The best the NCAA has to offer was on display last night and it wasn't the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City. It took place a quick ride south from Manhattan on the Acela Express, in Philadelphia, where the Navy Midshipmen took on the Black Knights of Army.
In the hypocrisy that has become college football, where programs like USC and players like Cameron Newton, who could have been the best thing for the sport with his boyish exuberance and bright smile, carry the moniker of "performing without integrity," while others, like the Universities of Florida and Miami might as well play home games in jumpsuit orange, the Army-Navy game is, well, an apparition because of what it means to a decade of volunteers who have fought two wars for us in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The game itself wasn't particularly great. Mistakes were made far too often on both sides and Navy, having defeated West Point eight straight years, was heavily favored despite a much improved Army team that earned a bowl bid for the first time in the last few years.
The Midshipmen ran over Army with a triple option attack in the first quarter to the tune of 17-0 but then the backfield got the yips and fumbled the ball twice on their side of the fifty allowing Army to score once and put it on the doorstep with less than two minutes left in the half. Then, senior captain and safety Wyatt Middleton, playing in his next to last game before deployment, knocked the ball loose from Army quarterback Trent Steelman, and dashed 98 yards downfield in a fourteen point flip that eventually wound up at 31-17 by night's end in Navy's favor.
But, that's not the real story of this game. The service academy players represent what the NCAA wants to portray as college football because -- unlike their counterparts who might move off to lucrative contracts at the next level or more likely, happy hour team reunions, a normal life like you or me -- players from both the Army and Navy squads will be deployed to areas where becoming a casualty doesn't mean a season ending knee injury.
These players, like Senior punter Kyle Delahooke who will spend the next five years with the Marine Corps, want to win because they know they represent the men and women who they will be deployed alongside in the upcoming years. They play for those like Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta, standing on the field before the game as the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War and who, at the same age as Army linebacker and team captain Stephen Anderson, was knocked down by a bullet to the chest, got up, and ran after his friend and squad member, Sgt. Josh Brennan who had been shot eight times and was being dragged into the night by two Taliban fighters. Giunta managed to save Brennan from the enemy but he could not save the badly wounded soldier's life and he later died after being medevaced off the field of battle. That's who the players play for, who they try to represent and who they will be alongside eventually.
With sixteen seconds left and down two scores, Trent Steelman, hurried his team to the line in an effort to score and the sea of cadets in gray rallied with him and after he was taken down and the game came to an end after a brief change of possession at 5:55pm ET, the Navy Midshipmen and the Army Black Knights became brothers once again because more acutely than others they understand that Navy football verse Army football isn't war. It's a game. It doesn't mean a whole lot in the long run. But, last night as Steelman's knee hit the ground at 1:55 AM, somewhere on a cold mountain ridge in half way around the world in Afghanistan thousands of miles from home, a couple Naval officers huddled next to a television and smiled, because it means a whole lot to them.