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It’s a little after seven o’clock. The sun in upstate New York has long since set over the western hills, and a steady rain is slowly turning to snow as the temperature plummets towards freezing. The towns that are nestled around this spot are quiet – their residents have returned home to huddle around fires. No one’s going outside in this weather.

Yet here on an open field the size of a large Walmart, the mood is different. Four thousand young men and women dressed in army camo are standing around a football field. In the stands, a group of students are singing – or more accurately, chanting – Christmas carols, their enthusiasm more than compensating for their shaky efforts at holding a tune. A line is forming at a hot chocolate truck near the bleachers. The football field is lined with groups of students who are packed in so close to the field that whenever a player runs towards the sidelines there is a ripple effect in the crowd as people attempt to move out of the way. The game is an annual tradition here – a flag football grudge match between the upperclassmen and the underclassmen.

I’m at West Point – the home of the United States Military Academy. The camo-clad young adults in front of me make up the corps of cadets, the future officers of the US Army. On sunny days, the site of their football game is one of the most beautiful spots in the country. To the west, tree-covered hills envelop the school, offering a cozy background for the stone-gray barracks, library, and chapel. To the east, the land slopes down to the Hudson River at a spot where the river curves its way past a series of high bluffs. George Washington realized the strategic importance of this particular plot of land early in the Revolutionary War, establishing a fort here and stringing an iron chain across the river, which successfully prevented British ships from transporting troops along the waterway.

Despite the fact that many of the cadets are only six months away from possible deployment, war now feels a long ways off. The camo is not in response to some foreign invader, it’s preparation for a more immediate foe: the Navy. “The cadets wear their combat gear all week because they’re ‘going to war’ against Navy,” a tour guide told me. With finals only a week away, this celebration is a respite from the library – a rare opportunity to let loose before returning to the strictness of military life.

On Saturday, the Army and Navy football teams will meet for the 115th time. For Army, the game is a chance at revenge after falling to their rival each of the previous twelve meetings. The recent history and the fact that the Black Knights are a double-digit underdog in the game have only intensified anticipation for the game. Rumors are floating around that the Army Superintendent – the school’s equivalent to a college president – will cancel finals if Army wins. “We’ve never seen an Army win against Navy, but we’ve heard stories about how drastically life changes if we win. You get more free time, there’s more access to parking, officers are less strict on some of the rules,” one cadet told me.

Signs of the rivalry are everywhere. On the roof of the field house, the shingles spell out “Sink Navy.” An archway over one of the central paths on campus is named the “Beat Navy Tunnel.” “Beat Navy” is plastered on posters and flags, weights and milk cartons. “It’s not just football,” a West Point alum explained to me. “We want to beat Navy in everything – soccer, boxing, basketball. I don’t know if we have a chess team, but if we do, we’d want to beat Navy in that too.”

IMG_3333Tomorrow, on Thursday, the student body will line Main Street in nearby Highland Falls to send the football team off towards the game in Baltimore, but tonight, the school is together for a more raucous purpose. A group of engineering majors have constructed a twenty-foot long wooden model of an aircraft carrier that sits a hundred feet beyond the east endzone. As the flag-football game nears its conclusion, a murmur goes up through the cadets and people start gathering around the wooden ship. I pull my hat lower over my forehead and follow. I’m one of only a handful of people not in military gear – a few locals emerge from the warmth of their cars to snap some photos and then retreat back to comfort.

At eight o’clock, a pair of firefighters enter the fray. They inspect the ship and then strike a match. Within seconds the ship is ablaze. The cadets cheer and jump up and down as the orange glow illuminates the night. Hugs are given. Groups of friends pose for pictures that will accompany the cadets on their future missions. For a time, the thoughts of schoolwork and discipline are replaced with the joy of camaraderie. This could be a rivalry week celebration anywhere – though of course, only at West Point and Annapolis would participation in such a gathering be 100%.

After a few minutes the fire begins to die down, the boat reduced to ash. The cadets turn and march back across the field towards the library.

 

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Army – Navy game was the pinnacle of the sports calendar. Before the Super Bowl and BCS national championships, Army versus Navy stood alone as the nation’s premier football game. Traditionally played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the game regularly attracted crowds of over 100,000 people and was viewed by millions more on televisions around the world.

Between the end of World War I and the start of war in Vietnam, Army and Navy were two of the most dominant programs in the country, combining to win four national championships and five Heisman Trophies during that stretch.

IMG_3368But the game’s appeal went far beyond football. For a nation with close ties to the military after the World Wars, Army-Navy provided a chance to take sides, to reconnect with fellow soldiers, and to unite through the intensity of competition. My grandfathers, one who fought in the Navy and one who fought in the Army, always viewed the game with great pride. Neither went to West Point or Annapolis, but both identified strongly with their respective branches of the military. To them, and the millions like them, Army-Navy was a highlight of the year – a fierce rivalry that reached across traditional socioeconomic divides in America. As one historian described, Army-Navy was a chance for the entire country to celebrate “good against good.”

