The teams no longer play for the national championship or are ranked among the top10. Only four times in the last six decades have both rivals entered the game with winning records, and this season neither does.
And yet when Army’s and Navy’s football squads meet for the 124th time Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the country still will take notice.
America’s Game, as its participants bill it, has been broadcast nationwide since 1930 and televised since 1945. Tickets have been sold out for months, as they customarily are.
“I don’t think there’s a better rivalry in sports,” said Army coach Jeff Monken. “Every competitor on the field and every one of their classmates sitting in the stands have made a pledge to serve our country. They’re willing to pay the ultimate price for everybody that watches the game. It’s a pretty incredible commitment.”
If Army-Navy still matters, it may be because that commitment between the cadets and the midshipmen has endured since the rivals first met in 1890 at West Point on The Plain above the Hudson River.
“There’s definitely a mutual respect,” said Army co-captain Jimmy Ciarlo, whose teammates have won five of the last seven encounters with Navy after losing an unprecedented 14 in a row. “We made choices to go to different academies, but we all made the same decision to serve. We all share that together.”
Many more years than not America’s Game has been held in Philadelphia, approximately midway between West Point and Annapolis, or in nearby venues such as Baltimore and East Rutherford, N.J.
So it is significant that this year’s contest will be staged in Massachusetts, where the US Army was created in 1775 and the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) was launched in 1797 and still is berthed.
The football team’s connections with local colleges go deep. Army has faced nine Massachusetts teams over the decades, and met Boston College, Holy Cross, and UMass this autumn. Navy has played BC 28 times, as well as Harvard and Boston University.
When Army brought 1,200 cadets here by train in 1928 for the Harvard game, a rivalry that began in 1895, the Globe described it as an “epochal occasion,” observing that there’d been 100,000 requests for tickets.
The glory era for the academies came during World War II, when both teams were ranked in the top10. Army won three consecutive national titles, and Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis earned successive Heisman Trophies.
Both programs enjoyed revivals in the late 1950s and early ‘60s when Army’s Pete Dawkins and Navy’s Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach also won Heismans. Since many families then had sons in the service, interest in America’s Game remained strong.
But when the Vietnam War made the academies less attractive options, the teams suffered. Navy went 1-9 and 2-9 in 1969 and 1970, while Army was 1-9-1 in 1970 and 0-10 in 1973.
The last decade has been generally more favorable, with winning seasons and bowl games more frequent.
But the recent introduction of the transfer portal and name, image, and likeness payments has presented the academies with a significant and permanent competitive disadvantage. This season, Army was walloped at LSU, 62-0, and Navy took a 59-14 flogging at SMU.
Their opponents can replace the bulk of their varsities during the offseason and lure top recruits with million-dollar NIL offers from boosters. This week, more than 1,000 players entered the football portal on the first day.
None of them will be going to West Point or Annapolis, where the portal has only an exit ramp and by law the players, as employees of their service branch, are forbidden to take NIL money.
Convincing a talented high school player to spend four demanding years at a service academy and then five years on active duty never has been an easy sell.
“They’re challenging places,” observed Monken, who has coached at Army since 2014. “The rigors of the academics, the professional standards, the military requirements. There’s a lot that goes into the daily life of a cadet or midshipman that’s different from a traditional college student.”
The players who do sign on at West Point and Annapolis tend to have similar qualities. “You can count on them to be tough, resilient,” said Brian Newberry, Navy’s first-year coach. “You have to be here. Guys who aren’t afraid of failure because this place is set up for you to fail. Guys that just keep coming.”
When Army’s players enter Michie Stadium, they touch a plaque with a quote attributed to General George Marshall during World War II: “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”
What the academy players savor is the throwback amateur essence of their football experience. “It’s not like we’re on scholarship and if we quit the team we have to pay for school,” said Navy co-captain Jacob Busic. “That’s not why these guys are doing it. Anyone on this team can quit tomorrow and their education would still be free and they’d still go serve their country.”
That is the fundamental difference between Army and Navy and their opponents. “Our guys have chosen to go to an academy and have made that pledge to serve,” said Monken, a former Navy assistant who puckishly calls that “the one blemish on my résumé.”
“There’s an honor in that. They’re going to take on a job that most people aren’t envious of and don’t want to trade places. But they do that willingly.”
Since only a handful of cadets and midshipmen ever will play professional football, virtually all of the seniors know that Saturday will be the last time they ever wear a jersey, and they approach the game accordingly.
“These are really aggressive games, really violent,” said Ciarlo. “It’s a different brand of football.”
From the day they arrive on campus they’re made aware that winning the game is an eternal imperative. Plebes, who are expected to recite the number of days until kickoff, end every sentence with “Beat Army” or “Beat Navy.”
“You talk to alumni and they know how many times they beat Navy when they were here,” said Army co-captain Leo Lowin. “They know who was playing. They know all about it.”
The traditions continue across generations. The March-on of the Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen. The “exchange of prisoners” who are studying at the opponent’s school for the semester. The flyovers when each team takes the field. The president, as commander in chief, changing sides at halftime to show neutrality.
And most significantly, the squads standing at attention after the game and singing each other’s alma mater. Since the losing team goes first, the stated objective is to “Sing Second.” But what’s more important is that the rivals are lined up alongside each other in mutual regard.
At a time when the country has come to be defined more by what divides the citizenry than what unites it, that choral tradition is a reminder that these perpetual rivals ultimately are on the same team.
Read more about the Army-Navy game
- Your guide to the 2023 Army-Navy game at Gillette Stadium
- Photos: Looking back at decades of history in the Army-Navy game
- ‘Like hosting a Super Bowl’: Inside the planning to prepare for Army-Navy’s debut at Gillette Stadium
- A closer look at the best Army-Navy football games through the years
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.