College football is at its best when longtime rivals clash with a title at stake. Think Ohio State vs. Michigan, Auburn vs. Alabama or Harvard vs. Yale.
The century-long traditions, the pageantry, the bands make those games more dramatic than even pivotal contests between NFL powerhouses.
Tomorrow in Landover, two schools that are a combined 7-15 this year will duel for the 112th time. Obviously, there will be no bowl bids or top 25 rankings at stake in this season finale. In fact, 1996 was the only season during the last four decades that both teams had winning records.
But then, so much more is on the line when Army meets Navy — which has won 11 of the last 12 matchups and leads the series 55-49-7 — just three days after the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and 90 days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
While the Buckeyes, Wolverines, Tigers and Crimson Tide seniors dream of the NFL and the Crimson and Elis look toward the riches of careers in business, medicine or law, their counterparts among the Cadets and Midshipmen will soon trade their football jerseys for military uniforms during their five years of service that follows graduation next spring.
That has long been the case, but what has changed from the days that Doc Blanchard (Mr. Inside) and Glenn Davis (Mr. Outside) ran wild for Army or when Joe Bellino and Napoleon McCallum were starring at Navy, is what could lie ahead for the players who’ll wear football helmets for the final time tomorrow.
Tyson Quink was an Army offensive lineman from 2005-08. The First Lt. lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan last year.
Brian Stann, a Navy linebacker from 1999-2002, won the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest combat medal, while serving as a captain in Iraq in 2005.
While Stann has gone to a successful career in mixed martial arts and Quink returned to West Point to talk to the Cadets this fall, former Middies J.P. Blecksmith, Brendan Looney and Ron Winchester didn’t make it home. All were killed during our ongoing wars against terrorism. Looney died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last year. Blecksmith and Winchester perished in Iraq in 2004.
During Winchester’s final visit to his Rockville Centre, N.Y. home, family friend Maureen Chiaramonte told The Military Times that he said, “You get a choice to sit on the bench or play the game. I don’t want to sit on the bench.”
Winchester played in the Army-Navy game, but the future 1st Lt. was talking about a game much more dangerous than anything involving a football. He and all of his contemporaries are willing to play that game so that the rest of us don’t have to. And for that we owe him and them a debt that we can’t ever properly repay.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.