By David Ausiello
Two weeks ago at a college football game in Blacksburg, Virginia several thousand students cheered for their team with a new sense of pride. This game was a special one for the Virginia Tech students because it was the first major sporting event since April 16th when 27 peers and five faculty members were murdered on their campus. Since that tragedy, a lot of Hokie football players said that they felt a stronger bond with their fellow students. Some even said that they had gone out of their way to say ‘hi' to more students when they passed them on campus in recent weeks.
Fast forward to the Navy game this past week in Piscataway, New Jersey and I personally had the opportunity to see several thousand cheering Rutgers students support their team as well. Additionally, after the game I witnessed Rutgers students clamoring for autographs from players on their own team. One student even yelled joyously when a sure bet future NFL star tossed a sweaty headband in his direction.
Thankfully, unlike Virginia Tech, there was no tragedy that brought the Scarlet Knight students out in droves to support their team; it was probably just the new taste of winning football in their case.
As I reflect on those scenes at the Rutgers game, and think about the similar scene in Virginia Tech, I wondered how many of the cheering students at either school personally knew some of the players who were representing their school on the football field. How many ‘student-fans' could actually tell you something personal about a player which would indicate they were close friends?
I'm sure when a Virginia Tech player who is destined for the NFL stops and says ‘hi' to a normal student-fan on the Blacksburg campus it could be a big deal. After all, the player probably lives in a separate athletic dormitory and greetings like this on a sprawling 2,600 acre campus are most likely rare at best. And I'm sure to a normal Rutgers student fan, being on the receiving end of a memento from a future pro player is a great way to end an evening of football. I mean Rutgers has four campuses throughout New Jersey and over 30,000 students attending classes at the Piscataway location alone. So the exit tunnel above the field is probably the best chance a student-fan has to catch a glimpse of a Rutgers football player.
Needless to say things are a bit different at Navy. Not only is the U.S. Naval Academy located on one of the smallest (if not the smallest) Division I-A campuses in the country (338 acres), you would probably have a tough time finding a stronger bond between football players and students anywhere in college sports.
First and foremost there is no athletic dormitory on the U.S. Naval Academy campus (or the Yard as it is known by those who once called it home). All athletes including football players live amongst the general population of 4,400 midshipmen in one dormitory – Bancroft Hall. That's right, if you were a student-fan at the Naval Academy in the 1960s, Roger Staubach wouldn't have necessarily just been someone you passed on the Yard – he could have been your roommate. The same holds true today. Pick any one of the 40 or so floors of Bancroft Hall and you will probably find a football player living, sleeping and studying next to a student-fan who, when not studying himself, is analyzing the weaknesses of the upcoming opponent for fun. On the next floor you're likely to find another football player living alongside another student-fan who may have only joined the marching band because it allowed him to travel to away football games. Naval Academy midshipmen may have a bit more on their plate than normal college students, but make no mistake, they are no different than your average student college football fan.
And at the Naval Academy, the football players live amongst their biggest fans.
The reason why the Navy football players live amongst their biggest fans is because, well, they are one of them. Regardless of what students at Navy due in their allotted time for sports and extra-curricular activities, at the end of the day, they are all midshipmen. This means they all wear the same uniform, eat the same meals, go to the same classes and take part in the same required training. They all also go through the same initial six-week indoctrination known as plebe summer when some football players have been known to drop as much as 30 pounds. Each football player knows how to march, how to obey orders, and some day they will all know how to give them as well.
At the Naval Academy, the football players are developed into leaders just like their biggest fans.
That brings us to the third aspect of the bond between the Brigade of Midshipmen and the Navy football team. Once students at Navy have completed four years of education, all of them, including football players will be commissioned as officers in the United States Navy or the United States Marine Corps. After four years in Annapolis, midshipmen instantly become the newest leaders of the largest and most capable armed forces in the history of the world. With this opportunity comes the responsibility to look after the tens of thousands of young Sailors and Marines who are protecting this great nation. Indeed, decisions Navy graduates will make may very well someday be life or death ones.
And at the Naval Academy, the football players will fight in the same war side-by-side with their biggest fans.
There are a lot of opponents on Navy's schedule this year that will witness the bond between the Brigade of Midshipmen and their football team for the first time. For the fans of Ball State, Pittsburgh, North Texas, Northern Illinois and even Wake Forest, it will be a rare glimpse into one of the best traditions and displays of camaraderie in all of sports.
While the march-on of the Brigade before home games and the flyovers by Naval aircraft at Navy/Marine Corps Stadium will surely catch your attention; I encourage you all to take a closer look at some of the not so obvious signs of the subtle pageantry of Navy football. Like the tunnel created by the midshipmen for their team before the game or the thunderous applause Navy students will give to their team, win or lose, at the conclusion of the game. Without a doubt, whether the midshipmen are coming to your stadium or if your team will be visiting Annapolis, the Navy football experience is special and should be cherished by all fans.
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