The players on the field were not “pros-in-waiting,” they were kids who had accepted the challenge of protecting the nation. “In the sixties, anyone playing for Army or Navy could have played football anywhere,” former Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh told me. Stichweh himself was an All-American his senior season, and his counterpart at Navy, Roger Staubach, won the 1963 Heisman Trophy and, after fulfilling his military service, went on to become an NFL Hall of Famer with the Dallas Cowboys. Instead of focusing solely on football, their broader commitment to national service made these players symbols of higher ideals – honor, sacrifice, love of country. To them and their contemporaries, there was nothing bigger than Army versus Navy. To this day, Staubach maintains that he was more nervous for his first Army-Navy game than any other game in his life.

A half-century removed from Stichweh’s final collegiate game, the football-based relevance of the Army-Navy game has declined. Though still competitive in division 1, Army and Navy are hardly national contenders. This week much of the college football world was quiet – the playoff matchups were sealed, the bowl games finalized. A variety of awards ceremonies garnered headlines, and expectation for Saturday centered on the Heisman Trophy presentation not the game in Baltimore. Around the country, football fans entered the holiday lull – a pause before the final hurrah of the bowl season.

For a nation that has largely moved away from direct military service, Army-Navy has become less about the intensity of the rivalry and more about offering tribute to those who serve. In spite of the fact that we are currently waging the longest war in our history, over the past decade the percentage of the populace serving in the military has never risen above 1%. That compared with over 12% in World War II. According to a 2011 Pew Survey, more than 75% of Americans over the age of 50 had an immediate family member who served in the military. Among 18 to 29 year-olds the share is less than a third.

The popular narrative in the media depicts the game as different, focusing more on warfare and heroism than football and college rivalry. While this rendition is useful in reminding civilians of the daily sacrifices the men and women in uniform make, it obscures the nature of the game and further emphasizes a divide between military and civilian.

IMG_3410To cadets and midshipmen, the football game is not a solemn reminder of their obligation to serve after graduation, it is a chance to celebrate and cheer and for a few hours act like “normal college kids.” Many cadets and midshipmen travel to Baltimore the night before the game to meet up with family and friends who go to civilian schools. The weekend is a chance to go to bars, eat good food, and experience some of life outside of the academy walls. Sure, they are required to attend the game, and they are required to wear their formal military uniforms, but as one midshipmen told me, “as far as the things we’re required to do goes, attending football games is not one of the more arduous tasks.” We civilians see the military aspect of the game – the formal marching, the flyovers – and immediately conjure up images of caskets and newscasts, but for Army and Navy, the military precision is commonplace and the reminders of warfare are too.

Remove the constant commentary about sacrifice, and Army-Navy is the greatest rivalry in sports not because of things that make it different from other games, but because of things that make it the same. As one West Point alum put it, “imagine the Williams-Amherst rivalry (one of the oldest rivalries in the country) but 1000 times more intense, and that’s what Army-Navy is like.”

The marching and flyovers are similar to the Irish Guard at Notre Dame or the Midnight Yell at Texas A&M. The uniformity of the student sections is similar to the “White Out” at Penn State or the “Maize Out” at Michigan. The raucous cheering is similar to that at any big-time game.

Even the basis for the rivalry is familiar. Like Harvard-Yale or Alabama-Auburn, the rivalry is rooted in the two school’s similarities. No two schools in the country have as much in common as Army and Navy. Both are highly selective military academies that feature similarly demanding schedules and require similar skillsets to succeed.

Like other rivalries, competition, whether in football or basketball or chess, provides an opportunity for the two to stake out their differences. One cadet explained this to me by emphasizing that even little things like marching onto the field become sources of competition. “Watch when both schools march on the field. Our lines will be straighter and our movements will be more coordinated. There are photos that prove this.” On my tour of Navy, my group passed through a model dorm room. The man behind me, an Army veteran, frowned at the bed as we passed and muttered, “An Army bed would be made better than this.”

The intensity of each school’s camaraderie reminded me of a conversation I had with a man in Maryville, Missouri some two months ago. While we watched a high school football game in a small town in Middle America, he told me that sports were all about pride in place. “Football is sort of like modern warfare,” he asserted. “It’s tribal. You have these different towns or tribes all battling each other and that creates a sense of pride in your own community.”

