Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Why Every D1 Football Program Should Play a Service Academy

Every other year the US Navy football team hosts Notre Dame on a gridiron far from their home turf in Annapolis, Maryland. In my 22 years as an alum, I have seen the Midshipmen take on the Fightin' Irish in locales throughout the country, including the late Veteran's Stadium in Philadelphia, Jack Kent Cooke in Washington DC and as of this past weekend, San Diego, CA. (The two shall meet in 2020 in Dublin, Ireland!) Grateful for the win and the experience of this contest between "friends before rivals" I left SDCCU stadium—a relic among sports complexes—convinced that every D1 team should play one of the service academies.
My belief is far cry from what I usually hear among sports fans. Notre Dame's schedule is often mocked for playing at least one, if not two of our armed force teams. From some of my own friends, I have been asked "who do the Irish have this weekend? The Coast Guard?!" Forbes magazine joined in the fray, as it published "Notre Dame Needs to Drop Kick Navy" the night before the 91st annual gathering. I couldn't disagree more. Here's why.

In a sport that is increasingly more about the almighty dollar (ND is not immune from any of this), I can't help but respect the players from the academies for playing football—period. They have already received a scholarship given their appointment and their institutions aren't likely pathways to the NFL. They play football because they want to play football; the love of the game is palpable.

I do not have a direct connection to Army, Navy or Air Force, so I can't say that I watch their games with any regularity. However, this intersectional rivalry has served as an opportunity to see these athletes fight the fight, year after year. They are competing, tackling, running and striving no differently than their opponents. Most of them will channel that same effort onto an aircraft carrier, in a squadron, in deployment and if necessary in battle after they graduate—an accomplishment that is not a given in college football programs.

Beyond just the players, I'm always fascinated by the messages a school decides to send to its fans and its "rival" within the confines of a football stadium or gynasium. 
Athletic contests are indeed an opportunity for institutions to recruit—overtly and tacitly. Furthermore, timeouts and game breaks provide an avenue for the host team to profile professors, celebrate their others athletic teams and recognize alumni. The academies have no shortage of men and women many see are "heroes" that we ought to "meet" or at least learn more about. 

That being said, the halftime show might have been the highlight of the entire game, as it featured Navy Seals LEAP Frogs falling from the sky only to land on the field. The speed and velocity by which they descended onto the gridiron, one after another was near other-wordly. I watched these Navy Seals knowing the real reason they have been trained to do this act, but I was able to hold that cold, hard truth AND delight in the other side of this coin. They are the best of the best and this show proved it. If Notre Dame didn't play Navy, I'm not sure where I would see these paratroopers demonstrate their sheer physicality and their utter excellence. I'm grateful I was able to in a domain where they are encouraged and supported.

With the clock at zero,  Notre Dame earned its eighth win in a row this season. Both teams united midfield to extend their congratulations. But a few moments later, all players, coaches and their staff migrated to stand and face the Navy marching band. With the Middies up front and arms locked together, they sang their alma mater. The Fightin' Irish stood directly behind them and swayed with the music. Shortly thereafter, ND turned around and walked to the other corner of the end zone. Irish alumni and fans joined the players in singing "Notre Dame, Our Mother," our alma mater. Navy stood behind us, standing tall, tipping their caps with all hail to the victor. I don't know another team or program that does this deed of great sportsmanship. Again, grateful to be a part of that.
I wish a military were not necessary. I would rather that our tax dollars be spent on physical and mental health, education and caring for the poor, but the world requires something other. I get but a glimpse of who these folks are that are willing to step into those shoes—the men and women who literally put their boots on the ground—in these games. The exposure to their culture, their modus operandi, their traditions, and their celebrations are something every program could benefit from witnessing.

Next time I'm asked if Notre Dame is playing Army or Navy, I can't wait to tell them "yes." University President, Father Walsh had a vision for that long ago.
 In the 1927 game program, he wrote, 
“Notre Dame, Army, and Navy make an ideal group for a football triangle,” he wrote. “Their students live on campus, they draw their student body from all parts of the country.” 
“The outcome of our games with the Navy and with the Army is not so important as that the best feeling of sport and good-fellowship always prevail. We are indeed happy to have Navy on our schedule: we trust it will continue so long and so amiably as to become a part of our best-loved traditions.”
So grateful he did.

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