Will the Navy Goat Butt, Or Will Army Mule Kick?

Civil War: Army vs. Navy

A Year Inside College Football's Purest Rivalry

By John Feinstein

Little, Brown, 412 pp., $24.95

Some might say the glory has faded from the Army-Navy football game - but those are people who did not see the last four kickoffs. Army won all four games by a total of just six points. Last year the Army gray beat Navy blue 14-13 on a 99-1/2-yard scoring march in the final minutes.

Author John Feinstein contends there is still no rivalry like the one that will be renewed tomorrow on the neutral turf of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Few who complete Feinstein's latest sports book, "A Civil War: Army vs. Navy," would probably argue the point.

The closeness of the rivalry speaks for itself, with Army ahead 46-43, in the annual duel not including seven ties. Neither team has won a national championship since Army secured three in a row during the 1940s, nor has either academy played in one of the major postseason bowls since quarterback Roger Staubach led the Midshipmen to the 1964 Cotton Bowl. As a junior, Staubach became the last of five service academy stars to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation's top college player.

Feinstein is a battle-tested sports journalist not given to kneejerk enthusiasm. As a bestselling author and nationally recognized sports commentator, he clearly could have trained his practiced eye on any number of more trumpeted events, but his choice of the Army-Navy rivalry shows how captivating a dynamic it is.

Whether or not one season (1995) in the rivalry merits 400 pages is debatable. Still, the choice of subject matter should agree with readers interested in examining an ennobling nook of the sports universe.

Despite years of watching the Cadets and Midshipmen tangle on television, Feinstein didn't actually attend his first Army-Navy game until 1990. Upon doing so he made an important discovery.

When the game ends all the players walk alternately to both sides of the field to stand with hands on heart as first one band, then the other, plays its school song. "As I watched, a chill ran through my body," Feinstein recalls.

What moved him and came to form an undercurrent in the book was the sense of brotherhood that unites the academies. "[A]s much as the players want to beat each other," Feinstein writes, "there is a bond between the players and their schools like no bond between any other rivals in sports."

This bond, he concludes, is anchored in the challenging environments into which players at West Point and Annapolis enter. Both groups, in a sense, have known the same foxhole experiences of academy life - the hellacious first-year indoctrination, the taxing academics, the early wakeup calls, the inspections, and the general discipline that permeates campus activity.

Everyone who plays in the Army-Navy game, Feinstein says, is an extraordinary person, especially those seniors whose mental toughness has allowed them to survive all these rigors.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.