In the fourth and final installment of A Look Back revisits weeks 13-16 of the college football season. In this segment, I witness a pair of classic rivalries: Harvard vs. Yale and Army vs. Navy. In between, I see the final home came for the Penn State seniors who were freshmen when the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal broke, and I travel to the rustbelt town of Alliance, Ohio to explore the most dominant division 3 program in the country. While I only saw one top-25 division 1 team during this stretch – Michigan State – the final four weeks featured a slate of games that harkened back to the timeless nature of the sport. At the Army-Navy game, Army did not complete their first forward pass until late in the fourth quarter, but the lack of offense did little to quiet the crowd. At Penn State, the overmatched Nittany Lions played in front of a half empty stadium, but at the game’s conclusion, the entire senior class remained to sing the alma mater with a team that had endured so much. More than football, the final four weeks offered a portrait of camaraderie, companionship, and the importance of tradition. Driving home from Baltimore after the Army-Navy game, I could not remember any particular plays from the game, but the sight of 8,000 Cadets and Midshipmen swaying back and forth, arm in arm as they sang each other’s alma mater is one that will stay with me forever.


IMG_3111Week 13 – Harvard 31, Yale 24: While most of the college football world was gearing up for the final push for the playoff, I returned to New England for a matchup between two national powers of yesteryear. For the first five decades of college football, Harvard and Yale were firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the sport. Between 1872 and 1927, Yale and Harvard combined to win 34 national championships – although in those days, there was no title game so news outlets often awarded national championships to different schools. Yale players won two of the first three Heisman Trophies. When the Yale Bowl was constructed in 1913, it became the largest stadium in the world, seating over 70,000 people.

Today, the Harvard-Yale game is irrelevant to the national rankings – the Ivy League does not participate in postseason play. Every other Saturday of the year, the stadiums in New Haven and Cambridge sit largely empty – the vacant seats serving as reminders of the programs’ fall from their illustrious past.

Like Williams-Amherst, most of the students and alumni at Harvard and Yale are not truly football fans. These are businessmen and academics masquerading as sports fans, elite students swept up in the fervor and turned into diehards. At the tailgates, you don’t see jerseys and baseball hats. You see Barbour jackets and striped scarves. Conversations center on old memories and life updates rather than anticipation for the game.

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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.”

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