HIGHLAND FALLS, N.Y. — Days like Friday force you to remember something Bob Sutton said once, years ago, when he was the head coach of the Army football team.
“It’s sunny, but it’s cold,” he said one day, his eyes softening. “You’re at Thayer Gate. The Thayer Hotel is to your immediate right, the Hudson River just beyond there. The Buffalo Soldier Field is straight ahead of you. You know Michie Stadium is just beyond that. Let me tell you something: You never feel more alive than you do right there.”
It is sunny this day. It is cold. It is supposed to be a little less sunny and a little less cold on Saturday when, for the first time since 1943, Army will host Navy in a football game at West Point, just on the other side of Thayer Gate. This is always one of the essential sporting events of a calendar year, a reminder that not all great competitions end in championships, or in confetti blasts, or in champagne showers.
Every December, the Cadets and the Midshipmen do battle — as was once said of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali — for the “championship of each other.” Usually these games are played in Philadelphia, neutral ground for both academies, where tens of thousands of alumni and fans and family members and ex-players and aficionados of this purest brand of sport gather to tailgate and to cheer and to roar and to exchange these sacred oaths:
“Go Army, BEAT NAVY!”
“Go Navy, BEAT ARMY!”
It is eternally corny and abundantly naïve and relentlessly sentimental, straight out of an old Frank Merriwell or Chip Hilton book. But it is also the most real sporting event of every year. The passion is real. The energy is real. The sweat and blood and tears — always tears, win or lose — that flow are as real as the law allows.
“You are only given so many opportunities when you’re here to define what it means to serve our country,” says Army linebacker Amadeo West, a senior (or “Firstie,” in West Point parlance) from Oceanside, Calif. “This is one of those. This is something bigger than yourself. It’s a tremendous opportunity to remind ourselves we’re serving to protect millions of Americans and the Constitution of the United States.”
The site of this game is, in its own way, perfect. Philadelphia wasn’t likely to allow the entire Corps of Cadets and the whole of the Brigade of Midshipmen to invade Lincoln Financial Field — and that was before the second wave of COVID-19 rid that building of the handful of fans that had been allowed there earlier in the year to attend Eagles games.
So the schools adjusted. That has been a constant at West Point going back to the summer, when it became clear that Army’s original 12-game schedule was going to have to be completely revamped. Only three of those original dozen opponents remained once athletic director Mike Buddie and senior associate AD Bob Beretta were done with the task of finding replacement opponents. The virus knocked out two high-profile home games — BYU in September, Air Force in November.
What remained was an 11-game slate and, to date, a 7-2 record that has left Army coach Jeff Monken and his players feeling more grateful and satisfied than most undefeated seasons would have made them. Army reached as high as No. 22 in the polls for a couple of weeks, too. In many ways, that is one of the true triumphs of this ransacked college football season.
“Allowing our players to have a season … it has just been incredible,” Monken says. “That this school and this team was able to take the field and show the nation our army is not going to stop, no matter the challenges. They allowed us to represent the Army, and not just as football players, but on behalf of the over 1 million men and women who serve.”
It hasn’t been easy, by any measure. Army has used six different quarterbacks because of injuries. While the team remained free of the virus for months, even the West Point post hasn’t proven immune. Some players have been quarantined. Losing the Air Force game was disappointing (though it will now be played — hopefully — on Dec. 19 at Michie).
Yet there was a wonderful video that emerged after the Cadets’ most recent game, a thrilling 28-27 home win over Georgia Southern, Monken exhorting his masked players postgame with a chill-inducing chant, inspired by an old Scottish ballad, about a sailor named Sir Andrew Barton, which has informed and inspired Army football teams for generations:
Fight on, my men.
I am hurt, but I am not slain;
I’ll lay me down and bleed awhile.
And then I’ll rise and fight again …
Army and Navy will rise again Saturday, 3 o’clock, Michie Stadium. Someone will score more points. As ever, both sides will be winners.