After week of doubt, Navy-Air Force game is everything Mids players, fans hoped for

Supporters 'very glad' game was held in midst of federal government shutdown

If you had arrived at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday after a week of solitary confinement, you might not have noticed anything amiss.

The tents were up all over the parking lot, and the tailgate parties were in full bloom by mid-morning. The crowd of 38,225 that filed in for the unusually early 11:30 a.m. kickoff was the biggest in the history of Jack Stephens Field.

In other words, everything seemed perfect for the renewal of what has become a great rivalry between the Midshipmen of Navy and the Falcons of Air Force.

Of course, we all know that the fate of Saturday's game was thrown into doubt by the federal government shutdown and that both academies had to jump through a number of political and logistical hoops to gain permission to carry on with a matchup that, for the past 16 years, has determined the winner of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.


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Air Force, for example, had to acquire private funding to pay for the team's travel expenses — a large expenditure corporate sponsor USAA covered — and had to assemble a makeshift training staff with the help of some Baltimore-area schools after several athletic trainers were furloughed and not permitted to make the trip.

Then there was the philosophical debate over the propriety of playing high-profile games involving the service academies (including Army) while hundreds of thousands of government employees had been sent home during the political standoff in Washington.

Everything worked out, particularly for the Midshipmen, who overwhelmed the Falcons in the second half in a 28-10 victory that all but assures the CIC Trophy will remain in Annapolis for another year. The only way that won't happen is if Army beats both teams later in the season, which is highly unlikely.

The Mids seemed unfazed by all the uncertainty, proceeding throughout the week on the assumption that the game would be played. They got off to a slow start and went into the locker room at halftime trailing by a field goal, then outscored Air Force 21-0 in the second half.

"Throughout the week, we expected the game to be played,'' said quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who returned from a concussion to run for 126 yards and three touchdowns. "I know, as a team, that we didn't let outside influence affect us on the field. Obviously, we would have been upset of we didn't play, because this is a huge game. We circle this game and really look forward to it, but we prepared as if the game was on and there were no outside distractions."

Fans didn't know what to expect until Wednesday night, when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel consulted with academy officials and decided to go ahead with the game, as long as no government funds were used to stage the event.

"I was hoping it was going to happen,'' Jeff Morrison, a furloughed federal employee from Washington, said just before kickoff. "We're very glad it is happening today. It's good for morale. It's good for morale because morale in D.C. is very low right now."

For those who felt the game should have been postponed out of deference to the government workers idled by the shutdown, Navy veteran Rick Breach of Fallston put the matchup into a military context he felt distinguishes itself from the political infighting.

"Military football does much for the adrenaline of the brigade,'' said Breach, who was celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife, Heidi, at the game. "The forces around the world watch this and need this for their morale."

Ron Goble of Plymouth, Mich., whose son Tyler is a sophomore linebacker for the Mids, said he was always optimistic that the game would be held.

"We just felt it was going to be played," he said. "I always figured they'd work something out. It happened early enough in the week, so they'd figure out a way for the game to go on. It's just too bad the other [academy sports] teams didn't get to play this week. That's unfortunate."

There is a lot about the wider fallout from the shutdown that is even more unfortunate, but Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo made sure his players stayed focused on the game plan when the national media brought a national political crisis to their sideline. It wasn't easy, but the mission, apparently, was accomplished.

"There are a lot of things at the academy that are hard,'' Niumatalolo said. "I have great respect for these young men and women for what they go through. Being able to play football is a fun time for them, so I'm just happy they got to play this game."

It was near the end of his postgame news conference that a local radio personality asked Niumatalolo who he felt was responsible for the situation that had thrown Saturday's game into doubt. Niumatalolo dodged the question about as well as Reynolds had dodged Air Force's futile defense in the second half.

"I'm just a football coach,'' Niumatalolo said. "I can yell at 20-, 21-year-old guys to run faster and block. All that other stuff? That's way over my pay grade. People could care less what I thought about that stuff. We just tried to get ready for the game. Our thing was to get ready for the game between the white lines. That's all we could control."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9\on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

 

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