West Point vs Naval Academy. Black Knights vs Midshipmen. The Army Mule vs Billy the Goat. It’s all the same.
Army football and Navy football connect people. They connect generations. I can vividly recall my late grandfather telling me great stories about past Heisman winners Pete Dawkins, Doc Blanchard, and Glenn Davis during their time at West Point, and showed me many pictures of their endeavors on the gridiron.
My father has told me various stories about amicable encounters with former Army head coach and current Kansas City Chiefs coordinator Bob Sutton, and with alumnus and former academy quarterback Ronnie McAda.
This rivalry is one of the most ancient in all of sports. It’s one that your great grandparents witnessed, because these two have played against each other since 1890, and annually since 1930.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this rivalry is that there is hardly any animosity between the two academies; in fact, the two institutions share a mutual respect for one another, because the students matriculated at these elite academies know that they will be brothers and sisters in arms, risking their lives so others do not have to.
After suffering an ignominious losing streak to Navy from 2002-2015 during what was perhaps the darkest time period for any team ever in college football, Army has won two consecutive games against Navy, its first winning streak in the series since 1992-1996. Navy still leads the all-time series 60-51-7.
Another intriguing part about the rivalry, particularly since 2014, Jeff Monken’s first year as head coach of Army, is the fact that Jeff Monken and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo share a close camaraderie with each other.
Monken and Niumatalolo were both assistants for Hawaii in the early 1990s and from 2002 to 2007 for Navy, back when recently retired head coach Paul Johnson was at the helm for the Naval Academy.
At its core, this annual game is about loyalty and passion. Passion for your brother who will eventually be on the battlefield with you, and loyalty for those who love and support you, and the same from the fervent fan bases from two of the most storied programs in the history of college football.
For the seniors, such as James Gibson, Darnell Woolfolk, Andy Davidson, and Bryce Holland of Army, this is the second-to-last competitive football game that they will ever play in; and for Navy seniors Zach Abey, Tre Walker, Elijah Jones and John Gillis, this is the very last football game they will ever play in, since Navy was not bowl eligible this year.
After graduation, West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen are on active duty for five years, and from there can decide whether to advance their military careers, or to return to civilian life. Some become high-ranking officers, and others become world leaders and corporate magnates. Whatever the case may be, their commitment to us and to a higher cause must not ever be forgotten.
For sixty minutes on a gelid Saturday afternoon, the final regular season game of the college football season truly fits the phrase “save the best for last”, because the finest young men in the country have a change to play like gods, and to bring back bragging rights to their local communities, and even the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, which Army retained this year, but can capitalize off of what could be the greatest season ever for the United States Military Academy’s football team.
There has also been quite a role reversal for the two teams. Army is en route to its third straight bowl game, and Navy has had just its second losing season since 2003. Army is ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1996.
But don’t let the records fool you. Four of Navy’s losses have been decided by one possession, and Ken Niumatalolo’s squad still boasts the third-best rushing offense in the country, behind only Army and Georgia Tech. Expect this game to be close, expect it to be cold, and expect it to be, as always, a game of honor, pride, tradition, loyalty, and courage.