigorous, and each student is required to compete in either intramural or intercollegiate athletics. Physical fitness tests are taken twice a year. The academies are not perfect, of course; there have been problems, primarily cheating and hazing scandals, from time to time. But by and large, they stick to their guns, so to speak, by putting forth their principles for all to see and making it clear to their students that these codes of conduct are serious and not to be trifled with. Unlike many civilian schools, where the codes of conduct, if any, are sometimes not even worth the paper they’re printed on, at Army and Navy they are part of the fabric of academy life:
The Army honor code: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, and will not tolerate those who do.
The Navy honor concept is even more elaborate, but no less serious:
The amount of attention this football rivalry gets on the respective campuses cannot be underestimated. From the day classes begin in the fall, it is talked about every day. The day after the game, talk starts about the following year’s rematch. The pressure on the competing teams is huge, but it was especially intense for Army this year. The Black Knights had last beaten Navy in 2001, and in the 14 games since then, several had been close, heart-breaking losses. This year, Army was determined to end that streak and start one of its own.
Before the game, a trip to a sacred place.
I flew from Minneapolis direct to Baltimore-Washington International on the Thursday before the game, Dec. 8, arriving four hours before Alan’s plane from Seattle. Time enough for me to check out our rental car and get us checked into our hotel in Bowie, halfway between Baltimore and Washington. The next day the weather was crisp, around 35 degrees, but there was no snow on the ground, so we headed north on a 90-minute drive to a small town in southern Pennsylvania that was burned into American history over three hot, intense days in the summer of 1863: Gettysburg.
We spent the day at the battlefield, a 9,000-acre national park that encompasses the village of Gettysburg. It’s much too big to do on foot, so we bought an audio tour booklet that included three CDs. We started the visit at the park’s modern visitors center, and about five hours later, which included a lunch hour spent in town, we had a much better appreciation of exactly what had happened here more than 153 years ago, and especially why it was quite probably the most critical battle in American history.
The Civil War had been raging for two years, and the Confederacy decided on a daring plan: Gen. Robert E. Lee would lead his Army of Northern Virginia up through the Maryland panhandle and into southern Pennsylvania. He would then swing to the east, keeping Union commanders guessing. Would Lee go after Harrisburg, the state capital? Or Philadelphia, further east? Or the national capital in Washington, only 85 miles to the south of Gettysburg? Lee’s mission was to draw the Union’s Army of the Potomac into battle and destroy it. Lee would then deliver a letter from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to Union President Abraham Lincoln, offering an armistice. With his main eastern army destroyed and the seat of his government threatened, Lincoln would have had no choice but to accept the South’s terms, and the Confederacy would have won its independence.
Union Gen. George Meade recognized that Gettysburg might present his best chance to stop Lee. His troops made it to the town on July 1, just hours before Lee’s, and occupied the high ground along some ridges in a fishhook-shaped formation. Meade’s troops were routed from their initial positions that day and fighting raged throughout the town before the Union troops were able to get to the ridges and dig in.
Although the war would last another 21 months, Gettysburg proved to be the turning point. Both armies suffered terrible casualties, some 50,000 combined, including nearly 9,000 killed. That would translate into some 90,000 deaths today, as many or more than we sustained in the Korean and Vietnam wars put together. Imagine incurring those casualties in just three days of fighting. If that were to happen today, you’d have to wonder if the nation would be able to survive such a cataclysmic shock. Yet our great-great-grandparents experienced it and soldiered on.
Humbled by the experience of Gettysburg, we headed back to Bowie for a good night’s rest. The next day, we would head a half-hour west to Baltimore, and the game.
Game Day, at last.
December 10 dawned chilly but sunny. We were pretty well-prepared, but operating from slightly different perspectives. Having lived in Wisconsin virtually all my life, I knew about harsh winter weather, and a predicted high temperature of about 35 degrees, under sunny skies and with little wind to boot, did not translate into arctic conditions. Alan has lived in south-central Washington for the past 25 years and is used to their milder weather, so he was going to bundle up more than me.
We set out around 9:30am and arrived in Baltimore about a half-hour later, going past the site of the game, M&T Bank Stadium, home of the city’s NFL franchise, the Ravens, and then past nearby Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which hosts the Orioles of Major League Baseball. A few blocks later we came to Westminster Hall and Burying Ground on West Fayette St. We entered the crowded cemetery and immediately found the monument we came to see: the gravesite of Edgar Allan Poe.
