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Army vs. Navy: A Clash for the Ages

A flag is unfurled on the field at the Army-Navy football game in 2019 in Philadelphia
Photos by Chris Obarski/Wounded Warrior Project

The annual Army-Navy game, presented by USAA, is one of the most storied rivalries in college football. The game’s history dates back to 1890 and boasts plenty of patriotic storylines, jaw-dropping plays, and legendary traditions. That rivalry continues at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, when Army (8-3) takes on Navy (3-8) for the 122nd time.

Here are some interesting facts about the renowned history of “America’s Game:” 

First Game of the Series

The first matchup between Army and Navy took place on Nov. 29, 1890, at West Point, New York. Navy won the game 24-0 to finish its season with a 5-1-1 record. While the Midshipmen had been playing intercollegiate football since 1879, the 1890 game against Navy was the first for the Army football team, and the only one that season. The cadets from West Point paid for half of Navy’s expense to travel from Annapolis, Maryland, to West Point, because Army cadets weren’t allowed to leave the campus. There were 1,000 spectators in attendance for the inaugural game. The teams have only not played 10 times since then and have played every year since 1930.

A Tie and the Title

Football games that end in a tie are usually disappointing, but that wasn’t the case in the Nov. 27, 1926, Army-Navy game at Soldier Field in Chicago. Navy entered the game undefeated, and Army’s only loss that season was to Notre Dame (which was undefeated until a 19-0 loss to Carnegie Tech on the same day). The matchup, which drew a crowd of more than 100,000, would decide the national championship. The Midshipmen jumped out to an early 14-0 lead before the Black Knights rallied to take a 21-14 lead in the third quarter. Navy scored in the fourth and Army missed a late field-goal attempt resulting in a 21-21 tie. Thanks to the Fighting Irish’s shocking loss, Navy became the de facto national champion with no losses and one tie.

Biggest Margin of Victory in the Series

On Dec 1, 1973, Navy routed a beleaguered Army team 51-0 in Philadelphia. The Midshipmen weren’t having a great season, having only won three games heading into the matchup, but that was three more than the Black Knights. Cleveland Cooper, the first Black player on Navy’s football team, rushed for 102 yards and three touchdowns in the victory, helping the Midshipmen improve to 4-7, while Army ended the season 0-10. Navy jumped out to such an early lead that then-coach George Welsh played all 59 players suited for the game.

Navy’s Win Streak, Army’s Skid Comes to End

On Dec. 10, 2016, for the second year in a row, the final score of the Army-Navy game was 21-17, but for the first time in 15 seasons, the Black Knights finished on top. The last time Army had beaten Navy was a 26-17 victory in 2001 before enduring the longest skid by either service academy in series history. The win gave the Black Knights a 7-5 regular season record, and Army advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. The Midshipmen ended the regular season with an impressive 9-4 record and a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl, but that likely didn’t erase the sting of losing to their biggest rival after a 14-game winning streak in the series.

The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy

The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy is awarded to the season’s winner between three of the United States Military Academies — U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Army), U.S. Naval Academy, and U.S. Air Force Academy. The coveted trophy only dates back to 1972, when former Air Force Academy Athletic Director Gen. George B. Simler came up with the idea in effort to create an annual series between all three schools. Prior to 1972, only Army and Navy met every year, with the Air Force playing Army in odd years and Navy in even years. Heading into Saturday’s game, Air Force has 20 trophy victories, Navy 16, and Army 9. Currently, Army is in possession of the trophy, and can win it outright with a victory over Navy on Saturday, after beating Air Force 21-14 in overtime on Nov. 3. If Navy wins Saturday, Army still retains the trophy because that gives each military academy a victory against one of the others, essentially creating a tie, and the trophy goes with the team that last won it.

Fanfare and Festivities

A lot of the excitement and fervor surrounding the annual Army-Navy game has little to do with what’s happening on the playing field. The buildup around the game is almost as big as the game itself. There are the time-honored traditions, such as the “March-On,” when the student bodies of both academies take the field in uniform prior to the game to display their precision and skill in concise formations; and Honoring the Fallen, when both teams sing each other’s alma mater to the fans after the game as a show of respect. There’s also the “prisoner exchange,” when seven West Point students and seven students of the USNA are returned to their respective schools after spending a semester at their rival academy. But it might be the relatively newer tradition of the “Spirit Spots” that receives the most attention before kickoff. Spirit spots are videos that take #GoArmyBeatNavy and #GoNavyBeatArmy to new and hilarious heights. The spoof videos are generally used to taunt the opponent and often feature entertaining parodies, creative storylines starring West Point and USNA students and/or graduates, and no shortage of mules and goats. While plenty of other schools do spirit videos and Navy produces spirit spots against other opponents, the Army-Navy spirit spots — much like the game itself — are in a league of their own.

