College Sports

Ties of family, friendship, service define Army-Navy rivalry

Ken Niumatalolo noticed the Army guys looking askance as he wound his way through the Pentagon to attend a ceremony for his brother, an Army lieutenant colonel.

"I think they recognized me," said the Navy football coach, chuckling. "And I don't think they were too happy to see me."


The Army-Navy football rivalry — set to be contested for the 113th time Saturday in Philadelphia — is felt from the halls of power in Washington to the waters and battlefields of the Middle East. "Beat Army" is one of the few public utterances allowed from first-year midshipmen at the Naval Academy. And the same is true of "Beat Navy" for cadets at West Point.

Niumatalolo felt a little bit of that worldwide tension at the Pentagon, but his experience illustrated another facet of this unique rivalry — the sense that it's a battle fought within one larger family.


Army and Navy players want to beat each other badly, but theirs is a rivalry defined as much by the ties that bind the two programs as by competition. Navy players come from Army families. Army players come from Navy families. Close friends play on opposite sides. And to a man, players and coaches say they feel part of the same mission.

"They know what we go through." Niumatalolo said, reflecting on the rivalry. "We know what they go through. They're us. We're them."

Niumatalolo knows how close the bonds are because they cut across his family. His eldest brother, James, has served in the Army for almost 30 years. You can hear the respect in Niumatalolo's voice as he describes how his brother's duties carry him back and forth between South Carolina and the Middle East.

So who will James Niumatalolo be pulling for Saturday?

"Blood is thicker than water," his little brother said. "In this game, he pulls for us. For Army-Navy, he wears the blue and gold."

The families of several players will be tugged in both directions as well.

Army running back James Dixon spent parts of his childhood in Guam and Hawaii, because his mother, Laura Ashley, was a chief petty officer in the Navy. Dixon was well aware of the rivalry growing up and generally pulled for the Midshipmen.

He remembers going to work with his mother and observing the respect she commanded without having to be heavy-handed. She attributed her formidable presence to her time in the Navy, so Dixon, wanting people to treat him with similar regard, became a natural candidate for a service academy.


When the time came for recruiting, however, Army showed more interest than Navy. That was just fine with Dixon's mother. "She just wanted me to be happy," he said.

Dixon is only a sophomore, but he already appreciates the special nature of Army-Navy. "It's kind of like fighting with your brother," he said. "The love is great, but the fights are going to be enormous."

Will mom's heart be divided by this fraternal showdown?

"No, I don't think she'll be divided," Dixon said. "She enjoyed her time in the Navy, but she likes me more."

Navy linebacker Matt Warrick says the same about his father, Vince, who graduated from West Point in 1980 and spent 12 years in the Army, ultimately as a helicopter pilot.

"He's rooting for Navy," Warrick said. "He told me he'd root for Navy for four years."


Warrick grew up wanting to attend a service academy and delighting in the pageantry of Army-Navy. "I think every graduate gets pretty wrapped up in it," he said of watching the games with his dad.

He was recruited by both academies (in addition to Harvard and Princeton) but says his dad took it in stride when he loved his visit to Annapolis. "I think some of his friends were probably more disappointed than he was," Warrick said. "I think he agreed it was the best place for me."

Vince Warrick confirms this, saying he still gets ragged on by his West Point classmates for sending a son to Navy. "Matt is friends with some of the families of my classmates to the point that they think of him as a son," the elder Warrick said. "Except one day a year."

But Vince Warrick says he feels no misgivings about rooting against the Black Knights on game day. "It was kind of weird the first year, when he wasn't playing," he said. "But the next year, that was his first start, and I felt no anxiety or angst about it at all. The only Warrick who's ever bled on that field is Matt, so it's pretty easy to put being a parent first."

Navy defensive back Tra'ves Bush sounds less sure about the loyalties of his family members in the Army.

He always hears the jabs from them come the week of the game. His cousin, Rashad Mason, whom he regards as more like a brother, enlisted in the Army shortly before Bush committed to the academy. Mason, who works at the Pentagon, will be at the game Saturday.


"I hope the family ties are greater," Bush said. "He might be rooting for me to do well but for Army to win."

Bush is a senior and says the feelings around Army-Navy are hard to describe for anyone who hasn't been directly involved.

"So much of our lives here are all about beating Army, and I'm pretty sure it's the same there," he said. "But it's a more mature rivalry, because we all understand that when the game is over, we're going to be working together to protect the country. The only difference between us and those guys are the colors and the name on our jerseys."

Navy defensive end Wes Henderson is reminded of that every year, when he meets his high school teammate and close friend Brian Austin for a post-game photo on the field. Austin is a running back for Army.

Henderson and Austin began riding their bikes and playing video games together as middle schoolers in Wexford, Pa., about 20 minutes north of Pittsburgh. They were both multi-sport athletes at North Allegheny High School.

"We're just a lot alike," Henderson said.


Henderson's father, Lother, was an Air Force fighter pilot, and his older brother, Nick, played football at Navy. So he pretty much knew where he wanted to go to college all along.

Austin actually credits Nick Henderson for inspiring his interest in the academies, though he says the early speculation had him going to Navy and Wes going to Air Force.

Both enjoyed the taunts that ensued when they realized they'd be lining up on opposite sides of the renowned rivalry.

"It was kind of cool, kind of funny," Henderson said. "But I don't think I knew how big it really was until I got here."

Henderson has become a vital pass rusher for Navy's defense, and Austin says it's still a little strange to see his buddy's face pop up on the video screen as Army goes over scouting reports for the big game.

Navy has beaten Army every year that Henderson has played, so he can only imagine how his friend has felt when they've gathered for those post-game photos, which also include Zach and Corey Watts, fellow Army players from North Allegheny.


The picture from last year shows Austin's mouth in a tight, unsmiling line after Navy held off Army in a 27-21 nail-biter.

"That game was the hardest loss I've ever been through in my career," he said. "I did not want to take that picture, to be honest. Losing that game is one of worst things a team can go through."

Henderson says he wouldn't dare talk trash in such a moment. Both he and Austin feel too much respect, for their friendship and for the greater bonds between players from both sides of Army-Navy

"Brian's my good friend," Henderson said. "Regardless of whether we win or lose, it makes it more fun and more meaningful for me to be able to stand out there with him."