Alan had arranged our parking at the Horseshoe Casino, a few blocks from the stadium. When we locked up our rental vehicle, we saw a Marine Corps lieutenant general and his family getting out of their car a few spaces down. We arrived at the stadium just before 11am, even though kickoff wasn’t scheduled till 3pm. The Brigade of Midshipmen and Corps of Cadets would start marching in just after 12 noon, a spectacle we did not want to miss. We got something to eat and each of us bought an Army scarf. I also got us a blanket, as neither of us were wearing long underwear. Our seats were in the upper deck on the Army side, around the 30-yard line, not bad at all. The stadium seats 71,008 officially, and by kickoff there were few empty seats.
This would be the sixth time the game would be played in Baltimore. Philadelphia is the usual host, with 86 games played there. Other sites have included the New York City metro area (15). Chicago hosted the game in 1926, and in 1983 they played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., after the City of Pasadena covered the expenses of both student bodies to make the trip. The academies have hosted the game on their own grounds a total of seven times, but none more recently than 1943.
The most famous person in attendance today would be the president-elect, Donald Trump, who would become, as far as anyone could tell, the first president-elect to come to the game. A total of nine sitting presidents have attended, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. The record is held by Harry Truman, who showed up for seven of the eight games played during his tenure. Truman was an Army combat veteran from World War I, but would alternate sides every year. Franklin Roosevelt could’ve attended 12 games but didn’t make it to even one. Dwight Eisenhower never attended, but is the only president to have actually played in the game, for Army in 1912. John Kennedy and Gerald Ford, both Navy combat veterans in World War II, attended, but Jimmy Carter, the only president to have graduated from Annapolis, did not. Ronald Reagan never went, but George W. Bush was there three times and participated in the coin flip. Barack Obama will finish his two terms with one appearance (2011).
The most anticipated of the pre-game events is the arrival in the stadium of the students from the competing academies. The Brigade of Midshipmen was first, over 4,000 men and women in black greatcoats and white caps. After they took their seats in one end zone, the Corps of Cadets, wearing their traditional gray, took the field, generating some good-natured ribbing from the mids as the cadets marched by Navy’s seats. The precision displayed by both groups was astonishing. Imagine 4,000+ students from a civilian school trying to do this.
After the Brigade and the Corps had taken their seats, the players came out for their pre-game warm-ups. I took the opportunity to wander around the stadium. Security was surprisingly light, even with Trump in attendance. Well, when you have more than 10,000 active-duty military personnel in the stadium, not to mention thousands of veterans, security concerns might be a little less intense than, say, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for a Badgers game. But another big reason was the caliber of the people in attendance. There was some drinking, to be sure, but we spent nearly seven hours in the stadium and saw only one person who looked intoxicated. And you’ll never go to a different college football game where literally every one of the students is well-dressed, well-groomed, polite and sober.
The stands were almost completely filled by 2:45. The TV pre-game show on CBS had started 15 minutes before. The lead announcer for the broadcast was Verne Lundquist, a native of Duluth who had announced earlier that this game would be the finale of his long and distinguished career, going back to his start as the radio voice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1967.
Many college and pro games have fly-overs, but at America’s Game, they’re something special. The Army went first with four attack helicopters, followed by four Navy jets. The spectacle was captured by the Baltimore Sun: Army-Navy flyover.
Both services had their parachute teams in action after the flyovers. I’d thought it might be a bit too breezy, but for elite parachutists it was no problem. All eight of them were right on target. The National Anthem was sung by a combined academies chorus. The coin flip featured a lot of brass from both services, and then it was time for the game.
The teams took the field with their special uniforms, designed for this game only. I’m generally not a fan of college football’s crazy-uniform trend–thankfully, my Badgers have stayed traditional–but for Army-Navy, I’m willing to make an exception.
A game for the ages.
Game photos are by me or from the Baltimore Sun. Army kicked off and Navy started confidently, picking up a first down, but on a 14-yard run that would’ve resulted in another first down, running back Shawn White fumbled and Army recovered. The Black Knights’ potent offense took the field, led by junior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, a Chicago native who was a three-sport star in high school. Bradshaw had briefly left the academy in late August, uncertain about whether to commit to his final two years, which would also mean he’d be required to complete five years of active duty after graduation. But he returned and was having a great season. He led Army downfield on a 14-play, 66-yard drive that consumed nearly eight minutes, ending with fullback Andy Davidson plowing in from the one. The extra point made it 7-0, Army.
