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Army-Navy is much more than a game

By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science / December 10, 1999



It was a football game last weekend that was little noted, so it is fitting it will not be long remembered, either. After all, the two teams went into it with a combined and dismal record of 7-14 for the season.

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Yet, it was in so many ways the best game of the year. It always is, when Army and Navy play. This was the 100th contest between the two.

Last month, The Sporting Scene addressed the appeal of rivalries, and Army vs. Navy was one cited. But as a rivalry is so much more fun than just another game, Army vs. Navy is so much better than just another rivalry.

It is, hands down, the crme de la crme of college football and, frankly, of all sport.

That's because while on the surface, it is sport, it is way beyond sport. It is about life, about us, about all our emotions, about the United States. Indeed, nobody can watch these two teams and not be overcome with the nostalgia.

Yesterday it was about Guadalcanal. Today it's about football. Tomorrow it might be about Chechnya.

Everyone in the United States has been touched in some way by the military, either ceremonially or by war itself.

Football and war are linked because both are extremely hard. In fact, it has been observed that football's popularity stems from the fact that it is war without the killing. The similarities are in the detailed preparations, the plotting and planning, the thinking about the opposition and what it might want to do, the dedication and the fanaticism. They share a total focus on surviving, which is always the first order of business when winning is the ultimate goal.

And, make no mistake, we romanticize both. War gets lots of help, from movies like "Patton," "From Here to Eternity," "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Football is burnished by films like "Knute Rockne-All American," "Jerry Maguire," "Rudy."

Yes, we want to believe in romance, and so we figure out ways to let ourselves do it. Army vs. Navy last weekend in Philadelphia set our memories whirring again.

Few can look at Army and not think of a young man named Douglas MacArthur, who was graduated in 1903. He subsequently gave a frightened nation hope when there was little as he commanded Allied troops in the Pacific, and he and his swagger were back in control during the Korean War.

World War II, of course, was far bigger and more expensive than all other wars combined. Sixty-one countries took part with a citizenry of 1.7 billion, about three-fourths of the world's population. Some 16 million Americans were involved. The war produced 55 million fatalities; American deaths totaled 407,318, according to Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia.

Many victims, of course, were graduates of West Point and Annapolis.

Still, for something this awful, wars generally are looked back on with a perverse fondness - as long as the good guys win. Terrible battles, like the Normandy invasion (under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, some 850,000 troops fought ashore in less than a month) and the Battle of the Bulge draw us back, even today.

And how can anyone look at those Navy football players and not think of that branch of service transporting millions of troops to the war, and in its spare time, handling the German submarine problem. Over all those years there was the Coral Sea, the Missouri, and the first nuclear powered submarine, the Nautilus, in 1954; there was legendary Adm. Ernest Joseph King.

Watching Army vs. Navy, millions can see themselves in their youth, most likely not playing at one of the academies but playing; they see themselves when they were heading for military service, frightened and insecure; they remember, perhaps, crawling on their bellies under live fire in a training exercise and how it felt too real.

Army vs. Navy is a kind of crazy quilt of the human experience, encompassing so much more than football. It's an event far bigger than itself. When a pilot has landed a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in stormy seas on a dark night, everything else gets put in perspective.

And there also was World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and other conflicts that fuel more Army and Navy memories.

In Philadelphia last weekend, a lot of moms and dads were looking down on sons on that playing field. They were tremendously proud - and tremendously worried.

Navy won, 19-9. See how trivial that is?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society