Army-Navy Game: Cadets, Midshipmen put it all on the line in America's Game
What began in 1890 as a challenge between two academies has transformed into America’s Game. From the pregame to postgame traditions, the Army-Navy game is one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
“There is a buzz and electricity in the air. People use that term, but gosh, you really can physically feel the difference in the air,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “It’s indescribable to be a part of it. There’s no words to describe what that feeling is.”
Navy enters Saturday's contest with a 13-game winning streak against Army. It’s the longest that either side has held in the 115 meetings between the programs.
“It has to do a lot with coaches preparing us, going out and finding ways to win the game,” Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds said. “It’s always one or two plays and we have found ways to make those plays.”
Before 2002, the longest streak by each program was five in a row. Coaches and players say they don't buy into the streaks, no matter how long they have extended.
“You hope every year to win the next game. You don’t really look at the streak or anything.” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “It’s just this year, 2015, because 2014 and previous games don’t do anything to win this.”
“I don’t think that the last 13 years really matter in this game," Army's Monken said. "Our team has to go play this game. Our kids aren’t responsible for the last 13 years. We have players that have played in last year’s game. We have a lot of guys playing for the first time.”
Rivalries like Army-Navy can pit friends and family against each other, and no one understands that more Niumatalolo and Monken. The two have been friends for almost three decades and were assistants on the Navy staff from 2002-2007.
Seven years later, Monken took over the helm at Army and the two friends found themselves on the opposite side for the first time.
“It was tough,” Niumatalolo said about seeing Monken on the Army sideline last year. “Coach Monken and I actually started coaching at Hawaii together as graduate assistants.”
“I’m really proud of Kenny. He is a dear friend of mine. Playing in this great rivalry doesn’t change our relationship,” Monken said. “But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to beat him. And he wants to beat us.”
Army and Navy have played the game at many sites during the last 125 years from M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore in 2014 to original Yankee Stadium in New York City in 1931.
But for the 116th meeting, the classic returns to Lincoln Financial Stadium in Philadelphia, which will host the game for the 86th time, the most of any city. For the senior classes, it’s fitting to play their last Army-Game in the same stadium where they played their first.
“It is pretty surreal," Army senior quarterback AJ Schurr said. "The first time I went out there, the Apaches flying over our team. F-16s or the fighter jets fly over Navy. There is a lot of noise. It is kind of like white noise and can’t tell what is going on."
Many of the thousands of people who attend every year are active and former military members. Others are military families. And of course, the student sections.
“You have Army, Navy, Marine Corps that has served, wants to serve,” Navy captain and nose guard Bernie Sarra said. “What really makes it special is those who have come before us and those who will come in the future.”
The Army and Navy faithful build up excitement in the stadium during pregame traditions as they watch the Cadets and Midshipmen participate in the “March On” tradition and flyovers above the stadium.
“It’s unlike anything else. It’s louder than Notre Dame Stadium where we played this year,” Reynolds said. “It doesn’t compare.”
For Navy seniors Sarra and Reynolds, 2015 is the chance for their class to end on a high note with another victory.
On the opposite sideline, Army seniors haven’t tasted what it’s like to beat Navy. They are ready for the chance to prove they have what it takes.
“We have one more game left," Army senior Chris Carnegie said. "We know we are a good team and have great players. We have been working our butts off all throughout the year and it wouldn’t be any better than to win against the rival. We know what is at stake. This team is 0-0 against them.”
Any coach, player or member of each team will tell you that is the No. 1 goal on the field. Beat your rival. Beat Army. Beat Navy.
But take away the scoreboard and the streaks and the core of the Army-Navy Game still remains the same.
“Really, we’re two football teams but we are in the same fight. Eventually both pick their helmets up, battling the same opponent,” Niumatalolo said. “They will try to beat us and we will try to beat them. But at the end of the day, the importance pales in comparison to what they will face.”
The players, students and military members in the stadium all know the true heart of the game can be found in their sacrifice and service to the United States.
“Before the game during the game, we’re trying to whoop up on one another. It means so much to win,” Sarra said. “But after the game especially for seniors, once the clock strikes zero, you’re not opponents anymore. You’re on the same team and brothers in arms.”