When the typical college football fan has troubled himself to think of one (2-8 before last Saturday) or the other (0-9), he has pictured the nation's hoarier service academies as little more than stooge teams for Notre Dame, Army and Navy having lost a combined 50 straight to the Irish starting in 1964. Then came Sept. 11, and with it a sea change—or disturbance in the field, if you prefer West Point black, not Annapolis blue, with your gold.
Last Saturday's Army-Navy game delivered not only the usual sellout but also the largest football crowd (69,708) at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium since the building was reconfigured in the mid-1980s. Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf took roost in a booth at the Vet, having been reassigned by CBS from NFL business as usual. A war-hero alumnus turned up for a pregame talk in each team's locker room, Senator John McCain for the Midshipmen and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf for the Cadets, while the commander in chief, George W. Bush, gave each side equal time, sitting on the Navy side during the first half and the Army side during the second. Even the civilians got with the program. "Best-behaved 700-level in the history of the Vet," one longtime Philly press-box wag said, surveying the decorous fans in the nether reaches of a stadium that during Eagles and Phillies games are usually a Romper Room for delinquent adults.
All the gravitas and VIPs did nothing for the Midshipmen's fortunes. Winless going into the game, Navy returned to Annapolis the same way after losing 26-17, a score that undersold how the Cadets had had their way. Army held the ball for more than 35 minutes and outgained the Middies 341 yards to 239, and Navy's only touchdown, a four-yard pass from quarterback Craig Candeto to tight end Steve Mercer, came with 23 seconds left. Circumstances nonetheless served as a reminder that the veterans referred to in the stadium's name aren't what rookies and free agents become. Even the weather, clear and a mid-Septemberish 63 degrees, refused to put any meteorological distance between that day of infamy and Dec. 1. "Before attending the academy, every one of us sat down with our parents and had that talk," Navy senior wide receiver Jeff Gaddy said last week. " 'Junior'll be off to the military. He might be put in harm's way' That's now in the forefront of everyone's mind."
"Yeah, it's scary," added Army linebacker and co-captain Brian Zickefoose. "No one wants to go to war. But we accept we may have to. That's why we're here."
The two academies have long shared the same sense of mission, the same straitening rules and the same contempt for the Zoomies at easy-come, easy-go Air Force, where the dorm rooms come carpeted. On Sept. 11, Annapolis and West Point went to Threatcon Delta, the highest stage of readiness, which alerts the brigade and corps to imminent attack. Once the immediate threat subsided, the remainder of the road schedules for both teams became victory tours of sorts, even as neither could bring back a win: At Notre Dame, where the Middies lost 34-16, Irish fans cheered as Navy filed from the bus to the stadium; at Alabama-Birmingham, before Army fell 55-3, bystanders broke into spontaneous applause when the Cadets entered their hotel. "You hate for something like 11 September to dictate this," Army coach Todd Berry said last Friday as practice wound down, "but it's great that these young people are being appreciated."
As he spoke, six Apache helicopters, practicing for the pregame flyover, beat their blades overhead, drowning out Berry. Once they'd disappeared beyond the rim of the stadium, he said, "Those Apaches have a way of sneaking up on people."
Despite all its figurative bombs and blitzes and sudden deaths, football can't approximate or even simulate war. Nothing can. As the renowned military-affairs writer Drew Middleton put it, those who see parallels between war and sports know little about either. There was nevertheless a gunship stealth to the way the Cadets struck on Saturday. On their fifth play from scrimmage they bamboozled Navy with a draw play, springing running back Ardell Daniels 60 yards for a touchdown. It wasn't yet noon. On Army's next possession, wide receiver Brian Bruenton took advantage of Midshipmen cornerback Clyde Clark's unavailing lunge for an interception to complete a 42-yard pass-and-run play that ended in a touchdown.
Most of the rest of Army's points came just as suddenly, on three plays straddling halftime. Right before the break, the Cadets' Anthony Miller knifed in to block a punt, setting up Derek Jacobs's 39-yard field goal as time expired to give Army a 16-3 lead. Then West Point's Omari Thompson took the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. When Army audaciously popped up and ran down an on-side boot on the ensuing kickoff, Navy had been out-special op'ed.
No doubt the 60,000 or so civilians at the game had all, at least fleetingly, entertained the thought everyone who gathers in public places has these days: that they might be putting themselves in harm's way. That realization could only redouble civilian sympathy for the players and 8,000 members of the brigade and the corps cheering on the teams. The Cadets and the Middies, in turn, have reaffirmed their commitments in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Shortly after the attacks Army seniors, or firsties in West Point parlance, had to declare the branch of the service in which they want to serve, and this year the quota for the infantry was quickly filled up. The first classmen at Annapolis will make their elections in January, and they, too, are more likely than ever to select risky, if only because Army has thrown down a marker for Navy to beat.
Cadets tight end and co-captain Clint Dodson will become a field artillery officer, so it would be appropriate if he were descended from, say, Von Clausewitz. As it happens Dodson is the great-great-great-grandson of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll gave us the phrase curiouser and curiouser, an all-purpose reference to the bizarre and unforeseen, of which current historical circumstances are an example.