First, you had to negotiate the pigeon droppings.
There was a thick layer of guano on each of the steps leading up to the press box at JFK Stadium, that wrinkled old relic that had hosted some truly epic sporting events but now slumbered, waiting for the wrecking ball.
The route to the press box was a spiral staircase, a tricky passage even without having to skate over a year's worth of pigeon deposits. There was also the matter of (mind your step) low-hanging pipes, which (ouch) are frozen.
I got to my seat (a wooden bench, splintered) just in time to receive a lusty swat from a heating pipe, which of course was the consistency of a Popsicle.
I spent the better part of 14 years in the Midwest, a thousand miles from here, and from afar watched every Army-Navy game enthralled, mesmerized by the March-Ons, captivated by the precision and spectacle … 4,000 cadets, 4,000 midshipmen. Our Best and Brightest filling the stadium end zone to end zone … the city of Philadelphia so rich with history, proud and regal host … I could only imagine what it must be like …
And now I knew: Dec. 1, 1973. Game No.
All that we ask is all that you have.
Nov. 29, 1890, in the dying days of autumn, on a cold, blustery wind-lashed day on a bluff overlooking the hauntingly beautiful Hudson River Valley, on a corner of the fabled land known simply as the Plain, home of West Point, the United States Military Academy and the Long Gray Line, cadets Dennis Michie of Army and Charles Emrich of Navy rounded up some coconspirators, with a big assist from Michie's father, and proceeded to inaugurate a football rivalry for the ages.
No, not Navy-Army.
See how that stumbles? Army-Navy has always been and always shall be, and besides it sounds like one word anyway — ArmyNavy.
As for the early games themselves, Navy won the first, 24-0. The second game was played at Navy on Nov. 29, 1891, and Army won, 32-16. Through most of the series' first 100 years, a reasonable parity held. Lately, though, Army has fallen on hard times. It hasn't beaten Navy since 2001 and trails in the series, 59-49 with seven ties. When they kick off Saturday, Army will have no chance, mathematical or otherwise, to post a winning record, while Navy is assured of a bowl bid. But no matter the circumstances or the numbers, both teams share the same mantra:
This is a one-game season … a game not just for now but forever.
Here is the essence of Army-Navy: Dec. 6, 2003. Army is behind by 28 points with 36 seconds left. On fourth down, Navy prepares to punt. Army rushes to call time out, in order to stop the clock rather than let time dribble out. Why? Why try to prolong the inevitable?
Because to surrender, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the score, is unthinkable.
Unthinkable on the football field, even more unthinkable on the battlefield.
This is the admonition given to each cadet — no matter the question, there are only three acceptable answers: "Yes, sir." "No, sir." "No excuse, sir."
In that Dec. 6 game, Army sustained its 13th defeat. It was a record. No Division I school had ever lost that many times in one season. How must that feel?
Ryan Kent, linebacker and cocaptain of Brave Old Army Team: "I cry after every loss. … I don't wish that feeling on anyone. But you soldier on, you go to every practice. … You know somehow this will turn around. And if you don't feel that way, you have no chance. We're a very tight group. We have each other. We're members of a very special brotherhood. We're blessed to play football now, but we know what we signed up for. We know the deal, we know the drill."
From time to time the venue for Army-Navy has varied, but always, always, the game has come back to Philadelphia, and to some of those sites that are like autumn fields of poppies, wilted memories, but memories nonetheless. There was the cavernous Municipal Stadium, later named JFK, in memory of the skipper of PT-109.
And Franklin Field, that grand old dinosaur on whose bones rest the warrior patriots who played so heroically and then, in far-off lands, gave the last full measure: All gave some, some gave all.
And Veterans Stadium, gone as it had lived, replaced by Lincoln Financial Field, which one day will fall before the wrecking ball.
But no matter the venue, the memories of Army-Navy are secure, and new ones, beginning this coming Saturday, are awaiting the bugle call. It is our civic treasure.
War is ritual. Football is ritual. And that brings us to the best tear-streaked 5½ minutes in sports, the end of another Army-Navy game.
It will end, as most do, in the December gloaming with the fading echo of cannon fire saluting the victors valiant, and then in a grand show of what used to be called sportsmanship in a quaint, more innocent time, golden helmets tucked respectfully under their arms, each sings the other's alma mater. There are embraces, and the knowledge that when next they meet it could be in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or someplace else … because there's always a someplace. It seems we never run out of someplace, nor of those who keep us safe from someplace.
And that is it … the ritual complete … well, except for the crying. The losers cry, the winners cry, and hard-hearted stoics who pride themselves on their unbending objectivity (ahem) look on, swallow hard, and pledge: "This time I will not cry."