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ARMY-NAVY GAME

New England gets a classic in its first shot hosting a classic: There’s a reason Army-Navy is America’s Game

Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai couldn't push the ball over the goal line on fourth and 2 on Saturday, Army hanging on for its sixth victory over Navy in the last eight seasons.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — Army’s 17-11 victory over Navy on Saturday was played in the home of the Patriots.

Perfect.

It was a gem. A furious late Navy drive had the Midshipmen on Army’s 2-yard line with 11 seconds to play, but Army’s rock-ribbed front held when Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai tried to pile drive into the end zone on fourth-and-goal. Lavatai was short by inches, Army took over on downs with three seconds left, and the field was soon flooded with grey-coated Cadets.

You can have Auburn-Alabama and/or Ohio State-Michigan. Or you can enjoy some “Boola Boola” and go with Harvard-Yale — nabobs call that one The Game. If you’re a New England old-timer, you may have once been fond of Boston College-Holy Cross.

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No thanks to all that, sir. Sign me up for Army-Navy every time. America’s Game.

Leather helmets, anyone?

This is where the college footballers still run the triple-option ground game and throw passes only under penalty of KP. This is where the student athletes are actually students, sitting in lecture halls side-by-side with classmates. This is where NCAA players are forbidden to take NIL money, and the only transfer portal is the possibility that you might be called to serve if America faces a time of need.

Is it any wonder that Annapolis-raised Bill Belichick loves Army-Navy week more than he loves Lawrence Taylor?

Bill was one of more than 65,878 present on a perfect December Saturday as America’s Game came to Massachusetts — home of the USS Constitution (1797) — for the very first time. Attired in a natty suit and loafers, New England’s coach-under-seige donned a 1962 Navy football helmet — vintage Roger Staubach — while predicting Navy victory on the set of ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” pregame program.

Alas, it was another loss for the Hoodie as the West Pointers (6-6) marched off with the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, awarded annually to the round-robin winner among Army, Navy, and Air Force.

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Ever steeped in history, honor, fair play, and level playing fields, Army-Navy is a eight-track player in a Bose F1 subwoofer world. No booster payoffs, no running up the score to move up in the polls, no Heisman candidacy, and no Jimbos or Dabos making $77 million after getting fired. There’s no choreographed end zone dancing, nor pointing to one’s jewelry after scoring a touchdown.

It’s just block-and-tackle football. Honest competition. Sculpting the bodies and souls of America’s finest.

According to West Point lore, American chief of staff George Marshall during World War II requested, “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.” The quote lives forever on a plaque affixed to Michie Stadium, Army’s home field on the banks of the Hudson River.

Army Cadets storm the field after defeating Navy at Gillette Stadium.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the allied forces that won World War II, played in the Army-Navy game in 1912. General Omar Bradley, Eisenhower’s teammate (in 1912 and in WWII) was a center on the team that beat Navy in 1914. Decades before becoming a critical character of Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” Fleet Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was Navy’s fullback against Army.

The late Joe Bellino of Winchester was Navy’s Heisman-winning halfback when the Midshipmen beat Army in 1959 and ′60. The year after Bellino graduated, Navy man John F. Kennedy made the ceremonial pregame coin flip before a 13-9 Midshipmen win in Philadelphia. Kennedy is one of 10 sitting presidents who’ve attended the game.

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Navy won 14 straight in the beginning of this century, but the West Pointers came into Saturday with five wins in the previous seven matchups.

Outlined against a blue, gray December sky, 4,000 Midshipmen marched on the Gillette turf just after noon, a full three hours before kickoff. The equally impressive Army march-on commenced at exactly (of course) 1240 and finished at 1300. None of the students used Route 1 traffic as an excuse for tardiness.

At 1500, glee clubs of the two academies merged in the lighthouse end zone and performed the national anthem. When the anthem ended, Cadets and Midshipmen remained standing . . . for the rest of the day.

Army won the uniform contest. While the Midshipmen went with conventional last names on the backs of their jerseys, the Cadets wore “ARMY” across their backs, and had their surnames on a small plate on the right front — just like GI uniforms.


Cadet Brandan Spence waves the Army flag during Navy's March On before the start of Saturday's game.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The West Pointers struck first, taking a 7-0 lead on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Bryson Daily to Tyson Riley at the beginning of the second quarter. Quinn Maretzki’s 47-yard field goal made it 10-0 at halftime. Navy threw three passes in the first half — two incompletions and an interception.

The Midshipmen opened it up with five forward passes in the third, and Nathan Kirkwood’s 37-yard field goal cut Army’s lead to 10-3 early in the fourth. With five minutes left, Army linebacker Kalib Fortner rushed Lavatai, knocked the ball loose, scooped it, and ambled 44 yards into the lighthouse end zone to give Army what looked like an insurmountable 17-3 lead.

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Navy tacked on a touchdown with 2:47 left, threatened to tie the game in the final seconds, then ran into “be all that you can be” at the goal line.

When the 124th game ended, players from both teams gathered in front of the vast student sections for the singing of school anthems. Navy first; the boys from West Point got to “sing second.” Then, everybody filed out while the Gillette PA played, “Pink Houses.”

Ain’t that America?

Boston Globe Today: Sports | December 8, 2023
WATCH: On Friday's show: What are the chances the Patriots ship Belichick out of Foxborough? Brad Marchand puts the Bruins on his back.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him @dan_shaughnessy.