Army-Navy Saturday: A family tradition
Growing up the child of a World War II Navy veteran who happened to love football, it was easy to know who to root for in the Army-Navy game—until my sister married a West Point graduate! How dare she upset our Navy tradition and marry an Army man! Nothing against my wonderful brother-in-law, who has now been married to my sister for almost 40 years, but it did make watching that game all the more intense. The game I am referring to is, of course, the Army-Navy game, one of the most enduring rivalries in college football, which pits the cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point against the midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
That rivalry got off to a rather slow start in the early 1870s as midshipmen on a practice cruise near West Point had challenged the cadets to a baseball game or a boat race. Organized sports were yet to be embraced by either academy, so the choice of sports was limited. The cadets weren't much for baseball, and they thought a boat race with Navy men would be unfair. The only sport practiced at West Point at that time was marbles—yes, that says marbles—but the Navy boys thought marbles on a ship would pose a disadvantage, so the challenge went unmet. It wasn't until 1889 that someone suggested a football game, but at that time organized sports were discouraged at the academies, especially at West Point, so the idea was dropped again.
Franklin Field in Philadelphia was roughly halfway between both academies, which seemed to appease everyone. With the field set, the tradition finally got underway.
The Army-Navy game has been played every year since 1899 except for four years—1909, 1917, 1918 and 1928. In 1909 a member of each squad had died from football-related injuries, so the game was canceled out of respect to each team. The years 1917 and 1918 saw the World War interrupt the game and in 1928 a problem with player eligibility prevented play until 1930. (According to a Pittsburgh Press article from December 18, 1927, the Navy wanted to limit participation in the game to players who had less than three years of varsity competition under their belts, which would eliminate some of the Army's top players.)
The public's enthusiasm for the game was widespread from the start as the early history of its broadcasts suggests. The game was first aired on the radio in 1920 and moved to national television in 1945. The Saturday after Thanksgiving was the day these two teams met for years, until 2009 when the switch was made to the second Saturday in December so it would not conflict with other college conference championship games. The field of play changes as well, but the majority of the games have been played in Philadelphia, where the annual tradition had first gotten underway.
The academy rivalry has always been great, but more so in the earlier years when the teams were more competitive with their college peers and when Army and Navy often played in national championship games. As college football evolved and the play improved, however, the academies could not keep up with the recruiting practices of other colleges. Those accepted into the military academies must meet stringent academic requirements as well as height and weight limits, and the five-year commitment to the service of their country often deters those players from pursuing an NFL career.
My brother-in-law made a career out of the Army and served this country with pride for more than 30 years. He and my sister went on to have four kids—two of whom joined the Army. There was a bit of tension when my nephew married a Navy doctor and switched services, but we still enjoy watching the game together when we can. My dad has been gone for 18 years now, but I still root for Navy even when I'm watching the game with my "Army" family.