December 10, 2010

To Beat Navy, Army must come together as one

In an age where college football rivalries are based on the amount of hatred one group of alumni can pour on the other, the Army-Navy game continues to be the nation's greatest, if only for the purity of the game. No doubt, there is some bitter resentment between the two Academies, especially after Army's eight-year drought against the Middies, but when the smoke clears the field and these players graduate, they will meet again on other fields, foreign fields, and will support each other through something more difficult than what any other rivalry will. They will call on one another on the battlefield.

Imagine what it must mean to be fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan as an Army Soldier and having a naval fighter jet dropping bombs and missiles in support of your mission. Imagine being a Navy Seal and under intense fire, then finding that Special Forces team or Ranger Platoon as they crest the ridge to provide cover.

The game has been a mismatch over the past eight seasons. Navy's dominance of Army is unparalleled through the 111 contest history. The Midshipmen have built a winning program, and bowl games at the end of December have been the norm. For the past few seasons, it has almost seemed as if the gap has widened. But that was before Rich Ellerson took the helm as the Army head coach. That was before Army found its' rhythm on offense behind a young backfield and seasoned offensive line. Before Army's senior-led defense found a way to disrupt and charge opposing offenses.

This one has the makings of one of the special ones. Games like we saw in the 90's, where the outcome was never in hand until the final cannon fired to signal the scoreboard time clock at 00:00. Mainly because Army has made it that way. The Black Knights are headed to the postseason, playing in the Bel Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on December 30th. It's Army's first bowl appearance since 1996, and a testament to Ellerson's approach and how the team has bought into it.

The Approach

And what makes this so special is that approach.

Ellerson has embraced the culture of West Point, the destination of the cadets (active military service in a time of war), and made that the priority. Army football players are West Point cadets, first and foremost. It's because they are, because of what they go through and are committed to endure, that they will be successful. Army football will win because of the type of young men that choose the path and attack it with ferocity. They will not win in spite of the duties they must perform on a daily basis.

It’s why you see guys like Stephen Anderson and Jason Johnson, emotional senior leaders on this year’s team, choosing to branch Infantry. They want to be in the fight, they want to lead, and they want to bring all of their gifts and abilities to the young soldiers on the battlefield. They, like their teammates, are a special breed. They are what Army football is all about.

When Army football players run onto the field, they touch a plaque that reads, "I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player". Those words, spoken by General George C. Marshall in World War II, are not to be taken lightly. He wanted the best of the best, those that bore the challenges of West Point, and also put together a formidable attack on the football field.

Today, Army is rallying to that cry. They are becoming entrenched with the Corps, and the actions have not been unnoticed. The result has been a team that stands ready, with the Corps soundly having their back. The "calluses", as Coach Ellerson describes, earned by the hard work of being a West Point cadet, are what will carry the Black Knights to victory. They will win because of the calluses, not in spite of them.

Navy comes at a precarious time for the Black Knights. Army is coming off an embarrassing loss on national TV against Notre Dame, and they were whipped by Air Force only a month ago. The seniors on Army’s team have never beaten a service academy rival, and for all of their success this year, another loss to Navy will leave them feeling like they failed to accomplish one of their primary goals at the beginning of the season. Even beating SMU in the Armed Forces bowl won’t make up for it.

Navy comes in with plenty of talent and speed. On paper, this one looks like another tilt Navy’s way. They have learned how to win and expect to. However, they will have a monkey of their own on their back. The Middies already have a loss to Air Force; a loss to Army would be a great hit to the seniors on the Navy squad. A loss to Army will make their senior class the ones that lost and ended the streak. That will forever be their legacy when they leave the Academy. When they run into former Army players at the O-Club.

Regardless of how you look at this match-up, put all the reports and stats away on Saturday. As you prepare to watch the game, be it in person or on television, take a moment to sit back and take it all in. What you will be witnessing is truly the greatest rivalry in all of sports. The one game, regardless of a team’s record, that is sold out months before opening day each season. Watch the flyovers " the Army Helicopters and the Navy jets. Watch the paratroopers come onto the field. Listen to the cadets and midshipmen, and the messages from bases around the world of 'GO ARMY! BEAT NAVY!!!" or "GO NAVY, BEAT ARMY!!!"

But above all, look at the cadets and midshipmen in the stadium. Then look at them on the playing field. Look at their faces, watch as they grab hold of the man next to them and fight for every inch of turf they can pull. See how much this game means to them. And then remember that one day, in the not-so-distant future, each of them will most likely find themselves in harms way, fighting for every inch of ground in a battle that means much more than who gets to sing their alma mater last.

Come ready on Saturday. Come ready to watch an Army team that will be ready to take on Navy, who will not let up until that last whistle blows, and who will have their best chance of winning in recent years because of who they are and what they are committed to become. What makes any military operation special is not the amount of firepower or technological advantage a platoon has, it's how a group of soldiers can muster more strength as a unit than they ever would be able to individually. They can beat the odds because they have each other.
That's what Army will have on Saturday.

The team, the Corps, the Long Grey Line.

That's how Army can beat Navy on Saturday.

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