IMG_3423The cadets and midshipmen are preparing for actual war. When they graduate, they’ll be put in charge of actual soldiers and expected to fight actual battles. Out there, the idea of camaraderie and teamwork will be critical to survival. For them, learning to unite and become part of a tribe is a focus of their education. As Stichweh told me, “it’s hard to find any group of people as close as a class of cadets.” Part of that bond is forged in the early morning marches and grueling training sessions. But part of it is also formed here in the joy of competition.

Having an external enemy, even if it’s one that they will eventually be fighting alongside with, allows the cadets and midshipmen to form closer bonds with each other. First-years at each school, known as plebes, are not allowed to talk to anyone outside of their class while walking around the academy. The one thing they are allowed to say is ‘Beat Army’ or ‘Beat Navy.’ Those refrains are rallying cries at their respective schools, calls that urge each student to work harder, do better, and unite more fully with their own. During the monotony of long marches or the strain of rigorous training, the idea of besting a worthy rival can serve as motivation.

This tribal mentality is further reinforced by the voluntary nature of membership. For high school kids who want to attend a military academy there are only three options. Kids that go to Harvard may have thought about going to Yale. But they also probably applied to Cornell and Dartmouth and Princeton. Kids at Army or Navy actively chose one tribe and, in so doing, rejected the other.

 

In many ways, Army-Navy was the perfect final game for my trip. Having seen so many of the nation’s biggest college football programs, I could more fully appreciate how truly remarkable this rivalry is.

When I started my trip, I think part of what I was looking for was purity. Sports, especially college sports, have historically offered an escape from a complex world. Sports are inherently simple – a struggle that offers us a clear set of rules for determining a winner and a loser. Through that simplicity arises a purity of emotion rarely found in the messier aspects of our relationships and work lives.

Across the country, the purity of college sports is under attack. It’s not the prospect of paying players that’s threatening this ideal – it’s the way that the NCAA and the school’s are treating sports like a business and the athletes, whether they pay them or not, like employees. Even at the Army-Navy game, the crowd was forced to sit through back-to-back full TV timeouts at the end of the first half so that CBS could fill its ad quota.

IMG_3485Despite the push to commoditize college sports, Army-Navy, more than any other rivalry, has retained the purity of emotion and intensity that first made me fall in love with college football twenty years ago. Perhaps part of it is the fact that hardly any of the players will ever play a down of football after graduation, but it’s more than that. At every school I’ve been to, I’ve heard people describe the way football helps you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. The Army-Navy game epitomizes that. The game serves as a rallying point not just for graduates, but for all current and former members of the Army and Navy. Around the stadium, fans did not just wear Army and Navy apparel. They also wore hats and jackets from their days in the military. No game in the country that means as much to its fan base as Army-Navy. The teams could be 0-11 going into the game, and people would still care – not in the ESPN hype video way, but in the can’t-sleep with excitement way. It truly is a one game season.

The game itself was largely uneventful. If you’re a fan of three-yard runs, this was your game, but for the rest of us, the real attraction was in the spectacle. Army didn’t complete their first pass until there was less than four minutes to go in the game, but the passion of the crowd never really subsided.

When the game ended, the two teams did not leave the field. Instead, they shook hands and walked together towards the Army student section. As one, they sang the Army alma mater, and then, as one, they walked to the Navy student section, and they sang the Navy alma mater. It was the last event of my trip, and one that I’ll never forget. Nothing could symbolize the purity of college sports more – two bitter rivals who share so much brought together in the spirit of competition.

 

Walking out of the stadium, I thought back to all the places I’d been – the Grove at Ole Miss, The Big House, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Harvard Stadium. I thought back to the traditions I’d seen – Texas A&M’s Midnight Yell in South Carolina, the Walk of Champions in Tennessee, the Trumpets under the Dome at Notre Dame. College football is under attack, but there’s something special there too. The games and the traditions that surround them are rallying points for a diverse array of people – a chance to celebrate in something simple and take pride in something timeless.

IMG_3506For better or worse, college football is a common language in America. I spent 16 weeks approaching total strangers and talking with them about one of the few things we shared: a love of football. Through that bond, I got to know bricklayers and schoolteachers, CEOs and prison guards, farmers and factory workers. On Saturday, I met dozens of soldiers, veterans, and future soldiers. The media tells us that these people are different. In some ways they are. Their sacrifice extends well beyond that of ordinary civilians. But in most respects they are the same. As one West Point grad told me when I asked whether he had been anxious about being deployed after graduation, “It’s just part of your job. It’s what you sign up for.”

As I thought back to the rainy night at West Point, I realized that the bonfire was not all that different from pre-game festivities I’d seen elsewhere. The only difference was that at Army, as it would have been at Navy, the tribal nature of the school and the close-knit bond of the cadets made the event that much more intense.

 

Thank you for following the blog the past 16 weeks. Be sure to check back for wrap-up articles and updates on the book.

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