By Nicolaus Mills
Like millions of college football fans, I will be watching this year's Army-Navy game on television when it's played in Philadelphia today. With both teams holding victories over the Air Force Academy, they will be competing for the Commander in Chief's Trophy, which has gone to the winner of the three-team service rivalry for 40 years.
Army, which has absorbed 10 straight losses to Navy, will try to start a winning streak of its own in the series, which the Midshipmen lead, 56-49-7. With a 7-4 record, Navy is favored to win again over 2-9 Army. But as the leading rushing team in the nation, Army could pull off an upset.
It's not these records that draw me to the game, though. It's the athletes who carry on the historic rivalry knowing their next stop after college is the service, not the NFL or a business career.
Theodore Roosevelt started the tradition of presidents attending the Army-Navy game in 1901. Ever since, it's been more than just a sporting event.
In 1944, after an Army team led by All-American running backs Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis defeated Navy, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then commanding Allied troops in the Pacific, cabled Army coach Red Blaik: "The greatest of all Army teams - STOP - We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success." Even after the November 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the game was postponed but not canceled.
Today's meeting marks an important anniversary. Fifty years ago, when Kennedy attended the game for the last time, it was the end of the Cold War's most dangerous standoff, the Cuban missile crisis, and the start of a three-year rivalry between two gifted quarterbacks, Navy's Roger Staubach and Army's Rollie Stichweh.
That 1962 game had only one hero, Staubach, a future Heisman winner who, after a tour in Vietnam, led the Dallas Cowboys to four Super Bowls. Just a sophomore in 1962, Staubach didn't even start for Navy until the fourth game of the season. But his performance against Army made it clear that he was destined to be a football star and foreshadowed the 1963 season, in which he took Navy to the Cotton Bowl and a No. 2 ranking nationally. Staubach passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more in that first encounter with Army, a 34-14 rout.
Paul Dietzel, a former Louisiana State University coach of the year brought to West Point to stop Army's three-game losing streak against Navy, could only tell the press, "I don't think I prepared them enough for this game." Gen. William Westmoreland, the West Point superintendent and the players' future commander in Vietnam, was equally grim in a letter to alums: "We must, and we will, do better in football."
Army worked hard to overcome its 1962 loss. After narrowly losing in 1963, it beat Navy in 1964, winning a tight, defensive game, 11-8.
But the more remarkable story from that era has been the friendship between Army and Navy players, particularly Stichweh and Staubach. The two quarterbacks' relationship, which has brought them together for Army-Navy games in recent years, was fostered years ago by the exchange visits midshipmen and cadets pay to each other's academies. But Stichweh and Staubach took their friendship beyond those visits.
This fall, on Stichweh's induction into the Army Sports Hall of Fame, Staubach traveled to West Point to present him with a plaque from Navy's players describing him as "a fierce competitor and feared opponent." In his remarks, an emotional Staubach talked about the "crazy world" that he and Stichweh, "brothers in service," faced in Vietnam and afterward, and about the special pleasure he took in the Army-Navy touchdown the two combined for in the 1965 All-America Game.
Because I hope the rivalry doesn't get lopsided, I will be pulling for Army to break Navy's streak today. But most of all, I will be pulling for the players on the field to develop the kind of friendship Staubach and Stichweh have.
Thomas Jefferson, who was instrumental in the 1802 founding of West Point - and who later carried on a long correspondence with his former rival John Adams - would have understood, I think, how rare such friendships are, and how worthy of celebration.