As I made my way down 95 South from Philadelphia to Landover, Md., for Saturday's Army-Navy game, I had plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of "America's Game," as it has been dubbed.
The 112th football game between the Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and the Cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point had no implications for the upcoming NCAA bowl season. While Heisman Trophy winners like Pete Dawkins, Roger Staubach, Joe Bellino, Glenn Davis, and Doc Blanchard once graced this game, the days of either school being a football power are a fading memory.
The men who played in this game are part of a unique fraternity, a group who accept the tripartite challenge of completing a challenging academic program while enduring a rigorous military training program and playing at the upper level of intercollegiate football. For most of those men, this will be the last football team they ever play for. There will be no agents, contracts, combines, or endorsements, yet they play. They play because they love their school, they love their country, and they love their sport, and that is what makes them special and worthy of praise.
As I drove I thought about the first Army-Navy game I watched. I can't remember the year, but I remember watching with my father and being captivated by the pageantry of the march-ons and the images of the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen in their uniforms. I remember this being one of the earliest moments that I was captivated by the military.
Years later my cousin was recruited to play football by the Naval Academy. When he went to tour Annapolis, my aunt and uncle asked me if I wanted to join them on the trip. While my cousin was not interested in Navy at all, I was hooked. For the next three years, I was all about the Naval Academy and my family dutifully obliged and encouraged my fascination. In 1997 my father was able to get a pair of tickets for us to attend our first Army-Navy game in Giants Stadium, but by the time we went I had switched allegiances. I remember three things: 1) Navy won, 2) it was freezing cold; 3) it was one of the times in my life that I felt closest to my father.
We attended the Army-Navy game again in 1998 and it was both special and tragic. The game was played on December 6, and 3 weeks later I took my oath of enlistment and joined the Army. This was the last game played at Veterans Stadium. The game was marred when a stadium rail collapsed and nine members of the Army cheering section were injured when they fell 15 feet to the turf. Army went on to win the game, and it was the only time I have actually seen my team win. (The only other time Army has won in the last 15 years was in 2001.)
For the last several years, I have had the privilege of covering the game as a media member and witnessing the game up close and personal. Although the results have not always gone the way I wanted them to, the game has never disappointed. This year was no different. As I made my way across the field after the game, I stopped Navy senior fullback and captain Alexander Teich. "Son," I told him, "you played one heck of a game. You displayed all the qualities that are going to make you a fine officer."
The future Navy SEAL looked me in the eye, shook my hand and simply said, "Thank you, sir." I then stopped Army senior linebacker and legacy captain Steven Erzinger. Clearly defeated by another loss to his archrival in his final football game, Erzinger was the definition of the agony of defeat. I grabbed the young man's shoulder pads and took his hand. As I looked in his eyes I remembered what a former officer had said to me, "Guys know when they are getting good leadership."
Even to me, Erzinger looked like a good leader and a guy who I'd be proud to serve with. I congratulated him on a successful career, told him that he played his heart out, and wished him success as an officer. He replied in the same manner as his Navy counterpart.
As Erzinger turned to leave, Teich met him. As I watched the two rivals-turned-friends talk in midfield, I was struck by the realization that with men like this to lead us; our armed forces are in good hands.
This post first appeared on Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.