To be completely honest, I never really understood the big deal about Army-Navy. I got the fact that it's an incredibly intense rivalry. I saw that they've knocked heads since 1890. And the sight of stadium sections packed with soldiers and sailors in dress grays and blues has impressed me as much as anyone. But it's not big-time college football. The teams aren't as good as the ones on TV every week. And virtually none of the players is well known or headed to the NFL.
So nothing against the Black Knights' and Midshipmen's annual game, but I never fully comprehended all the passion it prompted.
Until last week.
Fittingly, the revelation occurred at the Army-Navy Country Club, a private entity in Arlington that "draws its membership primarily from Active Duty and Retired commissioned U.S. Military Officers and Warrant Officers," according to its website, and "is also home to a number of civilian members many of whom have served in our nation's government."
It was there, during a media event for Saturday's game, that I met captains from each team: Steve Erzinger, Max Jenkins and Andrew Rodriguez for Army, Alexander Teich and Jabaree Tuani for Navy.
All it took was seeing these young men in their crisp uniforms, hearing their respectful tones and thoughtful answers, and sensing their affection for the institutions and their dedication to the country. And one more thing - thinking about the hundreds of thousands of warriors they represent, and the price they pay for the gift we enjoy.
That's when I understood the true meaning of the saying — corny as it sounds — that Army-Navy is more than a game.
"I feel proud as a coach, an American and a human being to be involved in such a rivalry where you have two institutions that represent the finest things in our country," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "It's humbling to coach these young men.
"It seems like in today's society it's always: 'What's in it for me? What can I get out of it? What's my benefit?' But you've got two teams and two schools full of people that are here to serve our country. It's humbling to be a part of and be around these kinds of people."
People like, say, Teich, the 23-year-old senior fullback who gained a measure of notoriety this season after Navy's overtime loss to Air Force. Instead of assembling with his teammates for the Air Force alma mater, he walked off the field in frustration, drawing a one-game suspension.
That same hyper-competitive spirit led him to seek an assignment with the Navy SEALs, one of the most dangerous and demanding jobs in all the military. On that media day last week, Teich was among 28 candidates the SEALs selected from his graduating class.
Leaving the field during Air Force's alma mater was a tad disrespectful, since the loser of that game (and the Army-Navy game) is supposed to stand there and suffer while the victors sing. But that could be the most egregious example of unsportsmanlike conduct in Army-Navy.
"This is definitely a different rivalry because of the respect between the two teams," Teich said. "Sometimes when you watch [other rivals] on TV, those guys are getting in each other's faces and things like that. You'll never see that in a game like this because of what they represent.
"They have their brotherhood and we have our brotherhood, but we're all molded from the same kind of character," he said. "We're all taught the same kind of lessons by our institutions about honor, loyalty and discipline. We've all made sacrifices that most 18-year-old kids don't make for the next five or six years of their lives. That respect between the two teams carries over to the game."
Don't get it twisted. Each side desperately wants to win because there's nothing worse than losing to the other. Navy doesn't feel any less pressure to prevail just because it's won the past nine games. Tuani, a 22-year-old defensive end, said he's exerting himself even more during practice because "I know Army players are working their tails off."
Now I understand the passion, pride and pageantry. But Army coach Rich Ellerson doesn't want his players to forget about the part between the white lines.
"At the end of the day, everybody came to watch a football game," he said. "They love who the guys are and love what they represent and love the path they've chosen, just like we respect the path that Navy has. But we don't want to get caught watching [fans] watching us. They're there to watch us play football."
And show our admiration, respect and gratitude.
Which, duh, makes this more than just a game.
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