Annapolis, September 7, 1991
I do not remember details from the week of practice but I do remember the bus ride to Muncie's tiny municipal airport the day before the game, boarding a charter 727 prior to our trip to Annapolis. It was an awkward sight, seeing the aircraft from afar, rising above cornfields; only corn, the plane, and the control tower. "This is crazy", I thought to myself. "How can I get out of this"? I remember boarding from the rear of the airplane, roaring down the runway, taking off and just barely clearing a corn field at the end of the runway just after lifting off. "That WAS crazy"! All that I was concerned about all week wasn't practice, nor was it the formidable opponent, Navy, nor was it my first start as a Cardinal. It was flying to the game. I was scared of the flight. It did not help matters that we boarded our plane in the middle of a cornfield.
Thankfully it was an uneventful flight. We landed in Baltimore about two hours after leaving Muncie, loaded three buses and headed to Annapolis. The real pressure, I thought had finally lifted with our touchdown in Baltimore.
After a short drive, upon arriving in Annapolis, rather than travel directly to the stadium we instead took an unexpected detour through the Naval Academy; I soon forgot about the flight and the game. Just visiting the Naval Academy was an incredible experience all onto its own, nestled firmly on Chesapeake Bay. I recall sensing American symbolism everywhere and respect and I remember being overwhelmed with pride. I also recall sensing discipline and character, a leadership training ground no doubt. It was impressive. This was America. We were going to battle the good guys in an old fashion American football game.
Just a few minutes after leaving the Naval Academy, the next stop, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was much more than I had anticipated. It was not a large venue but it was significant. Inside of the two-tiered facility seemingly across every vertical façade was a tribute, a memorial to quite possibly every Naval and Marine battle in American history. I recall seeing Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Pearl Harbor, just to name a few. They were all there, both sides of the stadium – a history buffs dream. It was an awe-inspiring experience, to say the least. I was very proud of being an American more so than any other time in my young life. And we were going to play a game in this facility.
Saturday Night Before the Game
By this time the awe of the stadium had left and now it was time to play. But this pre game was different than any other I had experienced as a player or fan. Four events occurred before the game began that will forever be etched in my memory and heart. The first event occurred while we were still in the locker room just minutes before the game. All of a sudden a roar sounded through the locker room that shook walls, lockers and floors. "Whoa"! I remember ducking my head as if that reaction would have protected me. Later, we learned that two Naval or Marine jets had flown over the stadium just above press box level (I believe they were A-10 Warthogs). It was simply incredible. The second event occurred after we took the field – the dedication of the first Gulf War! All I could do was look around in astonishment and shake my head. Then came the parachutists dropped from a naval air transport with near-perfect landings on the 50. The final event was a perfect culmination of the prior three events: the playing of our national anthem. This is the sequence of how I recall the events although they certainly could have been in different order. In 16 years since the game with Navy, I have never been as proud to be an American as I was at that moment. Given all of the excitement before the game one would think that the feeling among BSU players, fans and coaches was one of being the mortal enemy of America but that was not the case at all as I would later find out.
The game was played in the evening and guys like Neu, Croom, Oliver, Bishop, Stonfield, Parris, Stucker (some Cardinal greats) were my teammates. We played an outstanding game and beat Navy 33-10. Although an important victory in BSU football history, the victory itself is not what I will most remember about the game. More than the game or the victory what I will never forget is the uncommon respect and gratitude displayed by the Midshipmen. During the game, the player, the officer, I played against for most of the game was unusually, unrecognizably respectful for a football opponent; a complete paradox from any of my experiences on the gridiron in high school or college. I was helped off the ground on more than one occasion by Navy players – I was not used to that! This unusual show of respect continued throughout the game even as we walked off the field in victory. At the end of the game, when we were departing, a young officer shook my hand and wished me good luck in my life with a big smile on his face. Here were guys who played to play and nothing else other than to win for the academy and all it stands for. They must have realized that their college football careers were short and that their duty to country lie ahead of them. This was just a game.
"So", I remember thinking for some time thereafter, "this is big time college football"? "Were all games like this one"? Hardly. I would find out next week at TCU and throughout the rest of the season and my collegiate career that the answer was an ardent "No". It was clear only well after the fact that the Naval officers we played that evening were truly gentlemen. They were hard-nosed, disciplined and respectful; and they were leaders. America's finest. For me, a great lesson learned.
Back to Muncie
The trip home was much like the trip to Annapolis; cold quarter pounder then back on the charter and no excitement for me. I gripped the seat when we took off and let go when we stopped in between corn stalks at the gate in Muncie.
Throughout the rest of my career with BSU never did I experience a game like Navy; none as remarkable as that night in Annapolis. I predict a close game this time and also predict that there will be indelible impressions left on the minds and hearts of young Cardinals this week that they will soon not forget.