It is a symbol of service academy football excellence.
It is a symbol that, for most of the 1990s and early part of this century, belonged to Air Force.
It is a symbol that, for the past four years, has called Annapolis home.
It is the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, presented annually to the winning academy’s seniors by the President in a White House ceremony. Round-robin play among the three major service academies — Air Force, Army and Navy — determines the trophy’s winner.
As Navy (2-2) takes on Air Force (3-1) today in front of a sold-out crowd at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, it is an award that this group of Midshipmen, a group that knows nothing of the trophy but winning it, is not looking to give away any time soon.
“It’s everything. It’s the No. 1 goal of our program,” fullback Adam Ballard said. “Just thinking about Air Force taking it from us makes me want to throw up. It just makes me cringe thinking about it.”
Today’s game is the first in this year’s competition. Air Force will play host to Army on Nov. 3, and this year’s Army-Navy game will be Dec. 1 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. For now, the academies’ attention will be on today’s result in Annapolis.
“It’s a fun time of year,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said. “It’s a big game.”
Navy has been dominant in service academy games as of late. For Ballard and the other Navy seniors, today marks the beginning of an opportunity to finish their career at the academy a perfect 4-for-4 in Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy play. The Mids have not dropped a service academy game during that streak, winning nine straight. Their last loss was to Air Force in 2002.
“Nobody here has been without [the trophy],” safety Ketric Buffin said. “We’ve had it the whole time [we’ve been at the academy], so nobody knows what it’s like to be without it.”
The games have not been blowouts, however; in fact, they have been just the opposite. During Navy’s four-game winning streak against the Falcons, the Mids have won by a combined 16 points. The games are known to feature hard hits and some trash talk on the field.
“They have been close, hard-fought games and I think that we’ve been hungry and we’ve had guys that it really mattered to and they wanted to win the game so they went out and played hard and made plays,” Johnson said. “You can go back and look at each game and they’ve come down to two or three plays in each game that we’ve made.”
The Mids’ recent success has not made them complacent.
Ballard said the trophy, which the Mids kept in their locker room this week, is a reminder of the effort and dedication it takes to win the round-robin play.
Buffin said the team practiced hard all week, knowing that Air Force would give the Mids its best shot with the goal of retaking the trophy in mind.
“I know they are fired up. They are licking their chops because they haven’t had it,” Buffin said. “We have to work hard because I know they are going to come to play.”
Ballard was named MVP of last year’s game after rumbling for 134 yards on 27 carries. Earlier this week in practice, he admitted he felt a different energy level when preparing for the Falcons.
“Today I came out and I felt like I was 18 years old again,” Ballard said. “Nothing hurt today. Last week, I felt like my body was about to fall apart, but today, I felt a lot faster.”
He added that enthusiasm could be felt all through Annapolis this week.
“You can feel the excitement within the Brigade,” Ballard said. “The meetings this week have been a little bit more intense. The coaches have been yelling a little bit more this week. You can just feel it.”
Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is intent on keeping the trophy.
“The big thing for us is the fact that the guys who came before us got this trophy,” he said. “The big thing for our team is that we carry on and honor those guys that came before us.”