Army-Navy is the greatest rivalry in all of college football
No other football game can make a connection with everyone in America the way Army-Navy can.
UNITED STATES Naval Academy senior wide receiver and co-captain Matt Aiken recalled the first time he truly realized that the Army-Navy game was infinitely bigger than any other football rivalry.
That moment of clarification had come at a most inopportune time.
"My first play in an Army-Navy game was in my freshman year ," Aiken said. "I was setting up to return a punt, and I looked up into the stands, saw all the Navy guys, all the Army guys, realized that all of America was watching.
"I was kind of shell-shocked. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget."
Nothing I'm going to touch on in this column is an original theme. In fact, considering that next Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field will be the 114th time America's two oldest military academies have played football since 1890, something similar to this column has been likely been written tens of thousands of times.
That's OK, because it never gets old, and as long as Army and Navy play, someone somewhere should write what I'm about to.
From high school football on up through to the NFL, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of grudge games that pit supposed archrivals.
Last Saturday, on what was coined as Rivalry Weekend in college football, we had such games as Alabama against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Michigan against Ohio State, Georgia against Georgia Tech, USC against UCLA, and others.
And to the fans of those schools and the residents of those states, each rivalry is deemed the "fiercest" in college football. Heck, even Harvard against Yale, the oldest rivalry in college football, is still called "The Game."
But the truth is, only one rivalry in college football touches every person in America, citizen and non-citizen, and encompasses every state, territory and possession under the governance of the United States of America.
That is Army-Navy.
Every one of us, whether it is through a family member, a neighbor or a longtime friend, has some personal connection to some man or woman serving our country in the U.S. military.
All of us have the everyday freedoms we sometimes take for granted because of the brave men and women who continue to fight and to die to preserve them for us.
Army vs. Navy is America's greatest college football rivalry, and no other is even close.
"If you're in a certain state or at a certain school, a rivalry can mean everything to that state or that region," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "The Army-Navy game touches all of America.
"We all know someone who has served in the military. Plus the pure competition of the game, the pure rivalry, just makes people feel good our country."
It's been since 1946, when Army was ranked No. 1 in some polls, that a service academy won a national championship in college football.
Given the current and evolving state of the game, it is extremely unlikely ever to happen again.
Still, that's OK, because the kids who go out on the field for Army and Navy don't need some cadre of media people, coaches and computers to declare them as the champions of college football. They already know they are the best of the best of what college football as to offer to American society.
A year from now, or perhaps even sooner, if duty calls, the seniors in this game will be done with football and doing the ultimate service of protecting our country.
That's why I'm glad that after the expansion of college football to all of the conference championship games, Army-Navy was moved back a week. These players deserve a spotlight all to themselves, a day when they don't have to share attention with the SEC, Big Ten or ACC.
"It's nice, because Army-Navy is a representation of more than just football," Army senior defensive end and co-captain Jarrett Mackey said. "That's what I've come to learn.
"My dad is a Marine veteran. My brother is active-duty and deployed. For me to play in this game means a lot to them.
"This game is about far more than just us current players. This game stands for our country, our veterans, our current active-duty, the Midshipmen and Cadets. That's what it really comes down to to us.
"It gives a spotlight to show our nation what great people we have, who are out there defending our freedom and reminding us of the sacrifices they are making."
That's the story of the Army-Navy game that someone will write each year. This was my turn. It's the story that should be written every time this game is played.