Army and Navy always live up to expectations
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Army and Navy always live up to expectations

The 119th Army-Navy Game and our day as three old friends from Big Rapids

Photo: L-R: Rex Schuberg, Morgan Bolden, Seth Bolden, Rick Steinke, Tom Shanahan

The Army-Navy Game never disappoints.

That’s what two of us told the other as three old friends from Big Rapids, Mi., gathered from our new places in the world for the 119th Army-Navy Game Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. One flew in from Germany, one drove from Michigan and I flew from up Raleigh, N.C. 

For me, it was my fourth Army-Navy Game but first outside the press box and seated in the stands.

U.S. Army Col. (Ret.) Rick Steinke, a West Point graduate and my Little League baseball teammate, dates his Army-Navy Game experiences to his Cadet days when it was played at JFK Stadium – now a parking lot in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex. This year, though, was his first since 1998. He traveled from Germany, where he is an Associate Dean at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

Rex Schuberg was the one experiencing an Army-Navy Game baptism. Rex is the quasi-mayor of Big Rapids and anchor of a third-generation insurance business, the Schuberg Insurance Agency. We met at Riverview Elementary School in third grade when my family moved to Big Rapids, which is the college town for Ferris State University, where my father was a professor.

We told Rex to forget the records. Sure enough, despite Army entering with a 9-2 record and Navy a 3-9 mark, the game was tense and hard-fought to the finish. Army survived a Navy rally to win 17-10.

But even on the occasion the game does turn out one-sided, there is so much else surrounding the experience. The entire day drips with inspiration and respect that is tapped from a deep well of 200 players representing West Point and Annapolis and their respective classmates in the stands numbering 8,000. They have committed to a volunteer military in uncertain times when we face a seemingly endless war on terrorism.

The players compete fiercely for 60 minutes, but ultimately they are on the same team. They stand together as each team sings its alma mater before its classmates. The goal is to sing second as the winners.

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Our experience started with the first of two pairs of academy siblings bracketing our memorable day.

One sibling played for Army, two sat with the Cadets dressed in their dress grey with a long overcoat and one sat with the Midshipmen in her service dress blue coat.

First, at the ESPN College GameDay set, we met West Point’s Seth Bolden and his older sister that attends Annapolis, Morgan Bolden.

Seth and Col. Steinke had so many West Point notes to compare I didn’t talk much with him, but Morgan told me she grew up wanting to attend one of the academies. Her choice was made for her; Navy recruited her as a lacrosse player out of Cathedral High in Indianapolis.

Rex, a track athlete at Ferris, wore a varsity styled jacket embroidered with “Ferris State Bulldogs” to represent our hometown college’s NCAA Division II football semifinal game at Minnesota State that kicked off at the same time.

Refreshingly, some fans in the crowd noted his jacket and mentioned the game. It’s good to know not all fans are limited to Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff.

But we were kicking ourselves for not bringing a Ferris flag to be captured by the GameDay cameras.

Then we made our way to a tailgate with a retired general, Lt. Gen. Ken Hunzeker. Rick served under Hunzeker when he was a Colonel and battalion commander. He told us Rick’s exceptional work and support helped him gain his promotion to general.

Rick’s rise up the Army officer ranks didn’t surprise us. Rex told a story about Rick as the quarterback at Big Rapids High. After a disappointing junior season, he gathered the returning players and told them “this isn’t happening again.”

“That was leadership Rick showed early on,” Rex said.

We also were treated to the Army bagpipe band marching by and later the Army cheerleaders. That was probably due to the general’s tailgate location.

Another retired general we met was Michael Linnington, currently CEO of the Wounded Warrior Project. Rick told him Rex had purchased a (pricey) ticket for a Wounded Warrior veteran to attend with us. Linnington gave Rex a heartfelt thank you.

Kenneth Watkins, who was wounded in Iraq, grew up and still lives in Philadelphia. It was his first Army-Navy Game, but even though he turned out to be a Navy vet and had to sit with us in an Army section, it was a good day for all.

Once in the stadium, the pre-game events are poignant reminders of dedication. The pastor delivering the invocation said the Cadets and Midshipmen with us in the stadium are willing to die defending their country for everyone watching the game. He could have also mentioned all those those oblivious to the grandest rivalry in college sports.

Then teams of Navy Leap Frogs and Army Golden Knights parachuted onto the field. I noted to Col. Steinke that one of the Navy guys stumbled to his knees on his landing, while the Army guys all hit their spots. They landed as softly as cats on their paws.

“Squids,” Col. Steinke said derisively the way West Pointers speak of the Navy.

Next there were flyovers by jets and helicopters in separate but tight formations. The Apache gunships hovered slowly for a couple of passes above us.

