‘Playing for so much more than myself’
Uniform patches tell intimate stories within Army, Navy ranks
Generations of warriors -- the ones who fell on muddy foreign soil, the ones who have felt the searing sting of shrapnel and lead, the ones who, at this very moment, linger on distant shores in defense of the United States -- will gather Saturday on a football field.
You’ll see flashes of them, symbols of their service and sacrifice, amid the maelstrom of limbs and mud and sweat on every play of the Army-Navy game.
As they’ve done for decades in this annual clash, each player who takes the field will wear a patch stitched to the upper-right corner of their jersey. Those patches are the same symbols donned by those who have served, who still serve today or who have sacrificed their lives so that their country may thrive, so that a football game can be played on a Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia. Many of the patches represent the unit of a family member or friend.
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Others embody complete strangers -- to whom the players nevertheless feel a sense of kinship and gratitude -- who are stationed in different corners of the world. These players will soon join their ranks, but before they do, they have a chance to pay homage to those who came first.
“The opportunity to show pride and respect for my grandfather on a national stage against a great opponent, it’s just tremendous,” said Army running back Jon Crucitti, who will wear the 45th Infantry Division patch once sewn onto his grandfather’s uniform.
Martin Crucitti earned a Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart in World War II after his involvement in the Battle of Anzio in early 1944. There, 4,500 miles from the easternmost shore of his home country, Crucitti and his platoon were the victims of a surprise bombing of a nearby church as they advanced through the city. They were scattered like leaves in the wind, blown asunder by the force of the blast. Crucitti was hurled hundreds of feet, but survived. His hand and teeth were shattered and his body was covered in bruises and lacerations; others in his platoon weren’t as lucky. Despite his injuries, Crucitti turned back for his countrymen and pulled two officers from the rubble.
In October, Crucitti turned 95. Though age will prevent him from attending his grandson’s game, he did get to see him play once during his first season. And the grandfather proudly bequeathed his patch to Jon when he was a freshman; the grandson has just as proudly worn it in every Army-Navy game since.
Though the patches oftentimes carry a great deal of emotional weight, they’re no burden, many Army and Navy players said. Crucitti insists that he feels no extra pressure to perform when he sees that patch on his shoulder. Instead, he draws inspiration from it and is unafraid of failure.
“I know my grandpa’s going to love me at the end of the day either way,” Crucitti said. “But it just gives you that little extra motivation to try to perform at a higher level. He’s going to be my grandpa no matter what, but you always want to make him proud.”
Not all of the patches carry such a level of emotional attachment, but they matter a great deal to the players.
In previous years, Navy senior safety Tra’ves Bush had worn a patch representing the USS Carl Vinson as a show of gratitude to his uncle, who served on the ship. But this season, a letter persuaded Bush to break that tradition and honor a complete stranger.
Lt. Charles Silva survived his time serving in Vietnam, but was attacked by young trespassers on his Virginia property in September. After a month-long struggle, he succumbed the injuries at the age of 77. Silva had befriended Chris Reaghard, who was a former Navy defensive lineman and a 1995 graduate of the academy. After Silva’s tragic death, Reaghard reached out to his alma mater, penning a letter detailing Silva’s service and his untimely death. He hoped that one of Navy’s players would take it upon himself to don an F-8 Crusaders flight group patch bearing Silva’s name.
Once Bush finished the letter, he knew that he’d step onto the field against Army wearing that patch.
“Anyone that read that letter would’ve chosen to wear the patch,” Bush said. “Everyone knows that anybody on the team would’ve done this for the family.”
Navy linebacker Brye French understands that sentiment. He, too, is wearing a patch in honor of a man he never met. But there was no letter that convinced him to do it, rather, a legacy. Brendan Looney’s name echoed throughout the grounds at Annapolis since his 2004 graduation, particularly among members of the school’s lacrosse team. Looney was a standout in the sport and helped guide Navy to a berth in the national championship game as a senior. The Midshipmen fell one point shy against Syracuse, but his legend had been cemented.
Former Navy lacrosse coach Richie Meade spoke to subsequent teams of Looney’s unrelenting work ethic and positive attitude. French, playing lacrosse along with football, came to know of Looney through Meade and looked up to the former star despite never crossing his path. The two, however, were brought together by tragic circumstance.
After his time at the Naval Academy, Looney endured what’s considered by many to be the military’s most brutal training regimen and earned the right to call himself a Navy SEAL. However, he perished along with eight other troops in a Sept. 21, 2010, helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Looney died at the beginning of French’s sophomore year, and Meade took French and his teammates to Looney’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Under the saddest of circumstances, he’d finally gotten to be in the presence of a man he’d quietly idolized.
French didn’t forget that day in Arlington; last season, he wore Looney’s SEAL Team 3 patch against Army and it will be back on his uniform Saturday. Once the first ball is snapped, French said his focus will be solely on football, but in the few quiet moments when he’s alone with his thoughts amid thousands of his fellow servicemen, he’ll feel the significance of what is affixed to his chest.
“It’s a special moment, a special event, because everyone wears a patch representing those overseas or those who have lost their life, gave the ultimate sacrifice, so the opportunity to represent Brendan Looney really is an honor,” French said. “In the back of my mind, maybe not during the game, but before, or whenever there’s a little break in the game, I’ll think about his example.”
Even for players who’ll be on the sideline on Saturday, the game is momentous and affords them a public opportunity to say thank you.
Army offensive lineman Michael Kime suffered a knee injury against Temple two weeks ago and will be unable to play against Navy. Still, like all other Army players, he’ll be wearing a uniform that pays tribute to the Battle of the Bulge -- a map of the battle will be imprinted on the uniforms’ numbers -- and will also wear an 82nd Airborne patch to honor his paternal grandfather, Richard Owen Kime, who was a combatant in the very battle depicted on those uniforms.
Nearly 70 years ago, Kime was shot through the lung in Bastogne, Belgium, in one of the Battle of the Bulge’s most important conflicts. As he was losing blood and clinging to life while being driven by ambulance to safety, his driver had to maneuver through Gen. George S. Patton’s oncoming tanks, who were rushing forward to offer support to the Ally-controlled city that had been encircled by Nazi forces. Kime remembers his grandfather telling him that the ambulance driver, weaving through those friendly charging tanks, may have been as frightened as he was.
Kime was only 11 when his grandfather died in 2003, so while they were close, they never had the chance to know each other as men. But Kime takes solace knowing that he has the opportunity to represent his grandfather on Saturday. He plans to do the same next season when, hopefully, he’s able to take the field.
“By the time I really understood what he really went through and I got to really appreciate what the Greatest Generation did, unfortunately it was too late,” Kime said. “One of my bigger regrets is that my grandfather never got to see me play in an Army uniform. So I have it in the back of my head all of the time that I’m playing for so much more than myself.”