The Rivalry

Reporting by Erin Summers

Edited for web by Joe Harman

When it comes to college football rivalries there are few others that can compare to the history and intensity of Army-Navy.

The series is just about as old as football itself. It began on Nov. 9, 1890, when Cadet Dennis Mahan Michie (pronounced “Mikey”), captain of the newly formed West Point football team, accepted a challenge from the Naval Academy’s team for a football game between the two Academies.

While the first game took place on the West Point Plain, 89% of 121 Army-Navy Games have been played in Philadelphia. And while Philly is known as the “City of Brotherly Love,” there has never been a lot of love between these “Brothers In Arms” when it comes to football.   

It didn’t take long for this rivalry to get super-heated, super-fast. In fact, just four years in, a duel almost erupted between an Army General and a Navy Admiral following the game in 1893. Luckily no one lost their life as a result of that brouhaha, but the dust up did result in a 4-year interruption of the games.   

Oswald H Ernst, Superintendent at West Point at the time, suspended the games because, as he put it, "The excitement attending it exceeds all reasonable limits."      

Today the field may look a little bit different, the style of play is certainly different and the uniforms have changed over time, but one thing is for sure: The intensity and “excitement attending” this rivalry is just as high as ever.

And that intensity is apparent as anticipation for the big game builds on the campuses of each Academy, with a long list of “Army-Navy week” festivities. Bill Wagner, Navy athletics beat reporter for Annapolis’s Capital Gazzette says, "Nothing tops Army Navy when it comes to pageantry." 

There are mid-week bonfires on campus, pranks played on each others’ academies, which once included the kidnapping of each school’s mascot, and the game balls are run from each school to the game-day venue courtesy of the Academies’ marathon teams.

Then, after a long week of building up excitement, when game-day finally arrives the pre-game festivities are amazing. First there’s the “March-on”, where the Cadets and Midshipmen march into the stadium in formation. There are aircraft flyovers and sometimes paratroopers drop in. And we can’t forget to mention the “Prisoner Exchange.”

Brent Briggeman, Air Force athletics beat reporter for The Gazzette in Colorado Springs, explains that last one to us: “All the academies have exchange cadets from the other academies, and they'll do pranks on the exchange cadets all week [leading up to the game]. They'll make them wear whatever costume, something that makes them stand out at the academy and have a lot of fun with that. And then, before the game, they'll do a ‘prisoner exchange’ where they let that those cadets go sit with their student body at the game.”

One element of the rivalry which separates it from other college football match-ups is that the entire student bodies from both schools is always there. “How many college football games have the entire student body from both schools, there?” asks Sal Interdonato, a reporter who covers Army football before answering his own question, “Army-Navy." 

Then, just before kickoff, it’s time for the President of the United States -- the Commander In Chief -- to join the captains at mid-field for the coin toss. Army-Navy is one of the only college football games the President of the United States attends on a regular basis.

The drive, dedication and sacrifice of generations is what makes this annual experience so special.

Clint Bruce, a former standout linebacker for Navy, put it this way, “Show me another game where everybody playing is willing to die for everybody watching and I'll tell you that we have competition. That is the story of that game, these are men who know once that clock runs down, I'm going to be shoulder to shoulder with this person right across from me.”

"Everyone knows someone that has ties to this game . . ., everyone knows someone that has served,” said Navy’s head coach, Ken Niumatolo.

The game has come to embody the spirit of the inter-service rivalry of the United States Armed Forces. “I know every college has its things,” says Brent Briggeman, the Air Force writer, “but with [these players], it's so special because they've all made a commitment to serve beyond their college years. They're all kind of in it together, even when they're on the other side.” 

But part of the pageantry and tradition of Army-Navy was interrupted in 2020. The usual neutral site in Philadelphia had to be changed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For only the fourth time in its history, the Army-Navy Game was moved to Michie Stadium in order to allow the Cadets and Midshipmen to attend the game. The Midshipmen from Navy travelled overnight in a squadron of buses in order to get there in time for kick off. 

In 2020 the Army defense pitched their first shutout over Navy since 1969 and a 12-point fourth quarter carried them to a 15-0 win. It was their first win over Navy at Michie Stadium in the history of the storied rivalry. 

"The fog rolled in and it almost seemed appropriate for the battle that was taking place out there,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said after the game, “. . . to defend the sacred turf that so many great players and great teams have played on. We've been preparing for this game for three weeks, and even longer than that -- 365 days. To be able to pitch a shutout means the world to us. It was a great game." 

At the postgame press conference, Army’s sophomore quarterback Tyheir Tyler shared what it felt like, "It gave me chills just to see how happy the seniors were to see the emotion from the coaches and just everyone. What's amazing about this game is that the significance of this game is deeper than football. Seeing all of the officers, colonels and generals congratulating you means a lot." 

At the end of the night, West Point’s Alma Mater carried through the stadium, as the winning team’s Alma Mata is always sung last. The goal in these rivalry games is always “To Sing Second.”