Lt. Col. Ben Wallen, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, had a virtual meeting scheduled for Friday with the other military academies. During that meeting, emblazoned on his uniform, he’d planned to sport a message: “Go Army. Beat Navy.”
Saturday marks the 123rd Army vs. Navy football game, one of the most celebrated American sporting events and one that is rife with traditions — both serious and silly.
“We’re all on the same team, but on Saturday,” Wallen said with a laugh, “we are absolutely fighting to win.”
The storied military academies, which annually send graduates to the armed forces, play each year in a uniquely personal matchup. Unlike other rivalries, the midshipmen in Annapolis and the cadets in West Point share an especially common bond.
“On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur once quipped.
The game annually ranks as one of the most watched regular-season college football games (last year, an average of 7.6 million viewers tuned in on CBS) and it enjoys special status: It will be the only Football Bowl Subdivision game played Saturday.
This year’s game will be played in Philadelphia, which has hosted the majority of the series. Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, which most recently hosted in 2016, will see “America’s Game” again in 2025.
Baltimore first hosted the spectacle in 1924, when famed sportswriter Grantland Rice called the estimated 80,000 in attendance (among them President Calvin Coolidge) “probably the greatest gathering that ever saw a football battle in the East.”
Broadcast nationally with much pageantry, the game itself often models tradition: While most modern offenses rely extensively on passing plays, both teams’ offenses are built on the running game. Navy and Army rank second and third nationally in rushing attempts, respectively, this season, trailing only fellow service academy Air Force.
And the game itself is often a gritty, competitive one. Eight of the past 11 contests have been decided by one score.
The game’s pageantry starts before kickoff, however, as Philadelphia will host friendly competitions between the military academies. And each school also will run a game ball from their campus to the host stadium, a tradition since the 1980′s.
About 150 midshipmen — plus the Naval Academy’s superintendent — were scheduled to gather at 7 a.m. Friday at Bancroft Hall in Annapolis to begin the 134-mile trek to Philadelphia, splitting the journey into 17 legs of eight miles each and arriving Saturday morning at Lincoln Financial Field.
Thousands of cadets and midshipmen, bussed in from their respective campus, then march onto the field ahead of the game.
“It’s very powerful,” Wallen said.
Players wear patches on their uniform, honoring different military units. And ahead of kickoff, the academies perform what’s referred to as a “prisoner exchange,” in which exchange students — who are attending the other school for a semester — are sent back to their original academy during a ceremony.
After the game’s conclusion, all players from both sides first face the stands of the losing team and sing that academy’s alma mater. Then, they serenade the winning school.
“Singing second,” as it’s known, has become a badge of honor.
The football rivalry dates to 1890, when Navy visited West Point for the first athletic competition between the schools. During the game, a cadet suffered a “severe cut in the back of the head” and went to the hospital in an “insensible condition,” according to a story in The Sun from the time.
“The rushing of the naval cadets was strong, and they displayed greater familiarity with the technical points of the game and showed that they had more assiduous practice than their military brethren,” read the write-up of the first-ever game.
The next year, a crowd of 3,000 watched the game in Annapolis, which Army won. The rivalry had begun: The Sun wrote that West Point players “strutted around like inflated foot-balls” after the game.
In 1901, a tradition — which continues today — started. President Teddy Roosevelt attended the game, spending the first half sitting on the Navy side and then, at halftime, crossing the field to sit on the Army side for the second half.
In the decades since, the president has attended the game on occasion and typically switches sides, just as Roosevelt did.
The game has historically been played in the northeast, with a couple of exceptions. In 1926, more than 100,000 attendees visited Chicago’s new football stadium — named Soldier Field in honor of American servicemen — as Navy and Army tied at 21. In 1983, the game was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Once, in 1905, the game was held in Princeton, New Jersey, where Woodrow Wilson served as school president. But the city couldn’t quite handle the game, which, by then, had already become a spectacle.
“Princeton’s capacity was badly overtaxed — train after train was held up miles from town and thousands of persons, including the Navy band, missed the first half,” read an article from the time.
Pranks have become a lighthearted staple of the game, too. Navy players in the past would dunk their own coaching staff in a pool, and, in 1967, midshipmen paid $4,000 to put a full-page ad in the New York Times making fun of West Point. Two years later, midshipmen smashed an Army exchange officer’s car with a sledgehammer — then gave him $4,000 to replace it.
Another year, midshipmen placed cheese on seats reserved for the cadets, creating a foul smell.
There’s been a prank this year, too, as midshipmen dropped “Beat Army” and “Fly Navy” leaflets, along with ping pong balls, over West Point’s campus.
“Army cadets could be seen breaking formation and running for cover,” a Navy news release stated Tuesday.
It marked a playful prelude to what will be a hard fought game. When the teams take the field Saturday, they will do so once again full of pageantry and friendly pride.
“The only way to understand how big this game is,” a Navy player said in 1987, “is to go to West Point or Annapolis. They talk about it all year.”
Army vs. Navy
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Saturday, 3 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1430 AM
Line: Navy by 2 1/2