- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2008

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo gave credit to Wake Forest, repeatedly. Wake coach Jim Grobe gave credit to Navy. And EagleBank, which sponsored the best local college football game ever played five days before Christmas, gave credit to anybody who’s feeling the pinch these grim economic days.

OK, so I made the last one up. All in all, though, Saturday’s first annual EagleBank Bowl - as promoters oxymoronically like to call such things - was a pretty creditable affair.

The weather was decent for late December, with temperatures in the low 40s. No grumpy breezes howled around spiffed-up RFK Stadium. The crowd, which filled only about half of the 47-year-old stadium, was enthusiastic. There was appropriate pregame color and pageantry, to swipe a line from former ABC sportscaster Keith Jackson.

Best of all, the game was a dandy unless you bleed Navy blue and gold. Final score: Wake Forest 29, Navy 19.

For a while, Navy seemed about ready to rerun its 34-0 clobbering of Army two weeks earlier. The Midshipmen appeared to have achieved a 19-0 lead when cornerback Rashawn King made his second fumble return of the day for a touchdown late in the second quarter. See ya later, Deacs, and have a nice holiday.

Very unfortunately for Navy, as it turned out, the curmudgeonly officials ruled Wake ball carrier Kevin Harris was down before the fumble. Thus revived, the Deacons drove 84 yards for a TD that left them just six points in arrears.

At the finish, Wake was scoring two touchdowns in the final eight minutes against a Navy defense that hadn’t allowed a TD in 167 minutes, avenging a 24-17 loss to the Mids in late September. Both teams finished with 8-5 records, not as good as some recent seasons but not disastrous either.

As Niumatalolo met with the media afterward, a big tear made its way down his right cheek - not because of the loss, but at the realization that Navy’s seniors soon will be heading off into danger’s path in various remote sectors of the world.

“These young men will be defending us, and we don’t know where they’ll be,” he said. “They protect our future, and there’s a special bond [among them].”

Coaches always lament the imminent departure of their seniors, with or without diplomas, but circumstances make it particularly painful at the service academies. Football isn’t a matter of life and death, no matter how much we pretend. Military life can be.

Navy would seem destined to return to the EagleBank Bowl frequently, given its geographic proximity. A meeting between the Mids and Maryland might have filled the joint Saturday, holidays or no holidays. Instead the Terrapins are headed for the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, which should make their fans as blue as that stadium’s artificial turf.

Before the onset of combat at RFK, an EagleBank official said he expected a crowd “north of 30,000.” The actual attendance was 1,223 shy of that but respectable enough with the holidays breathing down our necks and top tickets priced at $110.

“We’re very pleased,” bank CEO Ronald Paul said. The financial institution has a longtime contract with NCAA Bowl Committee and the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, which operates the stadium.

As far as the current early date is concerned, forget it; the honor of holding the bowl season’s first mini-extravaganza is strictly illusionary.

“We’d like to have it later,” Paul conceded, but he and his cohorts had no choice this time.

“Too bad you couldn’t have had this one on Jan. 20,” a man said. “There would have been an awful lot of extra people in town.”

Paul chuckled. “Yeah, but nobody would be able to get to the stadium then.”

The first football game at RFK since 2001 reminds us of the glories associated with the Redskins during their 36 years of occupancy, as well as the fact that George Washington University also played there before discontinuing the sport in 1966. The Colonials played VMI in the official dedication game at the District’s $24 million sporting playpen Oct. 7, 1961.

Considering the District’s dearth of major athletic events, we can only hope the EagleBank affair lasts long enough to become a significant date on our sports calendar. But, please, not on a day when too many of us tend to be standing in lines at malls rather than stadiums.

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