Enemies on the Field
December 6, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth looks at the story of a very big football game: the Army-Navy match-up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At noon tomorrow the 55th anniversary of Pearl Harbor--Army Meets Navy at Veterans' Stadium in Philadelphia. The cadets have won the last four match-ups with the midshipmen by a combined total of six points. It's a fierce and historic rivalry. And we look at it now with John Feinstein, author of "A Civil War: Army Vs. Navy." thanks for being with us, Mr. Feinstein:
JOHN FEINSTEIN, Author: My pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The subtitle of your book is "A Year Inside College Football's Purest Rivalry." Why purest?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, I think because the army and navy football players, the seniors specifically, know that when they play their last college football game, the odds are literally one in a thousand that they'll ever play football again. You have an occasional Roger Stallback or Napoleon McCallum or Phil McConkey, who after serving their time in the military do get to play in the pros, but virtually all of these seniors know that they're playing their last football game, and they play football for the love of the game. There is no pot of gold at the end of the football rainbow for them. Even in the Yale-Harvard rivalry, there are kids on that field who have a chance to play professional football the next year. The army and navy kids have a five-year military commitment, so they know it's an ending to them. And I think that lends an extra degree of purity to their love of football.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So it's always a special game, but tomorrow seems to be more special than at least in the say 15 years or so. Why?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, it's the first time since 1963 that both teams had at least seven wins. Army is nine and one. Navy is eight and two. You know, ever since Vietnam and ever since huge salaries came into professional sports, it's been much tougher for the service academies to compete at the highest level of college athletics. Back in the 40's and 50's, before those things happened, when a military man could make as much as a professional football player, you had the blue chip athletes going into the service academies, and they played for national championships. And they won Heisman trophies. That went on right into the 60's. The last time a service academy team was invited to a major bowl was 1968, when army was invited to the Sugar Bowl, but the Pentagon turned the bid down because of security concerns during the war, and as a result, the next morning, when the corps cadets marched into breakfast--and they do march to breakfast--all the sugar bowls had been stolen. And there was a sign on the poop deck that said "No sugar bowl for the football team, no sugar bowls for the corps."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's a special game too because of what happened in last year's game, right? Tell us what happened.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, last year was really extraordinary in many ways. The navy seniors had lost three games by a total of four points to army. They didn't want to go out without a victory. The army seniors knew that their coach Bob Sutton's job was at stake, and they didn't want their last memory of football to be one that ended their coach's career. So there were huge stakes for both sides, and the navy led the game thirteen/seven in the fourth quarter. They had fourth down on the army one-yard line, and navy coach Charlie Wetherby, coaching in his first army/navy game, and that was significant, opted to go for a touchdown, rather than an easy field goal. They didn't get the touchdown. Army drove 99 yards in 19 plays, won the game 14/13, and saved their coach's job. And Charlie Wetherby in the locker room broke down and cried in front of his team, saying that he felt responsible for losing the seniors' last football game for them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then you tell a wonderful story in your book about army's defensive captain actually going into the navy locker room looking for his counterpart.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us that story.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, Jim Cantaloop and Andrew Thompson, the defensive captains for army and navy, had met the previous week at a press conference and had recognized each other as kindred spirits right away, guys who weren't highly recruited to play college football, but had made themselves into very good players. And after the game, in the chaos on the field, Cantaloop couldn't find Thompson, so he broke away from the celebration in his own locker room and walked down the hall to the navy locker room to find him, to console him, to tell him how much he respected him, and to talk about the fact that now that their careers were over, they were brothers, because army and navy players, when they get through playing football, are on the same team, corny as that may sound. They might have to fight in a much bigger battle than a football game. And to me, the most poignant moment of that scene was when Cantaloop said to Thompson, "You're a great football player," and Thompson said back, "That's the hardest part, Jim. We're not football players anymore." But that moment to me is symbolic of the bond between the players on these teams.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm old enough to remember when this was "the" game of the college season. My dad was in the navy, so it was a big thing in our house. And then it stopped being. You mentioned Vietnam. What other factors were at play?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, again, I think that you saw a downturn in applications for the military academies in general during that period. But when the big money came into professional football, all the professional sports, no one wanted to give up the opportunity to make that big money to go into the military. So it became very hard to recruit for the coaches. Now, what has happened is that players who are not great players but good players and smart players and tough players are going to the academies because they're running a kind of offense, an option offense, where you don't have to have 300-pound linemen to succeed. You can't have 300-pound linemen at the military academies because they wouldn't be able to fulfill their military obligations and graduate. So you can't do it like Nebraska and Florida, where they just throw the linemen in the weight room and keep feeding them until they weigh 350 pounds. So they learned how to win in a different way than they used to be able to win.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Set the scene for us. What will it be like tomorrow? I understand it's something you just can't capture on television.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: It's really impossible. And, of course, tomorrow with President Clinton coming, the first President since President Ford to attend an army/navy game, that will heighten everything in the stadium, including security, of course. But this is a huge game for both teams. They both have a chance to go to bowl games. Army's never won ten games in a year. Navy certainly doesn't want to lose five straight games to army. Never has an army beaten navy five years in a row, so that makes it that much bigger for both teams. But the special moment, Elizabeth, in this game has nothing to do with the winner or the loser. It has to do with the end of the game, when the two teams, having tried to kill each other for three hours, were walked to the end of the stadium, where the corps of cadets will be standing on one side and the brigade and midshipmen will be standing on the other, and together, they will stand at attention for each other's alma maters. And if you watch that scene and chills don't go through you, then you're not breathing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, John Feinstein, thanks for being with us.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thanks for having me.