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Book Report: A Civil War - Army vs. Navy

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on Yahoo! Voices, Monday, September 2, 2013


In the 1996 book, A Civil War: Army vs. Navy, noted sports author John Feinstein spent an entire year covering the lives of the cadets and midshipmen at West Point and the Naval Academy. The book chronicles the 1995 seasons of both academies, culminating with the annual Army-Navy game.

Army was coached by Bob Sutton, who had been the head coach since 1991. Prior to becoming the Army head coach, he was an assistant coach there for eight seasons from 1983 through 1990. He is currently the defensive coordinator of the NFL Kansas City Chiefs.

Navy had a new head coach that season, Charlie Weatherbie. He had been hired by Navy Athletic Director, Jack Lengyel. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Lengyel, the Navy AD from 1988-2001, was the man who took over as head coach of the Marshall University football team following a plane crash in 1970 that killed almost the entire team and coaching staff, as well as several prominent supporters. He helped rebuild the team from the ground up and was portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the 2006 movie, We Are Marshall.

But the book is more than just the story of the games played by both schools that season. It is an eye-opening look at what life is like for the men who live a strict, regimented life with all the military demands of preparing them to be future officers first, and football players second. Students at both schools will tell you that their academy is a great place to be from, but not a great place to be at!

Most people view college football players as spoiled, pampered athletes whose main objective is to play in the NFL. Players at Army and Navy, as well as at the Air Force Academy, have a different outlook on the game. Once their college careers are over, most will never play football again. That is why the Army-Navy game is such an emotional game for the seniors at both schools. It, most likely, will be the last time they will ever set foot on a football field.

When academy players are recruited out of high school, they are evaluated by their grades as much as their athletic abilities. After two years, they can walk away from the military if they so choose and have no further military obligation. Also, they can quit the football team at any time and simply become just another student at the academy because there are no athletic scholarships.

At Army, the offensive linemen formed a close bond and even had their own nickname, The Fat Men. They even had hats made with the initials FMC on them; Fat Men's Club. Weight restrictions were relaxed for football players, but in order to graduate from the academy, they had to comply with regulations. So, for four years, The Fat Men and the rest of the team were allowed to eat whatever they wanted, but after their final game in December of their senior year, they had to go on a crash diet in order to make their weight by graduation day in the spring.

Another unique tradition at Army is something called Recognition Day. When a plebe (freshman) enters the academy, they are treated as less than a person by all of the upperclassmen. They are verbally berated at every opportunity day and night. Recognition Day occurs in the spring, just prior to spring break. At that time, the plebes in each company will line up and the upperclassmen will walk along the line, shaking hands with each plebe and formally introducing themselves. It is the first time that the plebes are allowed to address the upperclassmen by their first names. It is a way of officially acknowledging that the plebes have what it takes to be there and are worthy to be called cadets.

Students at both Army and Navy have a dislike for the third member of their fraternity, the Air Force Academy, and refer to the students there as Zoomies. The AFA is less strict with its students and athletes compared to West Point and Annapolis, but maybe their contempt is also because Air Force had been beating both Army and Navy on the football field regularly for several years. The three military academies play for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy every year. It is presented at the White House by the President to the school with the best record against the other two academies that year. Including the 1995 season, Air Force had won the CIC Trophy a total of 10 times since 1982 and it also won the trophy six consecutive years from 1997-2002.

I found the book to be an enlightening look at life at the Army and Navy Academies. Even though I spent over 21 years in the military myself, I was not aware of how things worked for the student/athletes at West Point and Annapolis. It gives me more respect for the sacrifice, hard work and dedication that those students have to endure while other college football players live much easier lives by comparison. While I have always revered the Army-Navy game as one of the great traditions in all of American sports, I now have even more respect for those young men after reading this book.

I did find one minor military miscue in the book, if you can even call it that. Feinstein said that the movie Top Gun was a great recruiting tool for the Air Force. While that may be true, the movie was not about the Air Force. It was actually centered around pilots who were serving in the Navy.


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