The teams traded interceptions on the next two possessions, and the first quarter ended with Army still in the lead. After the pick of Bradshaw, Navy was forced to punt and Army went on another long drive, 46 yards in 11 plays that ate up nearly seven minutes with Davidson getting the touchdown on another one-yard run. Army’s offensive line, although undersized compared to teams like Wisconsin, was a model of precision, consistently opening holes for Bradshaw and the running backs. Another promising Army drive late in the second quarter was foiled by a fumble, and Navy was content to run out the clock and go to intermission down 14-0.
At halftime, Alan and a number of other fans fled to the elevator, where the waiting area was enclosed and heated. I took the opportunity to wander around the stadium again, going down to the main concourse and chatting with fans, including many cadets. The mids didn’t look too pleased, but the civilian Navy fans were confident they could come back. There was concern, though, that Navy’s offense under third-string quarterback Zach Abey was obviously struggling. In the previous week’s loss to Temple in the American Athletic Conference title game, starting quarterback Will Worth and running back Toneo Gulley both suffered season-ending injuries on the same play. Worth had started the year as the backup and wound up leading the nation’s quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns. Abey, a sophomore from Maryland making his first collegiate start, appeared to be feeling the pressure. But midshipmen and cadets handle pressure a lot better than the average college student, as Abey would prove in the second half.
Army took the second-half kickoff but Bradshaw coughed up the ball at his own 32 on the second play from scrimmage. Abey carried five times on the ensuing drive, passed once for a 16-yard gain, and scored Navy’s first touchdown from a yard out. The extra point made it 14-7.
By now it was obvious to me that this was not a typical college football game. Certainly the atmosphere was far different, and the style of play was about as old-school as it could get. Neither team passed very much, and penalty flags were few and far between. (Navy would finish with three penalties for only 15 yards, Army with none at all.) This was not some candy-assed NFL game, with forty passes per team and penalties seemingly every other play. This was real football. Was it the highest-quality football we would ever see? No; there were seven turnovers in the game, but most came as a result of hard hits. The players weren’t as big or as talented as you’d see in a typical Big 10 game, but their discipline and spirit were off the charts. Abey’s score re-energized the Navy crowd, and everyone on the Army side knew they were in a real football game. But could their Black Knights hold on?
Navy forced an Army punt, and Abey led another drive, starting at his own 35. One of Navy’s three penalties, for illegal procedure, put the ball back to the 30. After taking it himself for 3 yards on first down, Abey’s 29-yard pass completion to Brandon Colon to the Army 35 was a sign, perhaps, of things to come. One play later came a 9-yard throw for another first down. Abey carried four more times, recovering his own fumble after one play, and suddenly the Midshipmen were at the Army 8, facing a third and 7. On the next play, the Knights’ defense asserted itself and threw Abey for a 3-yard loss. Bennett Moehring came on and cut the Army lead to 14-10 with a 28-yard field goal.
Army responded, taking the kickoff and driving on the ground, but then Davidson fumbled the ball away. Navy couldn’t take advantage of it, though, punting the ball back to Army. The third quarter closed with the Black Knights clinging to their precarious 4-point lead.
Navy forced another punt 15 seconds into the fourth quarter and the Mids had the ball at their own 47. An Abey pass got the ball to the Army 41, and then the third-stringer from Maryland made the play of the game, so far. He cut to the right, broke into the open and busted several tackles on his way to the end zone. The Navy side went wild, and Moehring’s conversion kick extended the Midshipmen’s first lead of the game to 17-14.
There was still plenty of time, 12:42 to play, but everyone knew that Army’s next possession could decide the game. If they were held to a three-and-out, Navy could build on its momentum and potentially put the game away with another long drive and a touchdown. The only good thing about Abey’s long scoring run, as far as Army fans were concerned, was that the drive hadn’t taken much time. Now they had to put their faith in Army’s powerful running game.
Running the football has been the staple of Army and Navy’s offenses for many years. Rifle-armed quarterbacks and fleet-footed receivers with NFL dreams are certainly not interested in coming to a service academy, so the players at the so-called skilled positions at these places are not quite on a par with the elite Division I athletes, at least in terms of size, skill and speed. But they have heart, and they have discipline, more than any other team in the country with the possible exception of Air Force. Army came into the game with the number-2 ranked rushing offense in the country, with Navy fourth. A lot of teams would have buckled under the pressure right now, having given up a two-touchdown lead in less than 19 minutes, but not these guys.
