Army-Navy Preview: Running The Race

If there's an apt image for the Army Black Knights to use in the 112th Army-Navy Game on Dec. 10 in Landover, Maryland, it is the image of the long-distance runner. If the boys from West Point have learned anything about their season, they need to realize that their battle is not just against Navy, but against their own mental stamina.


Long-distance running, as any marathoner or 10,000-meter runner could tell you, is very much a psychological challenge, especially when done competitively. The test of the physical body is naturally profound, but it's the test of the mind in conjunction with the body which makes long-distance running such a fascinating case study of the human body as a complete machine. In the Olympics and other world-class competitions, the difference between the medal stand and a ninth-place finish is partly psychological. Sure, the fitness and nutrition plans play a considerable part in developing the elite runner, but the ability to have an extra supply of juice in the tank – an extra level of freshness in the kick and steadiness in the running stride when 85 percent of a long race has already been run – is very much tied to mental strength. The runner with particularly copious quantities of belief and focus, of resolve and total mind-body synchronicity, is the runner who prevails in a long, grueling event.

In this thematic focus on long-distance runners, one is particularly reminded of the 2004 Olympic men's marathon bronze medalist, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, who shows the members of the Army football team what it's like to endure profound and ringing disappointment yet still bathe himself in glory.

De Lima was dominating the 2004 Olympic men's marathon in Athens, Greece. The (then-) 35-year-old had established his tempo and showed no alarming signs of discomfort. Given his age, de Lima could not count on another Olympics, but what was even more special about his possible triumph – as he began mile 23 of the 26.2-mile journey to the finish line – was that he would win the marathon in the very place where the marathon AND THE OLYMPICS were born. To win the Olympic marathon in any year is a crowning life accomplishment of the highest order. To do so in Athens, Greece, in the shadows of such rich and permanent history, offers a million times more doses of sporting immortality. It's hard to even wrap the mind around the enormity of what this well-worn Brazilian veteran was about to accomplish.

Then, absurdity smacked him in the face and punched him in the gut… not literally, but almost.

A madman (without a knife or gun, blessedly) who turned out to be a defrocked Irish priest (in Greece – what were the odds?!) ran from the curbside and onto the road, physically stopping de Lima's progress. A few men quickly jumped on the man and pulled him off de Lima's back, but the damage had been done in terms of the race. De Lima lost 15 seconds in the short term, but he lost his runner's momentum and rhythm while also experiencing a complete interruption to his mind's ability to focus. The advantage de Lima had created to that point in the marathon was not substantial enough to withstand an event with such jarring dimensions and disruptive properties. De Lima's glory – entering fabled Panathinaiko Stadium and its marble columns as the soon-to-be Olympic marathon champion in its Greek home – was taken away from him not by the competitive merits of his fellow runners, but by an act of lunacy on the part of a spectator. De Lima could have shut down. He could have dissolved into bitterness on the race course over the final three miles. He could have turned bitter and faded into obscurity. Moreover, no one would have blamed him for any of it.

Instead, de Lima retained enough focus and concentration to finish third and get on the medal stand, for one thing. Secondly, when he entered Panathinaiko Stadium – when the world was waiting to see how he would handle the bitter disappointment of not being the champion in a race he had largely controlled – de Lima not only smiled, but engaged in a post-soccer-goal plane-flying motion, extending his arms and swerving from side to side. Vanderlei de Lima had every right to curl up in a fetal position and lament his fate (he was not awarded a gold medal upon appeal to the International Olympic Committee), but he instead embraced the fullness of the event and made the statement that "I'm here to finish this race and relish the moment to the very end, no matter what." In so doing, de Lima earned himself a piece of Olympic immortality – it was not the kind he was initially hoping for when he began the twenty-third mile of the marathon, but it was a positive way in which to be remembered.

Very simply, then, as the Army football team prepares to play Navy on Dec. 10, the moral of de Lima's story is obvious: Run the race. Keep the faith. Finish the job.

For most of the 2011 season but especially in their other service academy (Commander-In-Chief's Trophy) game against Air Force, the Black Knights have fallen short in the final 20 minutes. This team fought really hard in September but has had a terrible time finishing games ever since. Miami of Ohio, Vanderbilt and Rutgers are all examples of a lack of endurance and stamina, but it's the Air Force game which provides the best parallel with this upcoming clash against the archrival from Annapolis.

You will recall that Army dismantled Air Force in the first half of that game in Colorado Springs. You will recall that Army should have gained a 21-0 lead when a fourth-down quarterback sneak by Max Jenkins clearly broke the plane of the goal line – you couldn't see the ball, but you could see Jenkins' upper thighs over the goal line, with his waist a foot into the end zone and his helmet at least two feet into the end zone. It was impossible for the ball to NOT break the plane of the goal line unless a fumble had occurred, and there was no fumble on the play. The pile surged into the end zone before it got pushed back, and the clueless officials – dozing on the play – made no attempt to offer a ruling all the while. Forward progress was ignored, and the replay booth amazingly failed to reverse the on-field ruling of "no touchdown." Army received the Vanderlei de Lima treatment on that play, and for a moment, it looked as though the Black Knights were going to respond with a champion's composure.

On Army's very next drive – in a game the Black Knights still led by a 14-0 score – running back Scott Williams was dashing to the end zone for a 21-0 stranglehold against a body-snatched Air Force team that did not enjoy one of its better seasons in 2011. However, Williams didn't wrap up the ball securely, and as a result, Air Force's Josh Hall was able to punch the ball out at the 1. The ball flew through and out of the end zone for a touchback, and Army entered the locker room with the smallest and most frail 14-point lead a team could possibly have. In the second half, the Black Knights – rocked by not just the blown call, but the untimely fumble – could not do what Vanderlei de Lima did. They lost their focus and poise. They buckled under the weight of the moment and the realization of what had happened. Yes, the touchdown the officials took away from them was out of their control, but the Brave Old Army Team had more chances to put Air Force away. It couldn't, and the second half turned into a slow-motion unraveling for coach Rich Ellerson's charges.

You know what the past nine Army-Navy Game narratives have been. You know that the Midshipmen always have more of the fourth-quarter finishing kick and more third-quarter playmaking mojo. You know that coach Ken Niumatalolo's lads rise up in man-making motivational moments, conquering the crucible of crunch time with decisiveness and determination.

Army can't – and shouldn't – talk about the need to do better. It must simply perform the way it must in order to break this long losing skid and give a senior class a win over the Midshipmen. The military is supposed to teach young men how to handle adversity and difficult situations; a football game isn't life or death, making it blessedly safe space, but the point does remain that over the past nine years, Army has become smaller against Navy when gameday pressure has increased. It's time for the Black Knights to find kinship with Vanderlei de Lima and Saint Paul as well.

It's time for a team to fight the fight, to run the race, to keep the faith… for 60 minutes, and not one second less.

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