I’m not a cadet, and I don’t pretend to be. I don’t possess the fortitude or the munificence to enlist in the military. At the United States Military Academy and at the United States Naval Academy, students matriculated in those venerable institutions aren’t pursuing a career like other college students are. Instead, they’re devoting their lives and talents to a life of servitude. While it may be trite, it is paramount to understand that the annual Army-Navy football game is more than just a game; it’s a testament to two groups of men who will be teammates for the rest of their lives, whether that camaraderie be in combat or in spirit.
I’ve lived five minutes away from West Point for my entire life, and it is a privilege that I recognize as a magnificent symbol of access to a place that produces some of the world’s greatest leaders. Despite West Point’s perpetual standing as perhaps the most prestigious institution in the world, watching Army football games growing up was often excruciatingly painful. During the 21 years of my existence, Army has concocted just four winning seasons, including this season. They have not hoisted the Commander in Chief’s Trophy since I was six weeks old, back when current Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton patrolled the sidelines for Army. That season in 1996, Army finished 10-2 and won the CIC Trophy for the first time in six years, even finishing with a Top 25 ranking. It was the first time that Army had won 10 games. The subsequent 14 years, however, brought about a melancholic period for West Point football.
From 1997-2009, Army never finished better than 5-7, and the 2003 team finished 0-13, the first time the West Point produced a winless football program in 30 years. Even more tantalizing was the fact that Army had not defeated its Annapolis, Maryland counterparts from 2001-onward. The lone bright spot in those tenebrous years was the 2010 season, during which Army finished 7-6 with a victory over SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl. Rich Ellerson’s Black Knights went 8-28 over the next three seasons, the futility being symbolized by a sulking Trent Steelman after a poignant loss against Navy in 2012, and Ellerson was relieved of his duties after the 2013 season. Army needed a new face with a new plan.
On Christmas Eve in 2013, former Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken was hired as the 37th head coach for Army. Monken’s success at Georgia Southern could hardly be disputed, as he had a 38-16 record with the Eagles, and facilitated the program’s transition from the FCS to the FBS. Monken carried a swagger with himself that slowly but surely crept into the locker room at Michie Stadium. During his first two campaigns, Army was 6-18, and still couldn’t beat Navy. But the team needed just a little more time to come together.
Come together, the team did. No Yoda platitude intended, the team learned of the tragic death of defensive back Brandon Jackson, who had been one of the top players at his position in the nation. As he once echoed, “Scared money don’t make no money”, it became his catchphrase and a rallying cry for the Knights. Army finished with a victory over Navy, its first win against its arch nemesis in 15 years. Army went on to win the Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas, and West Point had its greatest football team in 20 years in 2016.
Fast forward to this year, Army currently sits at 8-3 with the annual game against Navy just days away at the time of this writing, boasting the top rushing offense in the country, commanded by quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, who recently shattered the Academy’s single-season rushing record. Bradshaw himself is currently ninth in the country in rushing yards (1,742) and is averaging more yards per carry (7.8) than all but five other players. Navy has had a rather underwhelming season, as the Midshipmen are 6-5, though that can be attributed to a gluttony of injuries and very close losses. These two teams first met 127 years ago shortly after Thanksgiving. Navy leads the all-time series 60-50-7, and Army is looking to have its first winning streak in the series since 1995-1996. Navy has yet to be in a bowl game this year, and Army will be playing a Conference USA team in the Armed Forces Bowl two days before Christmas. But this is perhaps the most high-stakes game for Army in a very long time. On the line for Army is the right to hoist the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, obvious bragging rights against Navy, and a potential Top 25 ranking. These past two seasons have given me the most exhilarating experience ever as an Army West Point football fan, and I cannot wait for December 9th.