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Army vs. Navy: Honor and Purity in a Cesspool of Sports

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credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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One hundred and 22 years since they began competing in football, 71 years since their game came just eight days after Pearl Harbor and 11 years since their emotional matchup was played in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Army and Navy meet again tomorrow in Philadelphia.

The game between the nation’s two oldest service academies is always a spectacle as the Cadets and the Midshipmen file into the stadium in their dress uniforms. However, tomorrow’s game, thankfully, should be a little more about football than almost all its predecessors that the current players can remember because the Iraq war is over and the even longer-running conflict in Afghanistan is winding down in terms of a major commitment of American troops. Not that the Cadets and Midshipmen are heading to Wall Street next.

“The college football world pauses for a moment [to] reflect on these institutions, the young men and women who attend them and what those young men and women are dedicating their lives to,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson.

All of the students at West Point and Annapolis, whether they play football or not, share a commitment that their counterparts on other campuses, save the Air Force Academy, don’t. That really hit home with John Feinstein, author of “A Civil War,” a book about the Army-Navy football rivalry when he learned that Kevin Norman, the Army punter in the book, had been killed in a helicopter crash while serving overseas.

“I said that Kevin was a hero because he had died for his country, but I was corrected,” Feinstein recalled. “He was a hero because he was willing to die for his country.”

The Army and Navy players also represent rare purity in the cesspool that big-time college athletics has become with schools switching conferences willy-nilly in order to maximize revenue from the almighty television networks. The Cadets and Midshipmen are on scholarship, but so are all of their classmates, each of whom will pay that back by giving their first five years after graduation in service to their country.

Feinstein said the corruption in college sports prompted him to write “A Civil War,” which chronicles the 1995 season at Army and Navy and was published the next year. I would argue that Division I’s greed has gotten much worse during the ensuing years with the BCS, the proliferation of bowls (Buffalo Wild Wings, GoDaddy.com, Meineke Car Care), the disappearance of conference loyalties and traditions, and the one-and-done nature of so many of the top men’s basketball players.

And although 2-9 Army, which has lost a series-record 10 straight games to Navy, is an underdog tomorrow, it can win the Commander in Chief’s Trophy because one of those victories was over Air Force.

“We didn’t win much, but we won just enough to bring a little extra drama to this game,” said Ellerson, whose team led the nation in rushing thanks largely to record-setting senior quarterback Trent Steelman, who’s superb at running the option.

Navy employs a similar offense, but has a more balanced team and a much more successful program. Led by freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, the Mids rebounded from a 5-7 season in 2011 and a 1-3 start this year to finish 7-4 and secure their ninth bowl bid in 10 years.

“I don’t really know what the formula is,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. “We’ve got hard-nosed kids … just like Army does. Our biggest thing is to play into the intangibles of teamwork, work ethic, discipline to overcome lack of size and speed.”

Tomorrow, the Mids face a team that has similar handicaps but has still been unable to beat them since 2001.

“This is not a game you want to lose; it’s not something I want to have happen for our senior class,” said Navy senior slotback Bo Snelson.

Navy’s Class of 2012 came closing to having the streak end before prevailing 27-21, leaving Steelman and Co. with a mission tomorrow.

“We’ve always talked about finishing our career the right way,” he said. “To bring that trophy back to West Point would be almost unimaginable because it hasn’t been done in so long.”

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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