12/09/2010 11:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Army-Navy Game: Transcending Sports and Politics

By Joan Dowlin

I am a liberal Democrat who is opposed to the War in Afghanistan, was against the War in Iraq, and protested against the Vietnam War years ago. I guess you could call me a pacifist. But I love watching the Army-Navy game.

I fill up with pride every time I see the Navy Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland) in their formal blues and the Army Cadets of the United States Military Academy (West Point, New York) in their gray uniforms march onto the field for the annual Army-Navy football match-up.

It doesn't matter if you are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, male or female. Everyone I know believes in supporting and praising our brave troops. One can disagree with war policy but still appreciate the sacrifices our soldiers and their families make for our country.

My father is an ex-Marine who served in Iwo Jima during World War II. I feel we Americans can never repay him and his generation of war heroes for what they have done, not just for this nation, but the world.
Having seen war first-hand, my dad is also a pacifist. But that doesn't mean he can't accept the thankfulness of a new generation of Americans. He sports his Iwo Jima Marine cap with pride. Whenever he wears it in public, people come up to him to show their appreciation, at times even offering to buy his dinner.

This mutual admiration for our Armed Forces is one of the reasons that the Army-Navy game, which will be played Saturday (2:30 p.m.) at Lincoln Financial Field -- home of the Philadelphia Eagles -- is an event that transcends politics and sports. As a sporting event, it has lost some of its athletic significance through its 110 years. There was a time (in 1926, 1944, 1945, and 1963) when the game actually had national championship implications. However, since then -- as top level college football has developed into a training ground for the NFL -- military commitment, high academic entrance requirements, and height and weight limits have reduced the overall competitiveness of both academies.

So sports-wise, it's not the Super Bowl or NCAA championship or even the level of some of the college bowls. But as a tradition and century-old rivalry, no event can match it. Navy leads the series 54-49-7. One of the great appeals of the game may be that few, if any, of the participants will ever play in the NFL (Roger Staubach, Phil McConkey, and Napoleon McCallum being notable exceptions), hence they are playing solely for the love of the game (and the rivalry and the Thompson Cup, named after its donor, Robert M. Thompson).

There is also the pomp and circumstance. Journalist Joseph P. Owens of the ExpressTimes wrote of the 2009 Army-Navy contest at Lincoln Financial Field: "The game was entertaining, but the memories are made in all the pageantry and festivities before the game." Last year's event featured the Navy Leap Frogs parachuting into the stadium. Navy won, 17-3.

Usually, high ranking officers such as the Secretary of Defense (Robert Gates in 2009) and even the Commander in Chief attend. In fact, the contest has been nicknamed the "President's Game." The tradition of presidents attending began in 1901 with Theodore Roosevelt. Former Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all have presided over the event. Ironically, Dwight G. Eisenhower, the only U.S. president to play in the game (Eisenhower played for the Army Cadets in a 6-0 loss in 1912), and Jimmy Carter, the only other U.S. President to go to one of the academies (USNA), never attended the competition as president.

Regarding Presidential visits, the most emotional games played may have been in 1963 and 2001. President John F. Kennedy was a Navy hero in WWII and he attended in 1961 and 1962, initiating the practice of having the Commander in Chief do the pre-game coin toss. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963, eight days before he was supposed to attend the Army-Navy event.

The was postponed and subsequently rescheduled for a week later at the request of his widow, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who felt it would be healing for the nation to proceed as planned and a "fitting tribute" to Jack. Navy won behind quarterback and future Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, 21-15, in a thriller at Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium (renamed JFK Stadium a year later).

2001's contest took place less than three months after the events of 9/11. President George W. Bush stated during the TV broadcast that the 102nd game taking place at Veterans Stadium might be seen in a different light because "a lot of the young men on the playing field will end up in Afghanistan or somewhere else." The Cadets won that year, 26-17.

During wartime the game is even more poignant because some seniors will not return once they are deployed, and much of the sentiment of the event goes out to those who share the uniform and who are overseas.

On November 27, 1926, the Army-Navy game was played in Chicago for the National Dedication of Soldier Field and a monument to American servicemen who had fought in World War I. Navy entered the game undefeated and West Point had only lost one time (to Notre Dame), so the game would decide the national championship. Before a crowd of 100,000, the teams fought to a 21-21 tie and Navy was awarded the national title.

Another interesting fact is that Navy Midshipman (and future Admiral) Joseph Mason Reeves wore what is widely considered the first football helmet in the 1893 game. Having been advised by a Navy doctor that another hit to his head would result in "instant insanity" or even death, Reeves paid an Annapolis shoemaker to make him a leather helmet. It seems they had even worse concussion problems back then.

Although a bidding process for hosting the game began in 2008, the event has been most frequently held in Philadelphia, which is equidistant from the two academies. I am from the Philadelphia suburbs and feel that we in the tri-state area have been blessed to host this event for over 80 years.

A friend of mine told a story where, when he was a boy in 1977, he and a friend and his family were driving to the Army-Navy game in Philly on a blustery 30 degree day when they saw a cadet in full winter dress standing on a street corner just outside of town. They asked if he needed a lift and he said he was staying at an overflow hotel. They obliged him and gave him a ride to City Hall. They felt it was the least they could do for someone who has pledged to serve our country. Such is the respect and honor shown cadets and midshipmen by the Philadelphia area residents that continues to this day.

When I was a music student at West Chester State College, I remember two flute players bragging about how they had boyfriends that were going to Annapolis (USNA). It was a big, prestigious deal then and still is now.

Philadelphia sports fans often get a bad rap. Sometimes it is deserved, as some Eagles fans did boo Santa Claus (albeit a lame-looking one) and throw snowballs on the field (sometimes to win a bet with a sitting mayor), while some Phillies fans do occasionally interrupt games by running around in the outfield (until they are tackled, tased or tripped by Braves outfielders). But as far as the Army-Navy game, the fans' behavior has generally been exemplary (with a tragic exception of exuberant fans leaning on a Vet Stadium railing, only to have it give way and lead to serious injury).

Perhaps the crowds attending "America's Game" are reflecting the Armed Forces' principles of honor, integrity, pride, respect, discipline, strength, and courage.

Saturday's Army-Navy game will televised on CBS. I will be watching. To me, it is a contest where there are no real losers; only winners. Although President Obama will not be attending this year, I know I will once again be filled with American pride. Just as presidents in the past have switched seats to the opposite side at halftime, I watch the game with no real stake in the outcome but admire the competitors, knowing both sides are deserving of our respect and support.

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