When one thinks of the biggest rivalries in sports, some storied rivalries and classic games come to mind. Baseball has Yankees-Red Sox, the NBA has Celtics-Lakers, the NFL has Bears-Packers, college basketball has Duke-North Carolina, and college football has Army-Navy.
Steeped in tradition, these service academies meet on the gridiron every year, on the second Saturday in December, to renew the most storied and most unique rivalry in college football, perhaps all of sport. Not to be confused with the Armed Forces Bowl, Army, Navy, and the Air Force Academy all compete for the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, awarded to the team with the best record amongst the three schools, after they've played each other.
Due to being a long-standing rivalry (prior to 1972, Air Force would alternate playing Army and Navy every year), the Army-Navy football rivalry takes the cake in this tri-matchup.
It's about the brotherhood.
Every year, after the game clock reads nothing but zeroes, both teams come together, regardless of the winner, to show comradery, sportsmanship, and most importantly, brotherhood. The two teams meet at the 50-yard-line, turn and first face the losing sides student section, and sing their alma mater. Then, they turn around and do the same for the winning side. It's a fight "to sing second," truly making the Army-Navy rivalry a spectacle to behold every single season.
The First Matchup
A much more experienced Navy squad took the first matchup of the rivalry, way back in 1890, by a score of 24-0. The game was a bloodbath, as far as 19th-century football goes; one player had to be hospitalized for a week to recover from concussions. Army went down to Annapolis the following year to even the rivalry at one victory apiece.
Since that first matchup, these academies have met 117 times, Navy winning 60 times, Army 51 times, and there have been seven ties. The first matchup was played in West Point and the second was in Annapolis. The game has most commonly been played in Philadelphia, 89 times to be exact because the city is roughly midway between both academies. Only six times in the history of the Army-Navy football rivalry has the game been played on either academy's campus.
“It’s an incredible atmosphere to run onto. It’s a soldout crowd at the stadium and you know you’re the only game on that weekend and millions are watching at home,” former Army fullback, Chris Nichols says. “It’s a pretty cool and surreal feeling.”
The Rivalry's Greatest Games
The series has provided some of the best games college football has ever seen. In the early days of the rivalry, through the 1960s, Army and Navy were college football powerhouses, producing five Heisman Trophy winners, four national champions, and even one United States President.
In the 1893 rendition of the rivalry, Midshipman, and later Admiral, Joseph Mason Reeves wore what many believe to be the first football helmet. Reeves was advised not play in the game. After a series of head injuries, he was told the next blow could cause permanent intellectual disability or even death. There was no way Reeves was going to miss this game, so he commissioned an Annapolis shoemaker to make him a helmet out of leather.
The 1926 matchup was played for all the marbles. The 1926 rendition of the rivalry was played at Chicago's Soldier Field, as part of a dedication ceremony marking the stadium as a monument to World War I soldiers. Navy came into the game undefeated, while Army came in having only lost to Notre Dame. This game would effectively determine the national champion, the governing bodies would determine the champion after the game. In a way that only the Army-Navy football rivalry can, the game ended in a 21-21 tie, but Navy was awarded their sole national championship in school history.
Although not a championship matchup like 1926, 1963 might have been the best game in this storied rivalry. The game was originally scheduled to be played on November 30, eight days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There had been rumors of canceling the game, but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy urged the teams to play.
The game was moved to December 7, 1963, the 22nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Number two ranked Navy, led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Roger Staubach, went up against Army, led by quarterback Rollie Stichweh. Down by 14 in the fourth quarter, Stichweh led Army down the field for a touchdown and successful two-point conversion to cut the deficit to six.
Stichweh went on to recover the ensuing on-side kick himself, and led the Black Knights all the way down to the Midshipmen two-yard-line, for a chance to win the game. Thanks to the booming noise created by 102,000 screaming fans, on fourth down, with no timeouts remaining, Stichweh was unable to call a play, and time ran out. Navy won the game and earned a bid to the Cotton Bowl to play the University of Texas for a national championship.
In recent years, the Army-Navy football rivalry has been pretty one-sided. Navy won the annual meeting 14 straight times from 2002 to 2015. On December 10, 2016, the tides turned on the Midshipmen, and Army won 21-17. Not only was this game special for ending the longest winning streak in the history of the rivalry, but this game was in honor of Army cornerback Brandon Jackson, who lost his life on September 11, 2016, in a car accident. And in 2017, Army won their first Commander-in-Chief’s trophy in 21 years.
The World's Most Polite Rivalry
While the Army-Navy football rivalry is the best in college football, it’s also the most polite. The trash talk amongst fans comes in the form of “Shut up” and “That’s rude!” Even large amounts of drinking, typical of fans at a college football game, doesn’t make the fans violent towards one another. While this may be a rivalry in every sense of the word, there’s anything but hatred and animosity on either side.
It's not just on the gridiron.
This rivalry doesn't just stay on the field. The Army cadets have a long history of kidnapping Navy’s Bill the Goat mascot, a live goat housed on a farm near the Navy campus. There’s no need to worry about the pranks being one-sided: one year, a group of Navy Midshipmen dropped a helicopter full of ping-pong balls on their military academy counterparts, as well as other “raids” taking place on the West Point campus. Every semester, a select few midshipmen and cadets study at the other academy and those unfortunate students get the brunt of the pranks. One year, according to Nichols, a midshipman, studying at West Point, came back to his room to find all his furniture outside, in the exact same setup as his dorm room. Nichols and Joe Cardona, a current New England Patriot and Navy graduate, assure that the pranks are pulled in good fun.
“It’s a hard fought match, but after it we come together because there are a lot of great guys on the other side. You have full confidence in those men after you play against them that they’re going to do their job when we fight in the same missions alongside each other.” - Joe Cardona
The Army-Navy football rivalry really is something special.
“What separates it is that everybody on each sideline is heading in the same direction after this,” Nichols says. “Then there’s that line that says, ‘it’s the only game where everyone on the field is willing to die for everyone watching,’ and it’s clichéd but it’s true.”
It's about tradition.
It's no secret that the armed forces are all about tradition, and that carries over to the football field. The first College Football Playoff was played in 2014, and the four teams invited to the playoff are announced the first weekend of December every year before Army and Navy finish their regular season. Despite this hurting their chances of making the playoff, the Black Knights and Midshipmen agreed to keep the game the second weekend of December. This game did a lot to bring the nation together after catastrophic events like 9/11 and the JFK assassination and will continue to do so in the future. The Army-Navy football rivalry game is the only Division 1 football game played on that day. Every football fan in America has their eyes glued to this game and it truly can do wonders to bring the country together. Regardless of which side of the rivalry you stand on, this isn’t a hated rivalry, any semblance of “hatred” is only seen between the 210 players on the field for those 60 minutes of football. Once the clock hits zeroes, love of country and brotherhood takes over and these two teams come together as one unit with the same common goal. Of course, everyone watching wants their team to win, but everyone knows the game is about so much more than that. This game really is something special and is a spectacle to take in every year.