Military academy football works on multiple levels.
The three schools compete annually for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy — Army is the defending champ — on fields ranging from Annapolis, to West Point, to Colorado Springs, in addition to wherever Army-Navy is held (usually Philadelphia, but it’s East Rutherford, New Jersey, this year).
There have been some great games over the years between the Black Knights, Midshipmen, and Falcons. But once the game ends, the former foes become teammates in defense of our country.
While nothing matches the pageantry of Army-Navy, I have long maintained that Navy-Air Force is a sneaky-good matchup. The matchup produced the eventual Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy winner from 1997 through 2016, and holding the game on a campus site gives it a different vibe.
“Any Navy-Air Force game is huge,” senior slotback Chance Warren said last month at Navy’s Media Day. “It’s an honor to run out in that stadium slam-packed to the brim with people who have served our country and who will continue to serve our country.”
Saturday, the two schools will meet for the 54th time, and while Air Force owns a 31-22 edge, home field has held every year since 2012 (a Navy win in Colorado Springs).
The two schools have met in October 51 times since 1960, but they’ll break from tradition this Saturday on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Of the 125 who perished that day at the Pentagon, 33 were sailors and 22 were soldiers. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who was an assistant at Navy from 1995 to 1998, was an assistant at UNLV in 2001 and returned to the Midshipmen the following spring.
“It’s a great honor for us: our program, our school. It’s very special,” Niumatalolo said. “Just what it means to our country. To remember those that died on that tragic day and all the things that transpired after that. The conflicts that occurred from that event and those that paid the ultimate sacrifice after that.”
An estimated 2,606 people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Navy senior co-captain Kevin Brennan is from Westfield, NJ, about a 20-minute train ride from New York.
“I was born in 1999 so I wasn’t very old to remember it,” he said. “But the long-lasting effects that it has on a lot of my friends back home — they’re still affected today from parents lost, and things like that.”
He’s one of 11 players on the current roster from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut on the roster, “so it’s definitely going to be a big honor to play Air Force on that day and just remember our heroes,” Brennan said.
Last spring, 1,084 Naval Academy Midshipmen were commissioned as officers in the Navy and the Marine Corps, while the Air Force Academy graduated 1,019 cadets and the United States Military Academy saw 995 graduates become second lieutenants in the Army. The competitors of the present will honor the past, and become teammates in the near future.
“I think the important thing for us is to remember why we’re out there.” Warren said. “We’re going against Air Force — we’re going to battle them for all 60 minutes. But at the end of the day, we’re going to come together once we all graduate and serve this country and defend it the best we can.”
And while the healing from that dark day almost twenty years ago, the service academies advance in step with one another. “I think it’s a great honor for our school to be involved; I’m sure it’s the same thing for Air Force,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re excited to play them — just the football part of it—but because of the occasion and all, that adds more to it.”