When I’m out driving and want to take a mental break from news casts and jazz, I turn the dial to scratch that other itch of mine – sports. Recently while cruising home to New England from Virginia, I tuned in to a segment on the greatest rivalry in college football.
Several callers touted Michigan-Ohio State, USC-Notre Dame, and a few other pairings. It didn’t take long, though, until I was jarred out of my highway daydream by a caller who said: “I don’t know why there’s even a debate on this; it’s got to be Army-Navy.”
All of a sudden, the intended background noise roused me. The caller had a point, and as a veteran I could appreciate the sentimentality behind the response.
But there’s far more to it than that.
In an age of multi-million dollar sports programming, there’s a reason why this December game (with modest ratings at best) remains nationally televised, even if the academies only occasionally field competitive teams, and the networks profit from it.
Past the obvious appeal to veterans and alumni coast to coast, Army-Navy just might be the most visible major college football competition remaining that is played purely for pride in one’s school, and love of the sport.
(Lest my Air Force brethren think I’ve forsaken then, I haven’t: they belong right here, too. It’s just that Army and Navy have been in existence as institutions of higher education, and thus playing each other, a lot longer).
Having first matched up in 1890, it’s essentially the last bastion of the true scholar-athlete at the highest level of college play. And that’s why purists still watch: what they get at Army-Navy they can’t find anywhere else in collegiate sports without heading into the lower divisions.
This past Saturday, when the teams from West Point and Annapolis took the field in Baltimore, what the nation saw in Navy’s tough 17-10 victory was all-out passion and hard-nosed but clean play.
Many cadets and midshipmen – whose schools have produced a staggering combined total of more than 140 Rhodes Scholars and typically boast varsity football graduation rates close to 90 percent – brought their textbooks with them to the game because they don’t have the luxury of lighter academic loads and fluffy majors.
What we didn’t see is professional scouts surveying talent for the next National Football League draft. Every player on the field has a multi-year commitment to serve as an officer in the armed forces after graduation, making even the best of them unattractive to the big-money NFL.
We also didn’t see agents lining up to promise lucrative contracts and endorsement deals worth millions to the best players, sometimes slipping them backdoor cash and other favors to secure their representation.
What we did see was yardage ground out by players who this time next year might be dodging bullets in Afghanistan or some other hell-hole – all while leading a platoon and entrusted with the lives of everyone at their backs. This for the whopping raise in pay to a $35,208 base salary of a second lieutenant (pending Congressional approval in 2015).
What we didn’t see was end-zone dancing and opponent-taunting after touchdowns or open field tackles. What did see were both teams – winner and loser alike – standing together at game’s end to show respect for the playing of each other’s Alma Mater.
And thankfully, what we didn’t have to endure is yet another jacked-up future millionaire who isn’t finishing his degree telling us how he just went “to battle” with his teammates, and “won the war” over his “enemies.” The kids suiting up for West Point and Annapolis know better, because they’re all heading to real wars, and some of them won’t be coming back.
Yes, big-time college sports have been polluted with money, and make no mistake, the service academies gladly feast on their cut of that pie. Hey, I enjoy watching the quality of play of the top-ranked teams as much as the next guy.
But when friends tout Notre Dame and Stanford as parallels, I always remind them of this distinction: the players in Army-Navy receive no pampering or fringe benefits, and when they graduate, often get an express ticket to the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, that last point is always met with silence.
Eventually, I snapped out of my highway trance and flicked the radio back to jazz.
And last weekend, I tuned into the Army-Navy game. The contest wasn’t flashy and won’t compete with this year’s final four in the College Football Playoff: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.
Also, its stars weren’t the biggest, or the fastest, and certainly not going to be wealthy anytime soon.
But for the last 124 years, the cadets of West Point and midshipmen of Annapolis have taken the field in college football’s greatest rivalry – and arguably the last remaining game of true student-athletes – where every player is always on the same team.