Army-BC Review: The Sweetest Struggle

The Army Black Knights know that they're going to have a tough time making a bowl game in 2012. Yet, the hardships that have marked their season will only magnify the greatness they exhibited in one of the supremely satisfying triumphs of Rich Ellerson's tenure.


In the 2000 move Traffic, federal witness Eduardo Ruiz – about to testify against a major drug dealer – is exasperated by the persistence of DEA agent Montel Gordon, played by Don Cheadle. Ruiz taps into a very powerful feeling – one that's part of the human condition – when he snaps at Gordon and says, "The worst thing about you, Monty, is you realize the futility of what you're doing and you do it anyway."

Gordon won't destroy the drug trade – he knows it, and Ruiz knows it, too. Agent Gordon finds himself fighting one battle in a localized, specific situation. The larger problem will persist in all its ugliness and devastation. Gordon is trying to remove one bucket of water from the ocean. He's not going to solve the entirety of the problem. Success will not be complete. Victory will not be total and comprehensive.

Yet, Agent Gordon – after seeing Ruiz die due to poisoning – doesn't lose heart. He continues the struggle. He somehow finds a way to bug the room where the drug dealer – the one who had Ruiz poisoned – conducts his business. When the movie ends, the drug dealer doesn't meet his day of reckoning… not yet… but the viewer clearly gets the sense that that day of reckoning will come, thanks to Agent Gordon's persistence.

There's really only one difference between Agent Gordon and the Army football team after one of Michie Stadium's more memorable afternoons in recent years: By the time this classic football movie reached the closing credits, the audience – in the stands and in front of a television set – saw the happy ending instead of merely imagining it.

Yes, after so much futility and heartbreak in a September defined by disappointment and dejection, The Brave Old Army Team lived up to its fight song and the West Point creed by striving to the very last instant in an uplifting win over Boston College. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Boston College shared the stage with Army as a national powerhouse in college football. Neither the Eagles nor the Black Knights will reclaim such heights anytime soon, but Army's stirring come-from-behind effort, due to its narrative power, will linger as one of the most special memories forged during the Rich Ellerson era. This game marked an iconic representation of perseverance, a definitive example of how adversity and pressure can be defeated.

To understand how impressive this feat really was and is (and will continue to be), you have to go back one week. You have to appreciate the rock-bottom emotions that coursed through Army's locker room following not just any loss, but a 20-point home-field defeat at the hands of a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, Stony Brook University. Scoring only three points against the Seawolves on home turf, a product of four lost fumbles and poor third-down defense, left Army with an 0-4 record and little chance of making a bowl game. In this, the senior season for respected quarterback Trent Steelman, Army had hoped to give its field general a proper postseason sendoff, so the loss to Stony Brook cut deep for reasons that transcended the FCS angle. A win over Boston College wasn't going to fix all of this team's problems, since the program's big-picture goals for 2012 lay in tatters. However, the notion of being able to beat Boston College didn't seem likely to begin with. Mere improvement had to enter the landscape before the Black Knights could even consider the idea that they could revive their season on the first weekend of October.

Like Agent Gordon, the Brave Old Army Team saw the futility of what it was doing on many levels… and kept forging ahead.

You could see, in the dying minutes of regulation, how much Boston College – the Eduardo Ruiz of this pigskin passion play – hated the persistence of its opponent.

Especially in light of the wrenching experiences it had endured in September, Army could have lost heart against Boston College when the visitors from the ACC produced 17 straight points in the second quarter to take a 24-14 lead. The Eagles are not a supremely skilled bunch, but their size on the offensive front was apparent, and it leaned on the Black Knights in that second stanza, to great effect. Instructively, though, Army offered the first noticeable sign that it would not back down from a fight when it snuck in a field goal on the last play of the half. That small but substantial response sent a message to the Boston College sideline, and as a result, Army allowed just seven points after halftime, none in the first 23-plus minutes of the second half.

That display of determination of defense was just the beginning of the redemptive story the Black Knights authored on Saturday.

After Army finally conceded its one and only second-half score, the Black Knights were stoned on fourth and goal from the 1 with 2:09 left. Boston College's sideline erupted with joy, and the air went out of the balloon for a few moments at Michie Stadium. Robots don't have to worry about these pesky things called emotions, but human beings have to live with them and manage them all the time. It would have been all too human for Army to slump its shoulders just then, but because Ellerson kept two timeouts in his pocket (he could have wasted one to call that fourth-down play just before the two-minute mark, but he didn't, and it made all the difference in the world), Army still had a fighting chance. Boston College had to make one first down to close down the Black Knights.

Calling forth the resilience that would make Agent Gordon proud, Army did indeed stuff Boston College on that series of downs, getting the ball back with 1:56 left. (Had Ellerson used one of his two timeouts before the fourth-down play a few moments earlier, Army would have gained possession with about 1:10 remaining.) Given just enough freedom with respect to the time clock, Army was still able to run the ball, giving the Black Knights a crucial measure of added leverage. Steelman – who else? – turned that leverage into paydirt on a brilliant keeper to the left side of his offensive line. In 84 seconds of scoreboard clock time, Army had engineered a 180-degree reversal, saving itself from an 0-5 abyss and proving to the world that it is capable of overcoming great obstacles.

This season might not bring Army everything it has dreamed of. The November part of the slate remains daunting, though Air Force certainly looks a lot more beatable than one might have thought a few weeks ago (after Air Force nearly beat Michigan on the road). Forget that long-term focus for a moment, however. Just look at life in the present tense.

The Army football team faced one opponent in one high-pressure situation on Saturday. It seemed as though its mission was about to fail, much as Agent Gordon's case against the drug dealer appeared to be dashed following the death of his witness, Eduardo Ruiz. However, Army found a different way to the finish line after being stonewalled on fourth and goal with 2:09 left. Ignoring a September to forget, the Black Knights created an afternoon to remember in October.

The energy, enthusiasm and exultation that poured forth from Army's victorious sideline this past weekend will endure in the public mind. They joy of an unbroken, unbowed team will linger as the centerpiece of one of the most luminous and cherished moments in this program's 21st-century existence.

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