Oct. 26, 2010
Starting to get hungry, and running out of gas early Saturday night, about halfway between the Meadowlands and Boston, I pulled off Interstate 95 into the town of Milford, Conn.
Exiting the highway, I turned right and immediately pulled into a gas station, swiped the credit card and started to fill her up. That's when I spotted an establishment across the street.
One of the signs out front advertised it as a restaurant and ale house. The name, spelled in large letters on the side of the building, was - I kid you not - "Gipper's."
I had to chuckle. There's no way, I thought to myself, I could discover this of all places, on this of all days.
And there's absolutely no way that I, decked out in my Navy polo and pullover and still beaming over the Midshipmen's earlier rout of Notre Dame, was going to wander into a sports bar bearing the nickname of a late Fighting Irish legend.
I could only imagine what kind of reception I'd get, if the name was, indeed, in homage to the great George Gipp, the Notre Dame star portrayed by Ronald Reagan in "Knute Rockne: All-American."
Hunger subsided. Dinner could wait.
I drove off, thinking once again that truth is stranger than fiction.
About the time I got to New Haven, the phone rang. A colleague from the Naval Academy was calling. He was angry over a second-hand account of some comments heard on the radio, something someone with a Notre Dame bend was saying about "chop blocks" and how they should be outlawed in college football.
The insinuation, I was led to conclude, was that the Mids had beaten the Irish for the third time in four years, at least in part, because Navy plays dirty.
Naturally, I know better. Besides, it's not the first time I'd heard such blather.
Just last year, then Notre Dame assistant Corwin Brown assailed the character of the Mids' head coach, completely distorting a comment Ken Niumatalolo made after Navy's 23-21 victory.
It was utterly ironic, since athletes and coaches often rail against the media for printing quotes "out of context." Here you had Niumatalolo saying, essentially, that the Mids were prepared for how the Irish would defend their triple option because Notre Dame had done so well the year before. It stood to reason the Irish would align the same way in 2009 as in 2008.
What was born out of a compliment by Niumatalolo got twisted by Brown into a put-down of his defensive staff. Worse, Brown went on to call Navy's offense unimaginative and insinuate that the Mids figuratively hit you below the belt, with what Brown called "illegal cut blocks."
In this case, fiction not only proved stranger than truth, it took on a life that lasted much longer than it should have - the minute or so that Brown needed to get the words out of his mouth.
Unfortunately, those words were regurgitated a couple of places on-line last week, leaving any clueless reader to conclude that Navy's coach is classless, and that the Mids don't play fair.
Still, I wasn't fazed. Not only did it seem like sour grapes, the truth of the matter set me free from thinking twice about it.
And the indisputable truth is - as my friend and broadcast partner John Feinstein wrote today at feinsteinonthebrink.com - Niumatalolo is as genuinely a good person as anyone in his profession. No, make that any profession.
As for his team of maximum achievers, the Mids not only adhere to the spirit of football law, but play well within the letter of that law.
Annually, Navy is among the least penalized teams in the nation.
Currently, in Niumatalolo's third season, the Midshipmen rank fourth nationally in fewest infractions per game. Last year, they were number one. The year before, they were second.
On Saturday, before a Big East Conference crew - officials contracted by Notre Dame, mind you - Navy wasn't penalized at all. Not guilty of a single illegal block in a 438-yard performance.
Oh, and I've got a news flash for the staff of the South Bend Tribune, which ran the headline, "Chop block a headache for Irish," and for its columnist Al Lesar, who wrote the words, "Call it a cut block, chop block, whatever."
Cut blocks, which are what the Mids and other option-based teams employ, ARE perfectly legal. Chop blocks ARE NOT. There's a big difference between the two. Not a matter of semantics, but a matter of math.
You can see for yourself, in Article 3 of Section 3 on blocking in the NCAA Rule book. Or, simply read what follows, excerpted from that rule book: "A chop block is a high-low or low-high combination block by any two players against an opponent (not the ball carrier) anywhere on the field, with or without a delay between blocks; the `low' component is at the opponent's thigh or below (A.R. 2-3-3-III and IV, A.R. 9-1-2-XXVI)."
A cut block? Well, I found this explanation from longtime NFL assistant coach Tom Bass on the usafootball.com website: "The cut block is a variation of the drive block. It differs in that the blocker aims at the linebacker's feet and ankles instead of driving at the linebacker's numbers."
If the Tribune, or anyone else would like a demonstration of a cut block, I suggest they do what I did; watch the offensive line of college football's 1988 National Champions, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
All it takes are a YouTube search and a few seconds of your time. I did it this morning and, as one would expect from a coach as demanding as Lou Holtz, the Fighting Irish staged an exposition of the cut block executed to perfection.
Notre Dame linemen dropping down to cut Michigan State Spartans up front, or diving forward to undercut the legs of Michigan Wolverine linebackers and free the brilliant option quarterback Tony Rice.
Granted, today's defenders don't deal with cut blocks very often. Such unfamiliarity makes them uneasy with the idea of an offensive player at their feet on just about every play.
But the notion that the blocks are inherently dangerous, even when consistently executed well - as they were by the '88 Irish and are by the present-day Mids - is total fiction.
For the truth, one need only note the next intra-academy matchup. Navy, Air Force and Army each employs the option and cut blocks.
As Mike James asked in his blog at thebirdog.wordpress.com: "How is it that Navy's annual game against Air Force, another team that runs the option and uses those dirty blocks, doesn't turn into a pile of leg-carnage every year? Why doesn't stock in wheelchair and crutch companies go up after every Navy spring scrimmage?"
Calling Navy football on the radio the last 14 years, thankfully, I can recall only a handful - if that many - lower leg injuries. That's in all games, not just service-academy showdowns.
Apart from the academies, no staff has had to teach its defensive players how to avoid being cut more than the coaches at Wake Forest. Conference rivals to Georgia Tech, which runs nearly the same offense as Navy, the Demon Deacons have faced the Mids five times the last four years. Not once do I remember Wake's head coach Jim Grobe accusing Navy of conduct unbecoming.
For the record, I have great admiration for Notre Dame; always have.
Still preserved in one of my scrapbooks are signed photos and letters from Dan Devine and Digger Phelps. They were so kind to reply to letters written long ago by a little kid who spent his Sunday mornings listening to Lindsey Nelson move us ahead to further Fighting Irish action.
My favorite athlete of my youth was Notre Dame basketball star John Paxson. Educated at a Catholic college, where I was a classmate of Gerry Faust Jr., I was a guest of his family the weekend of his father's final home game as Irish head coach against LSU.
No one gets it better than me. For years, Notre Dame has gone about its business the right way, graduating its players almost without exception.
In my role with the Midshipmen, I'll always appreciate the way Irish fans salute the Navy team every other year when its buses pull up to Notre Dame Stadium for the Friday walk-through. And I'll never forget how they stood to applaud the Mids in 2007, after they epically ended their 43-game series losing streak.
Nor will I lose sight of the way the Fighting Irish paid their respect by joining Navy for Blue and Gold, win or lose, in recent years. I acknowledged as much on Saturday, when Brian Kelly's team did the same at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
But what's hard to stomach, hungry or not, is the thought of anyone trying to chop down in size what the Mids did on Saturday in East Rutherford.
Yes, truth may appear outlandish, especially when the program you cover went four-plus decades without defeat at the hands of a foe that has now won three of the last four.
As for fiction, it may not seem as strange, but let's not confuse it with the truth.
Believe it or not, in recent years Navy has been the better program. And on a recent Saturday, the Mids were clearly the better team.