Lord, was it meaningless. The teams were awful, none of the players had a shot at the Heisman Trophy or an NFL contract, and neither coach had his neck on the block. The series was old and storied, but you heard no talk of hatred. There were no fights. There was no strutting. There were questionable calls but no demands for instant replay. The winners felt good, but not one insisted this was a life-altering event. Three and a half hours of meaningless: Navy beat Army last Saturday 30-28.
But here's something strange. A crowd of 70,685—the biggest ever at Baltimore's PSINet Stadium—turned out despite crackling cold weather. Though neither program has finished in the Top 10 in decades, the game sold out last summer; when previously held-back tickets went on sale in August they were gone in less than 10 minutes. The teams came in with their worst combined record ever, 1-19, but 600 media credentials were issued, all to see and report on some horrible football: seven fumbles, two interceptions, ghastly kicking. At one point the Cadets replaced their quarterback with a guy who had managed the lacrosse team last year.
No one minded. "It's special because a lot of men and women in America recognize this as one of the last pure games of NCAA football," said John Ryan, the Naval Academy superintendent last Friday. Of course, there's more to it than that.
There are the exacting academics and the honor codes and the five years of postgraduation military commitment. There's the one-hour march into the stadium by the uniformed ranks the fact that the players mix at the end and respectfully listen to their opponent's alma mater There's the fact that every time a plebe at Annapolis turns a corner, he must yell, "Beat Army!" There's the fact that the player; come from every corner of the country, that no names are on the uniforms, that the Veterans of Foreign Wars and not some copier company sponsors the replays on the Jumbotron and that in an open letter published in the program, President Clinton asked everyone to "pause to remember the brave American sailors on the USS COLE and all our men and women in uniform who have lost their lives in service to our nation."
There's the fact that no game is taken more seriously by those involved, yet when the clock expires everyone understands it was sports, nothing more, because the participants might soon be facing death together. The last time Army played Navy in Baltimore, in 1944, a national tide was at stake for Army. President Roosevelt used the game to sell War Bonds. Plenty has changed, but not this: Another meaningless game was played on Saturday, the 101st meeting in a rivalry that, football aside, still matters most of all.