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Legends of The Rivalry: Former Army & Air Force Football Greats Honored

by Graham Knight

On the field at the Commanders' Classic were five legends from academy football who were honored at this game.


Among them, Brigadier General (Ret.) Pete Dawkins, the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner who led the Army Cadets to an 8-0-1 record in the final season of the career of storied head coach, Red Blaik.


Also honored was Army tight end Gary Steele who, in the late 1960s was the first African-American player to letter in football at the US Military Academy.


"Because of my background in the way that I was raised in the military, the thought of me being the first African-American didn't enter my mind," Steele told Behind The Lines. "I knew that it was happening, but it didn't stay with me because there was a guy who was in front of me playing my position and I had to beat him. So being the first African-American, I knew it, but it didn't make a lot of difference to me. It was more about the team. It wasn't about me. It was about the team."

Former Army football player Gary Steele, who became the first African-American to letter in football at the US Military Academy at West Point, was among the Army and Air Force football greats honored at the inaugural Commanders' Classic on November 6th, 2021 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX.
Former Army football player Gary Steele, foreground, who was the first African-American to letter in football at the US Military Academy at West Point, was among the Army and Air Force football greats honored at the inaugural Commanders' Classic on November 6th, 2021 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX.

Steele was actually a two-sport star, in both football and track, and went on to a 20-plus year career in the US Army.


Two Air Force defensive standouts were also recognized. Scott "Spike" Thomas was a defensive back and kick returner for the Falcons in the early 1980s, as well as a four-year letterman for the basketball team. He later flew missions in Desert Storm.


Chad Hennings is among the most decorated of Air Force Falcons. As a defensive lineman in the mid-1980s, Hennings won the Outland Trophy as the outstanding collegiate lineman in 1982, went on to be an A-10 pilot, and then spent nine seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, winning three Super Bowl rings.


"It was very similar to being in a fighter squadron," Hennings said, "with a group of your wingman when you're flying either training missions or combat missions. It was very comparable to that of playing against, side by side with your defensive tackles and you’re in the defense and offense preparing for a game where there's regular season play-off or Super Bowl. I mean, the preparation, the mindset, the physical preparation was actually very comparable."


From the coaching ranks, Jim Young is among the winningest coaches in Black Knights history, winning 51 games from 1983-1990, including five wins over Navy and three of Army's non CIC Trophies.


The competitive spirit for the guys was alive then and it continues to this day.


"Fifty-three years ago was when I last played [against] Navy," Steele remembers. "We wanted to kick their butts! You know, every year, when we get into late October, early November, I start getting pumped. I'm getting ready. And where I live, there are a lot of Air Force and Navy retirees. And, you know, we see each other, we look at each other and we both announce, 'BEAT whoever.'"

It doesn't matter what any team's record is prior to," said Hennings, "you're going to have to take your game to a whole new level because there's pride and there's bragging rights and we got all of us alumni that are pulling for our individual schools."


But there were two significant take-aways you get when you talk to these on-field greats:


One is LEGACY


"That I was a good teammate," Chad Hennings said when we asked him what he hoped his legacy would be, "I did what I had to do to help our team on to victory. That same thing, whether it was in a fighter squadron, too. I was a good wingman. I did what it took to accomplish the mission."


The second: CAMARADERIE


"You're really drawn together," Gary Steele related to us. "We were friends then, brothers then, and we're brothers even today."


"Brotherhood", it's a word we hear often from these academy gridiron veterans.





edited for web by Joe Harman