• Graham Knight

A Civil War: Army vs. Navy Celebrates 25

by Graham Knight

Graham Knight: How long have you been following Army-Navy Games before you wrote the book?

John Feinstein: Well, I grew up in New York City and I went to Army games as a kid with my family. And then when I got to The Washington Post, I started covering Navy in both football and basketball. I covered the David Robinson teams. I'm dating myself, but I did. So I had relationships and feelings for both schools before I wrote the book in ’95 and felt as if I kind of had an advantage because I knew something about them both going in and then was able to develop great relationships with the players on both teams as the season went on.

Graham Knight: Now the copyright on the book is '96, so in some regards, it's celebrating its 25th anniversary.

John Feinstein: It is,

Graham Knight: Although you started working on it in ’95. That's, I'm just going to come out and say, it's a hell of a piece of work. Talk to me a little bit about what it took to put that book together, ton of detail.

John Feinstein: Details is what I do. I mean, that's what I've always done. I had an editor on one book who kept writing in the margins,“Too much detail,” and I finally called him and I said, If you think there's too much detail in here, you can't edit me because detail is what I do. And that's what I tried to do with A Civil War, as with all my other books. And I was lucky because Army kids and Navy kids are so bright and they're so well read and they're so outgoing as a group that it was it was actually easy to get them to open up and talk to me.

Graham Knight: Talk to me a little bit about the structure and in terms of what it took to get that you were at practices, you found games. It seemed like you went and camped out with Navy, maybe one week in Army the next week. How much work went into all of that?

John Feinstein: Well, there was a lot of travel involved, but I spent a lot of time going back and forth. But sometimes I would be one school Monday and another school Tuesday, depending on the week and who they were playing and things like that. There were a couple of times I was able to get to both games on a given Saturday because of logistics. So that helped, too. But what was key for me was the access. Both coaches gave me total access to their teams, to practices, to team meetings. I was on the sidelines at every game. I think I'm the only person in history who wasn't President of the United States, who was in both locker rooms during an Army-Navy Game, which is something I like to brag about. So the access that that I was given by both schools and by the coaches and players was absolutely critical.

Graham Knight: So let's talk about what you have learned about this contest in the last, I don't know how many decades, but let's just date it in terms of your book, say, twenty-five years. Looking back over the last twenty five years and however many Army games you want to add as a kid, what can you say about this? Has it changed? Is it still the same civil war?

John Feinstein: I think I could write A Civil War on any year of Army and Navy, and the book would be similar. The storylines would be different, the kids would be different, but it would basically be the same young men who want to play Division I football, who frequently are overlooked by other schools, who come and play with a chip on their shoulders, who love football and who understand that when they graduate, ninety-nine percent of the time, the only uniform they're going to wear is an Army uniform, a Navy uniform or a Marine Corps uniform, not an NFL uniform. There are exceptions, of course. Roger Staubach, most notably, Napoleon McCallum and Andrew Villanueva has had a very successful career in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but they're the exceptions.

Graham Knight: So if I remember the thing and I never heard you complain in the past, you've done lots of interviews, but the people never read the books. If I remember, Army won the year of that book and you followed, you followed a number of different players. But at the end you talked about two brothers, one on Army and one on Navy who embrace at the end of that book. I'm kind of curious if you could hit on three things for me. What have you learned about the Brotherhood, what have you learned about the just to contest? What is it about this game that makes it special?

John Feinstein: Well, I mean, the fact that they are in fact comrades in arms when they're not playing football against each other. I went to a 25th reunion for the book the night before the game in New York City and the two players you're talking about Jim Cantaloupe, the Army captain, and Andrew Thompson, the Navy captain that year were both there, and they're both very good friends. They were at each other's weddings. In fact, Cantaloupe came down to Navy for Andrew Thompson's graduation. And there were a bunch of Army and Navy guys there hugging one another, telling all the war stories, not literally, thank God, although some of them have deployed, and there's a bond. There's a unique bond, because I've always said only a Cadet can really have an understanding of what a Midshipman goes through, and only Midshipmen can have an understanding of what a Cadet goes through an that's absolutely true.

Graham Knight: All right. And then last but not least, and I reserve the right to add one more after that. So what do I want to ask you that I'm thinking about is there? So I want to tell you a story. So it turns out my best friend's dad was known as Killer Gregory as a Black Knight in the 50s. He happened to be one of the few that went through the 50s and wasn't caught up in the scandal, then. Later in life, he was teaching at Navy. And for some reason, at the Navy pep rally, they ask him, Killer Gregory, to speak on Army's behalf at the Navy pep rally. Anyway, he gets up in full parade dress and he says, you know, sometimes in combat, it's the element of surprise and makes a difference. Rips open his jacket and it says, “Go Army, Beat Navy,” at a Navy pep rally. It just kind of curious how many of those stories have you come?

John Feinstein: Well, Army-Navy is the only sporting event, college sporting event, I know of where the two schools have a banquet together the night before the game. You have Army people on one side of the room, Navy people on the other side of the room, but they cheer for each other. One year, I think it was the 100th anniversary of the game, they brought back all the living Heisman Trophy winners from the two schools, and each was cheered by both sides. Roger Staubach went last. And he said “The most, the proudest moment of my football career was running through the tunnel for Super Bowl XII and hearing the announcer say from the United States Naval Academy quarterback Roger Staubach.” And I'm not sure there was a dry eye in the house. Certainly mine weren't.

Graham Knight: All right, terrific. Anything you've always wanted to say about A Civil War that you haven't gotten a chance. Do you think about it? Often you have so many books. I mean, which one of your books?

John Feinstein: I do think about . . . A Civil War is probably my favorite book among all of those that I've written. I just recently published a book on race and sports, which is probably going to be my most controversial book, and I think my most important book because of the subject matter, because it's still such a huge issue in our country. But A Civil War is a book I'm really proud of again, because of the kids, now men, that I wrote about the relationships that I've had through the years with all of them, really. I mean, there were forty-five seniors on the two teams, and I've been in touch at certain times with all but one of them, because, Kevin Norman, who went to Army and died overseas in 2002. The rest of them I've been in touch with ever since.

And I love it when people, I have people come up to me and say, “I went to Army,” or, “I went to Navy because I read your book.” That, God, that makes me feel great.