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Book Report: Gridiron Glory

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Sunday, November 15, 2009

In the 2005 book, Gridiron Glory, authors Barry Wilmer and Ken Rappoport tell the story of the Army-Navy football rivalry from its beginnings in 1890 through the 2004 season.

Football was a relatively new sport in the late 1800’s. The first intercollegiate football game was played just 21 years earlier in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. In those days, football was more like the game of Rugby than what we know it as today. There was no forward passing, just running, blocking and kicking.

The first game between the two service academies was played on November 29, 1890 at West Point. It came about when some players from the Navy team challenged Army to a game. Navy had been playing football since 1879. An Army cadet by the name of Dennis Mahan Michie, who had played football before, accepted the challenge. Since Michie’s father was a member of the academic board at West Point, the game was approved. Michie hastily put together a team for the game, but none of the other Army players that year had ever played football before. When the Navy team arrived for the game, they marched to the school from the ferry boat station. Along the way they found a goat and decided to bring it along with them as their mascot. A goat has been the symbol of Navy athletics ever since.

The first Army-Navy game was played during a time even before the use of leather helmets. Protecting one’s head consisted of nothing more than a thick head of hair and a wool stocking cap. During that first game, the Army team wore caps that were back and orange while the Navy team wore red and white caps. The teams wore no shoulder pads or any other kind of padding at all in those days either.  Navy won the game 24-0.

The very next year, however, Army fielded a much better team and beat Navy, 32-16. The rivalry was officially born. 

In 1893, the teams played before a crowd of 10,000 spectators at Annapolis. Navy beat Army 6-4. But during the game, an Army General and a Navy Admiral got into a heated argument over the game and challenged each other to a duel.  President Grover Cleveland was so angry over the behavior of the officers at the game that he cancelled the annual contest after just four games. Navy led the series 3-1.

It was not until 1899, six years later, that the Army-Navy game resumed, this time at a neutral site. The game was played at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. Army won that game 17-5.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt began the tradition of sitting on one side of the stadium during the first half of the game and then on the other side for the second half. Even though he was a fan of the Army, he didn’t want to show favoritism for either team.  

In 1905 there were many deaths involving college football players because of the rough nature of the game. President Roosevelt threatened to ban the game if changes were not made. The forward pass was adopted in 1906 as a way of spreading the players out on the field and not having them all concentrated into one massive pile all the time. The new rules also outlawed the Flying Wedge formation, which was responsible for many player injuries.

During a 1909 game between Army and Harvard at West Point, a cadet by the name of John Byrne was severely injured on the field. He was carried off the field and died from his injuries the next day at the age of 21. Army cancelled the last four games of the season, including the game against Navy.

The 1915 Army-Navy game featured a change to the uniforms. Players wore numbers for the first time to identify themselves. The entire 1917 season was cut short due to World War I. The Army-Navy series resumed in 1919 and the game that year was played at the Polo Grounds in New York.

In 1926, the teams played before a record crowd of 110,000 fans at Soldier Field in Chicago. It was the first event ever at the newly built stadium and a dedication ceremony took place prior to kickoff. The game ended in a 21-21 tie and is considered one of the greatest games ever in the series.

The 1926 game also featured brothers on opposite sides of the field. Chuck Born played for the Army team and his brother, Arthur, played for the Navy. The game was cancelled in 1928 and 1929 because of disagreements over eligibility requirements at the two academies.

When the series resumed once again in 1930, the game was played at Yankee Stadium in New York.

The 1941 game featured a player by the name of Bob Woods, who played for Navy. However, he was expelled from the school due to academic problems. But he was back in the game the next season after being accepted at West Point and played for the Army in 1942.  

The 1940’s were an incredibly successful decade for Army. The team boasted not one, but two Heisman Trophy winners and two college football national championships. Felix “Doc” Blanchard won the Heisman in 1945 and his teammate, Glenn Davis, won the award in 1946. They were known as “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside” respectively.  In the three years the two shared the Army backfield together (1944-1946), they never lost a game. The only blemish was a 0-0 tie with Notre Dame in 1946. Army’s back-to-back college football national championships occurred in 1944 and 1945.

After the 1944 game, Army head coach Earl “Red” Blaik received the following telegram; “The greatest of all Army teams. Stop. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success.” It was from General Douglas McArthur.

The first time that the Army-Navy game was televised live on television was in 1951. That was also the year that a major cheating scandal rocked West Point. Ninety cadets, including thirty-seven football players, were dismissed from the academy including the son of the Army coach, Robert Blaik. Coach Blaik was ready to resign in the wake of the scandal, but he was persuaded to stay by General McArthur. Blaik remained at West Point through the 1958 season.   

In 1958, Blaik would coach a third Heisman Trophy winner at Army in running back Pete Dawkins. Navy also had its own pair of Heisman winners. There was running back Joe Bellino in 1960 and quarterback Roger Staubach in 1963.

The 1963 Army-Navy game was postponed for a week following the assassination of President Kennedy. When the game was finally played on December 7, a new innovation in sports broadcasting called instant replay debuted for the first time. A former Army cadet by the name of Tony Verna, who was a sports director for CBS television, had come up with a way to show the previous play again while the game was still going on, a replay. As with most new things, however, the replay equipment did not work for most of the game and was only used once during the entire game. It was used to reshow a touchdown play by the Army in the fourth quarter. Today, instant replay is something we take for granted, but it made its first appearance ever during an Army-Navy game. 

In the 70’s and 80’s, both teams struggled on the field. There were many years when the two teams posted losing records and interest in the Army-Navy game fell. President Gerald Ford attended the game in 1974, but it was not until 1996 that another Commander-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, actually attended the game.

In 1984, Navy running back Napoleon McCallum broke his leg early in his senior season. He was red-shirted and was allowed to play for a fifth year in 1985 (past his graduation date) which was something that had never happened at either academy before. In 1986, the Los Angeles Raiders selected him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. He played for the Raiders that season and still performed his naval duties while stationed at Long Beach, California. But that only lasted one season. When a new Secretary of the Navy took command, he revoked the special accommodations that allowed McCallum to play professional football. McCallum was able to rejoin the Raiders in 1990 after completing his five-year commitment to the Navy and he remained on the team until an injury ended his career in 1994.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 however, interest in the game has begun to return. Many see the game as more that just a football game now. It is now looked at as more of a celebration of those who serve, and those who will soon be serving their country. Something we can all appreciate.

Prior to the 1992 Army-Navy game, the series was tied 43-43-7. Navy won the 2004 game to tie the series once again at 49-49-7. This year’s game will be played on December 12, 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, home of the NFL Philadelphia Eagles. This will be the 110th meeting between the two service academies with Navy leading the all-time series by just four games, 53-49-7. Navy won last year’s game 34-0.

The game has been played at 15 different stadiums since its inception, but mainly in the Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore areas. The game was even played at the Rose Bowl in 1983.

In today’s world of 24-hour sports coverage on TV, radio and the Internet, it is hard for the average fan to identify with teams like Army and Navy, whose players are not turned into household names by the media. Everyone knows who the quarterbacks are at teams in the Big Ten, SEC and ACC conferences and what they did or didn’t do in last week’s “big” games. But the players at the military academies have a much higher calling awaiting them when they graduate, and that is the key word, graduate. You don’t hear of juniors at the military academies leaving school early every year to enter the NFL Draft. They graduate and become commissioned officers in the U.S. military, leaders charged with insuring the security of our nation.

They may not have their highlights shown on SportsCenter hundreds of times each day, but they will always remember what they did during the biggest college football game of their lives, the Army-Navy game.


Philly Loves Army-Navy


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