As a long-time sportswriter, I’ve worked many games, including Super Bowls, with flyovers and parachute teams, but the Army-Navy Game feels different. The pro crowds view the show as entertainment. At the Army-Navy Game, these were soldiers and sailors demonstrating their craft to future soldiers and sailors.

Once the game began, the Black Knights scored on their first possession, but true to form the dogged Midshipmen kept playing hard. They consistently stopped Army’s inside running game. The difference was Army junior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins made enough plays throwing and running the ball. He scored two touchdowns running and was the game’s MVP.

Hopkins’ 4-of-9 passing for 61 yards sounds modest, but on Army’s first possession Navy stopped the first two runs. Navy had won the coin toss and elected to kickoff off, hoping for momentum from a three-and-out.

But Hopkins completed a third-and-six pass to Glen Coates for 17 yards. One play later Kell Walker ran for 51 yards to the 10-yard line. Hopkins scored on the next snap.

That Hopkins and Coates are two kids from North Carolina high schools -- Hopkins, Charlotte Independence; Coates, Davidson Day -- was more than coincidence. Army and Navy both traditionally heavily recruit the Tar Heel state, which includes Fort Bragg in Fayetteville and Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. To me, their third-down connection was one of two pivotal plays in the game. 

The other was a fourth-quarter sack by Army senior linebacker Kenneth Brinson, one half of the other pair of bracketed siblings I had mentioned. His younger sister Kamryn competes on West Point’s track team.

Brinson’s late fourth-quarter sack to force a fumble that he recovered at the Navy 22-yard line set up Hopkins’ game-winning touchdown.

Later, I informed my friends Brinson had turned down Stanford to attend West Point. He has a 3.9 grade-point average in chemical engineering and was a finalist for the Campbell Trophy presented to the nation’s top student-athlete.

In a story on Brinson I wrote earlier in the year, I asked him about turning down Stanford among other Power 5 schools.

“I think there are some experiences learned that are unique to West Point,” he said.

Of his decisive play, I thought of a quote from Army junior linebacker Cole Christiansen in another one of my stories about how he and the linebackers play so well together. Christiansen and senior James Nachtigal were all over the field just as they have been all season.

“Kenny is brilliant, so obviously you don’t have to worry he knows what to do,” Christiansen said in that story.

But despite Brinson having so much squared away in his young life, he credits his sister.

“She made her own choice, but I’m definitely glad she ended up here,” he said of West Point. “She’s a blessing for me. She keeps me straight if I’m messing up.”

Attending the 119th edition and watching Army and Navy players I had interviewed tied the season together.

Throughout the game we also followed Ferris State’s semifinal result on our smart phones. The Bulldogs won 42-25 to advance to the DII championship game. The Ferris victory elated Rex; he stated he might drive from Philadelphia to McKinney, Tx., site of the title game against Valdosta State.

But that didn’t stop him from continuing to celebrate Army’s third straight victory over Navy and second consecutive Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with a sweep of Air Force and Navy. He enthusiastically high-fived every Cadet we encountered on the way out of the stadium and walking toward our ride.

Maybe he was inspired by Army coach Jeff Monken.

During a lengthy fourth-quarter review, Monken was finished instructing his players. I pointed him out to Rex as Monken ran from the middle of the sideline to the end where the Cadets were seated. Since they were already cheering and jumping up and down, it was more than Monken urging them on. He was joining in.

Such a bond based on pride and honor is what major college football traded for television money and rankings.

Alabama coach Nick Saban recently criticized his students for not showing up at games. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney blasted his fans for not being satisfied by the margin of victories in a 12-0 season. Maybe Swinney, but I can’t see Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and others of their ilk letting go of their single-mindedness to run down the sideline and enjoy the moment with their student fans.

As Rick and I had promised Rex to begin the day, the Army-Navy Game never disappoints.

* * *

Among other AFAN (Air Force, Army, Navy) newsletter stories I wrote this season:

Army senior center Bryce Holland

Army senior halfback Jordan Asberry

Army senior fullback Darnell "Butch" Wolfolk

* * *

Navy and Notre Dame rivalry visits Navy town

Navy senior defensive end Jarvis Polu

Navy senior offensive lineman Chris Gesell

* * * 

Air Force senior linebacker Brody Bagnell

Air Force senior defensive tackle Micah Capra

* * *

Triple-option doomsday predictions are premature

The evolving triple-option offense at Air Force

John McCain a war hero worth honoring at academy games

* * *

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

http://shanahan.report/a/the-case-for-duffy-and-medal-of-freedom

 

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."

Click here for the link to order from August Publications

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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications


David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."