NEW YORK -- The college football game between Notre Dame and Army in Yankee Stadium Saturday night was a revival of an old rivalry -- church vs. state in a new sports palace built for baseball royalty.
The grandeur of the event peaked at halftime under a big, round moon when the Army Glee Club and the Notre Dame band performed "The Battle Hymn of the Republic,'' a religious fight song for an army of Yankees of the 19th century.
All the hoopla kept the audience from being too bored during a methodical but tedious 27-3 victory for the Fighting Irish that left both teams 6-5 and eligible to play in bowl games.
But their prestige is greatly diminished from decades past, a faint echo of a time when Coach Knute Rockne used the Army series to build the Notre Dame brand and create the show-business machinery of modern sports.
Their rivalry and the sports industry took off in the Roaring Twenties, when the old "House That Ruth Built'' was still new. In that decade, when Grantland Rice wrote of Four Horsemen and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby America's urban culture as we know it now was coming into focus.
The mythos included Rockne's "Win One for the Gipper'' speech at the Army game in the Stadium in 1928, even though Rockne may not have actually heard those very words spoken from George Gipp's deathbed.
This fuzzy lore blended into future political legend in 1940 when Ronald Reagan played the part of Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All-American. Four decades later, Reagan parlayed his "Gipper'' role into the White House and it is fascinating to go back and watch his best-remembered movie.
In total, Reagan appears on screen for less than 10 minutes. Aside from the deathbed scene, one of the most intriguing moments is another horizontal pose when Rockne, played by Pat O'Brien, tries to talk Gipp onto the football team.
The scene shows Reagan lying in the grass and playing coy with the coach, teasing him almost flirtatiously. Film buffs should study their body language and facial expressions, especially Reagan's, for a subtle subtext that might not have been evident 70 years ago in an innocent film about an all-male Catholic school.
Saturday's game, the first for football at the new stadium, continued an autumn of gridiron retrospection around New York that includes the Broadway play Lombardi.
It is about the former Green Bay Packers' coach, Vince Lombardi, who worked as an assistant at Army in the early 1950s. The play is based on the Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss, who recounted one of Lombardi's occasional chores.
After Army games at West Point, Lombardi would drive game films to a laboratory on Long Island to be developed so they could be studied by the coaches the next morning.
But, on the way back, Lombardi had to detour into Manhattan and stop by the apartment of General Douglas MacArthur, who was biding his time at the Waldorf after being recalled from Korea by President Harry Truman.
MacArthur was a serious football fan and Lombardi had to stand by and wait while the general studied the motion-picture images of that day's action at West Point.
Much has changed since then. Generals or privates with free time could have viewed Saturday night's game against the Fighting Irish live on satellite feeds in the war zones of Afghanistan.
Those who tuned in probably saw little that will live in lore like the Four Horsemen or the Gipper or the first meeting, in 1913, when Notre Dame beat Army with the forward pass to establish its football image in national consciousness and advance that mode of attack.
But, under the bright lights and in the chilly air, they saw an authentic slice of Americana that evoked a different time, an era when, as Rice wrote, "the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores.''
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