The Army-Navy Game had been in this position before -- not the position of following an attack on a pair of skyscrapers which took multiple thousands of lives, but in a moment of national suffering and doubt.
The backdrop to the 2001 Army-Navy Game was marked by pain, questioning, and profound uncertainty about the future in its short-term and long-term contexts. In this larger respect, the 2001 game became historically linked with the 1963 edition of this Armerican sports classic, a centerpiece of the college football season.
In 1963, Army and Navy did not have very much time at all (less than the 2001 teams did) to grieve and mourn and lament a thunderbolt of evil which devastated the country. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youthful Catholic President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Two weeks later, on December 7 -- in a Philadelphia ballpark which would eventually be named John F. Kennedy Stadium (it was Municipal Stadium at the time) -- the two academies met before over 100,000 spectators. Navy was playing for a chance to face Texas in the Cotton Bowl... and make a trip to the very city where JFK died. The Midshipmen didn't really have much time to think of that, however. The Midshipmen -- like the Cadets from West Point -- were just trying to make sense of their abruptly-altered lives, as were Americans from coast to coast and border to border. The idea of cancelling the game was at least entertained, but Jackie Kennedy -- the first lady turned into the country's first widow -- wanted Army and Navy to play.
The band(s) played on. So did the teams. They created an epic and controversial game in which Navy did earn the right to go to Dallas, in a 1-versus-2 bowl game which began Dallas's long healing process after the darkest day in the city's history.
The 2001 Army-Navy Game didn't have anything to do with Dallas, but its place in a larger situation of American uncertainty was very much the same. In some ways, it was even bigger.
The reality of the Army-Navy Game is always apparent in peacetime and in war: The young men who play will then defend and serve the country in one form or another. This lends a natural poignancy to the proceedings in early December, no matter what the national circumstances might be. However, in times of great tension, tumult and trial, the emotional weight of Army-Navy -- like the accompanying need to play a game to remind ourselves what's good in life -- is impossible to measure. Such was the case in 2001, as the Black Knights and the Midshipmen knew that -- in many cases -- military service would exist not just as a matter of training, but as a matter of applied situational reality. They wouldn't just practice; they would very possibly have to apply that training in a life-or-death theater of combat.
The enormity of the realization was frankly overpowering: The 2001 Army-Navy Game represented a possible last taste of fun for two rosters of football players, just before the severity and darkness of a fractured and violent world demanded every last ounce of their energy in service of a military commitment. President George W. Bush, who spoke through that megaphone on the rubble of the World Trade Center site, attended this game. General Norman Schwarzkopf spoke to Army. Senator John McCain spoke to Navy.
It was hard to fully capture the emotions, meanings, sights, sounds, enthusiasms, and worries crammed into another Philadelphia edifice on that Saturday.
Veterans Stadium, a longtime home of this game much as Municipal Stadium had been (The Vet hosted Army-Navy Game showdowns for the better part of 22 years from 1980 through 2001; Municipal Stadium doubled that run, hosting most games in the series from 1936 through 1979), said goodbye to Army-Navy. In a time of peace, The Vet's finale would have been the story in 2001. Naturally, that was the last thing on anyone's mind when Army coach Todd Berry and Navy interim boss Rick Lantz (taking over for the just-fired Charlie Weatherbie) led their teams onto the artificial turf of the 1970s multi-purpose stadium.
Everything about the 2001 game focused on the national and global situations encompassing the United States and the country's need to respond to 9/11. However, with the benefit of hindsight -- though the word "benefit" doesn't really apply to Army's program or fan base -- we can look back on this afternoon as the most recent win by the Black Knights in this series.
Yes, you have to go back 14 years to find the last time West Point exulted and Annapolis didn't sing second. Paul Johnson had not yet arrived at the Naval Academy. Berry -- though not hugely successful as Army's leader -- showed that he could in fact coach a little when he guided Louisiana-Monroe to its first bowl game a few seasons ago. Navy simply hadn't arrived at its golden period just yet. It didn't yet hit the jackpot with the two coaches -- Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo -- who have turned the program around.
Now, Army is the team in search of sideline leadership. Now, Army is the team trying to catch big-play lightning in a bottle, much as it did on that day in 2001. A 60-yard run and a 42-yard pass gave the Black Knights their first two touchdowns, and a 96-yard kickoff return by Omari Thompson at the start of the second half powered West Point to a 26-9 lead and an eventual 26-17 win.
Ever since 2001, if Army has made any big plays, they've been cancelled out by mistakes and the quality of the Navy team on the other side. What has hurt the Black Knights is that they've rarely if ever had the luxury of leading by more than one score. The very idea that Army could get a 10- or 14-point lead over Navy at any point in time has become almost unfathomable... for 13 straight games.
No matter what the 2001 Army-Navy Game meant to Americans in a context of grief and healing, it represented the last time an Army team has taken a big lead... and taken a game against Navy by the (goat) horns.
The time for Army to do something like that is always now, but on Saturday, the latest "now" gives West Point a chance to make some history.