It was then that Army’s offensive coordinator dialed up a play that caught everyone in the stadium, except the guys in black on the field, by complete surprise. On the first play after the kickoff, Bradshaw aired one out and hit receiver Edgar Allen Poe (yes, the name’s correct) for 29 yards and a first down at the Army 49. The Army crowd came to life. It was Bradshaw’s third pass of the game and first completion.
Seven running plays took the Knights to the Navy 24. Bradshaw then threw his fourth and final pass of the game, six yards to Joe Walker down to the Navy 18. It was Bradshaw’s 38th completion of the season for a total of 650 yards, an average of just 59 per game. By comparison, the leading passer in major college ball this year was Patrick Mahomes II of Texas Tech with 5,052 yards, over 421 per game. Bradshaw’s toss to Walker was his 88th throw of the season; Mahomes had that many in one game, against Oklahoma. Mahomes, also a junior, might very well skip his senior year and enter next spring’s NFL draft. Bradshaw will remain at West Point, preparing for his senior season. Despite his flashy stats, a pro football career is anything but certain for Mahomes. He could be the next Tom Brady, but he could also be the next Matt Leinart. Bradshaw, however, knows exactly what he will be doing when his college days are done: he will be an officer in the United States Army.
Navy had only one time out left, and Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who had beaten Army every year since taking the job in 2007, was hoarding it for his offense. There was plenty of time, just over six minutes remaining. On the opposite sideline, Army Coach Jeff Monken had all his timeouts remaining and was not inclined to take one, preferring to keep the momentum of the drive going and maybe force Niumatalolo to flinch. Monken was in his third season at the helm, the 11th stop of a coaching career that began in 1989 and ranged from three years as an assistant with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills to a year as head coach at a high school in Illinois. Along the way he’d been on the Navy staff for seven years, including the first two of Niumatalolo’s tenure, helping craft the teams that got the first seven wins in the streak. Now his Army team was driving for what could be the biggest touchdown of his long career. First, though, they had to get into the end zone, and then hold the lead.
Davidson carried seven yards to the 11 and a first down, then another two yards to the nine. Bradshaw took it the rest of the way for his seventh touchdown of the season and the biggest of his life.
The drive had covered 80 yards and consumed more than six minutes on the clock. As drives go, it was certainly a great one, and considering the importance of this game, it was close to the greatest of all time. That came in the 1995 game. Navy led 13-7 and had an opportunity to clinch the game with a chip-shot field goal, but decided to try for the touchdown. Army’s defense held at the one, and then quarterback Ronnie McAda led the Black Knights on a 99-yard drive that ended with a touchdown that gave Army the victory. Like this 2016 drive engineered by Bradshaw, the ’95 epic included a clutch pass, McAda converting a fourth and 24 from the Navy 29 with a pinpoint throw to John Graves at the one.
Exactly six minutes remained after Blake Wilson’s extra point kick extended the Army lead to 21-17. It was a crucial kick, because now Navy would have to get into the end zone. The Midshipmen returned the kickoff to their own 34 but couldn’t move the ball. With 4:07 to go, they punted the ball away. It was the only decision Niumatalolo could make, really; had he gone for it on fourth and 4 from his own 40 and not converted, Army would quite likely have the game in the bag. As it was, he would rely on his defense to bottle up the Black Knights, force a punt and have one more possession, and his precious time out, for the winning drive.
Army had other ideas. From their own 23, the Black Knights would certainly be playing it safe. Bradshaw would not be putting the ball in the air anymore, that was for sure. Ball security was the question; Army had given away four turnovers, and a fifth one right here would be disastrous. So Monken went back to his reliable running game. Davidson gained two yards, and then Tyler Campbell bolted 11 yards for a first down at the 36. There would be no three-and-out on this possession. The clock kept ticking as Darnell Woolfolk picked up eight yards, and then Davidson bulled his way for another, to the Army 45. Third and one. Navy called its last time out, with 1:45 to play.
Since the game was televised, time outs took a lot longer than in the high school games I was used to attending and broadcasting. Earlier in the game, as is usually the case at major college and pro games, quickie events were held on the field during most of the time outs, just to keep the fans occupied. But not this time. Everybody’s attention was on the field, where the Navy defense and Army offense huddled around their respective coaches on the sidelines. The tension in the chilly air was almost a living thing.
The game had come down to this one play. If Army could convert the first down, it could run out the clock and end the streak. If Navy held, that would force a punt and the Midshipmen would have about 90 seconds to drive some 75 yards for the winning score. Not a guarantee, by any means, but a chance, even with no time outs. Anything could happen.
