"To me, it's like [being on] an all-star high school team," said Army linebacker James Lewis. "The caliber of play is good. Everybody is quick and hits hard."
A few of the players wouldn't hit 158 pounds if they stepped on a scale in their uniforms, but some of their teammates weigh as much as 165-170 pounds without gear. As the weigh-in approaches, they can be found sitting next to their friends on the wrestling team, sweating off excess pounds in the sauna. Said Paul Davis, a 5'5" defensive tackle for Navy who was able to combine his high school passions for football and wrestling, "I never imagined I'd be wearing a sweat suit, a hood and long Johns during football practice, trying to cut weight."
Lightweight players enjoy little of the celebrity bestowed upon the "big boys," as they call their heavyweight counterparts. They hope only for a chance to compete. "We had a couple of guys who actually tried out for the big boys and didn't make it," said Army safety Mike Long. "They were a little too small, maybe a little too slow. But they still have the heart to play the game of football."
Although a handful of the players starred in high school football, most were merely decent athletes who had abundant enthusiasm. "They may not have been the best athletes on their teams, but they got a lot of character and tough-guy awards," says Army coach Bob Thompson. His fullback John Fiorito gets closer to the point. "It's that short-guy Napoleon complex," he says. "We all have it." But how long will they have the opportunity to make use of it? Rutgers canceled lightweight football before the 1990 season, leaving the league—and thus the sport—on the brink of extinction, fighting to remain viable in an era of tight budgets and gender-equity pressures.
"It's scary to me, because I think only three schools are solid in the league—Cornell, Army and Navy," says former West Point athletic director Carl Ullrich, who played lightweight football at Cornell in the 1940s and finished a three-year stint as ELFL commissioner in 1992. "I think that if one more team drops out, the league could go down, and that would be a shame."
The disbanding of the league would certainly sadden the residents of Pottsville and southern Schuylkill County, Pa., for whom lightweight football has come to embody community pride and educational opportunity. The relationship between the sport and this anthracite mining town began 12 years ago when Bill Moran, a teacher at the elementary school, thought of inviting successful student-athletes to come to Pottsville for a game.
Historically, Pottsville has had a passion for football. The Pottsville Maroons, who joined the NFL in 1925 and played for three years, were one of the NFL's earliest franchises, and the Pottsville-Reading game is one of the oldest high school rivalries in the nation. When the town's Joint Veterans Council agreed to sponsor a lightweight football game, Army-Navy seemed to all like a natural choice.
Thus, on Nov. 12, 1983, the Anthracite Bowl was born. While Army's and Navy's big boys were preparing to head for balmy Pasadena for their annual meeting, their smaller counterparts took the field in Pottsville amid freezing rain and 32-mile-per-hour winds. "It just kept up all day," says Moran, "but you could still feel the warmth throughout the stadium because everybody was so proud. It was something special."
Army won that day 38-14, and it returned to Pottsville year after year, going undefeated (it played Princeton to a 25-25 tie in 1988) in the Anthracite Bowl until 1992, when it lost to Navy 31-14. That set the stage for last year's rematch.
What kept the Cadets coming back, however, was not only the competition but also the warm welcome in Pottsville. "We are not Pasadena," says Moran. "We don't have the glamorous industry or the tourism that some parts of the country have, but what we do have is people who open up their homes to strangers."