Watch some of the excitement and time-honored traditions from the 2019 Army-Navy game

Dress Code

While fashion may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about football, the Army-Navy game uniforms are certainly worth a look. For more than a decade, the two teams have often worn “alternate” uniforms, designed specifically for this special rivalry. Over the years, Army players have honored the 1st Infantry Division with an all-black design; boasted digital camo pants; wore all-white uniforms and a skiing panda on their cleats to honor the World War II Pando Commandos; and donned matte-finish helmets featuring the symbols of the Army Division each player will serve in after graduation. Not to be outdone, Navy has had some dazzling duds over the years as well, including unis paying homage to longtime mascot Bill the Goat; red-and-white stripes adorning mostly blue uniforms and helmets; shiny blue, multi-dimensional helmets embellished with different Naval vessels; and vibrant blue unis and helmets with yellow striping that honored the Blue Angels. This year’s matchup shouldn’t disappoint in the fashion department either as both teams recently revealed their 2021 looks. The Black Knights’ uniforms will boast the phrase “United We Stand,” and honor Task Force Dagger, a U.S. Army Special Forces team that deployed to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The Midshipmen will honor the iconic F/A-18E/F Super Hornet with their sleek red, white, and blue “Fly Navy” uniforms.

Army-Navy Game in Pop Culture

During the inaugural season of the hit TV show M*A*S*H, an episode centered around a fictional Army-Navy game. In the episode, which originally aired Feb. 25, 1973, a buzz about the game is circulating around the 4077th, with members of the Army medical unit betting on the game. As the game begins, the camp is attacked by enemy fire. During the attack, an unexploded shell lands in the middle of the compound and members of the unit scramble to try to find out who the bomb belongs to. When Hawkeye calls headquarters to seek assistance, a preoccupied Col. Hersh tells Hawkeye to find out if the bomb is still ticking, check the casing for markings, and report back to get instructions on how to defuse it — preferably at halftime. The unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Blake, relays the markings to Col. Hersh, who verifies it’s not an enemy bomb, or an Army device, and suggests Blake call the Navy. When asked, “Why would the Navy drop a bomb on us?”, Hersh responds, “because we’re beating them 14 to nothing.” Later, Hawkeye and crew receive reports from the Navy that the bomb belongs to the CIA. After a mix-up with dismantling instructions, the “propaganda bomb” detonates, filling the compound with harmless leaflets. The episode ends with an announcement of the final score: Navy 42, Army 36. Father Mulcahy, who initially wasn’t interested in participating in the betting pool and was disappointed to learn the game didn’t feature Notre Dame, won the $1,000 purse.

What They’re Saying

“What an unbelievable opportunity for all of us who are competitors in this game to be a part of the greatest rivalry in sports. Our guys are excited. I certainly am. I know our staff is excited, and everything that goes on, on this campus and I know on the other one, with the Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen, and all the shenanigans and everything that they pull all week, it’s just a lot of fun. And what’s most fun is being able to line up on Saturday afternoon and being able to play this great game; just the history of it and the traditions that go along with it.” —  Army coach Jeff Monken, during a pregame press conference, Dec. 6, 2021

“These are institutions for our country. The majority of guys won’t go to the league, there will be some who will be fortunate to go into the league, but for the majority of them, this is the end. But all of them will be serving our country to protect our freedoms. I love college football, I love pro football, I love football in general, but because of the things guys on this field will do, the veterans that have served our country, we’re able to have this. Our country is able to play American football because of the freedoms that come from the people who serve in the military. That’s why this game is different. It represents our country and we’re grateful for all who serve, our veterans, and all of those that give us freedoms in our country.”  — Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, during a weekly press conference Nov. 29, 2021

“There aren’t two fan bases more passionate about their schools, nor two that have more respect for each other. This balance between wanting to beat each other out on the field, yet still recognizing a shared sense of commitment and service makes this one of the most sacred events in all of sports.” — Paul McElroy, USAA Service Academy Advisor, during Army-Navy Media Day, Dec. 1, 2021. USAA is a longtime partner of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) and, along with WWP, has helped warriors connect through this special game.

Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, pmoulden@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.570.7910

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