Moments like this are what football fans live for and what players train for. I said to Alan, “The most important play of these guys’ lives is right now.” And that wasn’t an exaggeration, either. I thought of the seniors in that Army huddle. All of them had been playing football since middle school. Thousands of practices, hundreds of games, innumerable hours in the weight room, all coming down to one play. Yes, Army would have a bowl game 17 days later, but that game against North Texas would not be anything close in importance to this one against Navy. If they could make that one yard, they would win the game and enter Army football legend.
One play. One yard to glory.
It would be understandable if this bunch of 18- to 22-year-old kids would buckle under that kind of pressure, but these were not ordinary 18- to 22-year-olds. These were young men who had been through a crucible the great majority of their contemporaries would never be able to contemplate, much less survive. The Black Knights trotted back onto the field and into position. Across the line, the Midshipmen waited. Their season was on the line, too. The loss to Temple in the AAC title game had been costly. Not only had two of its best players been lost to injury, Navy had blown a chance to qualify for the Cotton Bowl. Now the Mids had a shot at redemption. They came to the line expecting Army to run the ball. Everybody in the stadium expected Army to run the ball.
And that’s exactly what Army did. Bradshaw took the snap, the line surged and he followed a blocker forward. Twenty-two highly-trained, determined young men collided, giving it everything they had. One yard. Two! The whistle blew. First down at the 47. On the Army sideline, in the cadets’ section in the end zone, in the stands on our side of the field, in bars and living rooms across the country, at Army bases around the world, the celebration began. Bradshaw took a knee three straight times, the last one with two seconds left as the cadets began to flood the field in the most disciplined student rush you will ever see at a college football game. The joy was indescribable. Amid the shouts and screams on our side, many a tear was shed.
I have watched thousands of football games, in person and on TV. As a radio announcer, I have had the privilege of calling some epics. High school state championship games, college national championship games. But nothing compared to this one. It was the greatest football experience I’ve ever had.
After the game, the high continues.
We made our way to the casino, which allows its car patrons to park till 11pm on game days, enticing them to come inside for awhile, have something to eat, gamble. We did. Alan and I found a place that served Italian food, then he tried his luck at the blackjack tables while I placed a call to our parents in Arizona. They’d watched the game and wanted to know how it had been. I was just starting to come to grips with what I’d witnessed, but could only give them the highlights. But even then I knew it was something like I’d never been a part of before.
Alan agreed wholeheartedly with that. In fact, it had been even more intense for him than for me. As a longtime member of the Army National Guard in Wisconsin, Arizona and Washington, Alan had a more vested rooting interest in the game than I did. Plus, he was allowed to render a salute during the National Anthem. He said it was a very emotional experience for him, something he’d dreamed of doing for years. Throughout the stadium, thousands of other men and women did the same thing, felt the same way. Whether they had served in the Army, the Navy or the Marine Corps, and perhaps there were some Air Force and Coast Guard vets there as well, it was a special moment.
What to do now? What could possibly top this? We agreed that nothing would, so we drove back to our hotel in Bowie, watched some TV in the room, and hit the hay early.
The next day we headed in the opposite direction, to Washington D.C. Alan had visited the city a couple times about 30 years ago, but it was a first for me. We had reserved a space in a parking garage a few blocks from the White House, and spent a few hours strolling around. It was a chilly day again, overcast, somewhat gray, preventing the capital from showing us her best face. There was a grandstand being constructed in front of the White House, for some reason we didn’t know. The inauguration, perhaps? But that would be held at the Capitol. Alan looked closely toward the parking areas near the East Wing, to see if the Obamas had a U-Haul pulled up yet.
I don’t want to give short shrift to our visit to Washington, but after the momentous game the previous day, it was not exactly a let-down, but could not come close to Saturday’s events. We visited Ford’s Theater and the rooming house across the street where Lincoln had died, both sites now containing outstanding museums. (We’re both big museum guys.) We walked around the Mall and saw the Vietnam and Korean war memorials, both very moving.
At the end of the Mall, between the two memorials, was the memorial to Lincoln. I reflected on how Lincoln had relied on West Point and Annapolis graduates to win the Civil War for him. The academies had alumni on both sides during that war, but there is no question that the contributions made by those who’d been part of the Brigade and the Corps were instrumental in the Union victory, preserving the nation and freeing millions from slavery.
Every December, the academies send their football teams into battle against each other. But every day of the year, around the clock, men and women who graduated from these outstanding institutions put their lives on the line to guard our freedom and raise the torch of liberty to help the oppressed in faraway lands. They’ve been doing this for over 200 years, and our nation, and the world, are far better because of their sacrifices.
As I observed the cadets and midshipmen at the game, I was proud to be an American, proud of these young men and women. And I also felt hope, and assurance. For as along as our country can produce young men and women like these, we will be all right.
Post-script: the bowl games.
Both teams had been assured of bowl game appearances long before taking the field in Baltimore. It used to be that bowl games were few and far between, and they were reserved for champions of the major conferences and a handful of other teams that either played an independent schedule, as Army still does, or who had distinguished themselves in conferences despite falling short of the league crown. When future Packer great Brett Favre quarterbacked Southern Mississippi into the 1988 Independence Bowl, only about 17 bowl games were played. This season there were more than 40. Virtually every team in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision is guaranteed to play in one if it finishes at .500 or better, and this year some 5-7 teams got in, including Army’s opponent. So it was that both teams would be heading to Texas. Navy, now sporting a 9-4 record, would play in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth against Louisiana Tech, while Army would take its 7-5 mark to Dallas for the Heart of Dallas bowl against North Texas.
Navy found itself in another close game with Louisiana Tech, runner-up in Conference USA. It was a wild shootout and once again Navy found itself facing a winner-take-all play. Only this time it was a field goal attempt. Navy was trailing 45-38 when quarterback Zach Abey led the Midshipmen on yet another long scoring drive. Abey had played a sensational game, throwing for 159 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 114 yards and two more scores. But on a run to the Bulldogs’ 30-yard line he was injured and had to leave the game. Malcolm Perry came on in relief, took the snap and rolled to his right, scampering all the way to the end zone untouched. The extra point tied the game, but there was still 3:46 to play. The proud Navy defense had been shredded all day by Tech, which would finish with 497 total yards, and it buckled again, allowing the fleet-footed Bulldogs to advance deep into Navy territory as the clock wound down. Jonathan Barnes kicked a 32-yard field goal with three seconds to play to hand Navy the 45-42 defeat.
A few days later, Army’s bowl game rolled around, this one at the storied Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas. The Heart of Dallas Bowl was a recent creation, like many bowls, and existed primarily due to corporate sponsorship, in this case from Zaxby’s, a chain of chicken restaurants that crosses some 15 states. The stands were about half-filled, which is par for the course for these middle-tier bowl games. The Black Knights were facing a familiar opponent, North Texas. The Mean Green, also from Conference USA, entered the game at 5-7, but one of their five wins was a 35-18 drilling of Army at West Point on October 22nd. This would be a chance for the Black Knights to get some payback, and they succeeded, 38-31 in overtime. Army’s punishing ground game rolled up 480 yards in the game, led by Bradshaw’s 129 on 18 carries. Woolfolk added 119 and two touchdowns. North Texas kicked a 37-yard field goal with 32 seconds left in regulation and Army ran out the clock to go to overtime. The Mean Green won the toss and elected to play defense on the first possession. In college and high school ball, overtime periods are not timed, as in the NFL; each team is given an equivalent number of possessions, with college OTs starting at the defenders’ 25-yard line. Whoever is ahead after a particular pair of possessions is the winner. So, winners of the coin toss will always choose defense first, putting pressure on the other team to get as many points as possible. Army drove down to the North Texas 3-yard line and faced a decision on fourth down: kick the field goal, or go for a TD? Coach Monken didn’t hesitate, keeping Bradshaw and the offense on the field. Jordan Asberry took it in from there, and the extra point gave the Black Knights a seven-point lead. The defense held the Mean Green out of the end zone on its possession and Army had its 8th victory of the season. Asberry’s score was the team’s 46th rushing touchdown of the season, breaking the record set by the 1945 team that achieved the mark in only nine games. That team finished undefeated with future Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis combining to score 31 of those touchdowns.
I was home on medical leave and was able to watch the Army-North Texas game in its entirety, after seeing the final quarter of Navy’s loss a few days earlier. I had to admit that I was pulling hard for both academies, but especially for Army. It’s safe to say that when the 2017 season comes around–the Black Knights will kick if off on Friday, Sept. 1st, at home against Fordham–I’ll be watching not just my Wisconsin Badgers every weekend, but the Black Knights of Army as well. And when the Army-Navy game is played on December 9th in Philadelphia, I’ll be glued to the TV, cheering for Army and thinking about the next time I can see this epic clash in person.