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A Simple Salute to Army-Navy

Dec. 15, 2010

By Bob Socci

I was in good spirits, feeling proudly patriotic. Philadelphia can do that to you, particularly this time of year.

The night before had revolved around a visit to the National Constitution Center, where we Americans can trace the genealogy of "We the people." It's a modern museum dedicated to the birth of our nation, only a few blocks from the hallowed ground beneath the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Scores of civilians were gathered there in the company of others in military dress for a gala on the eve of the Army-Navy game. The symbolism of the surroundings was striking.

We were celebrating a 120-year-old saga starring service academy siblings, who, for a single afternoon each December, are bitter rivals. Yet, are bound every other day, defending the country our forefathers - more than 220 years ago, here in the City of Brotherly Love - hoped would become a more perfect union.

The morning after, the scene shifted about four miles away. From grounds once inhabited by a lineup of all-stars like Washington, Jefferson and Franklin to a neighborhood made infamous by the `Broad Street Bullies,' `Philly Phanatic' and `700 Level.'

Near the corner of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue in South Philly, an All-America celebration continued. In its own way, it was, as it always is, every bit as iconic as any other symbol or structure.

In the final a.m. minutes, 4,000 or so midshipmen strode confidently into Lincoln Financial Field. Following were the cadets, their steps chopped, their eyes fixed straight ahead with purpose.

Once again, they created the most awesome juxtaposition in sport. One student body massed in a solid navy corner of the stadium in their service dress blues, while their counterparts stand at attention on the field, in their long, perfectly straight gray lines.

Cold as it was in Philadelphia, this sight to behold would have been equally chilling in Phoenix.

By the seventh p.m. hour, the game had gone final and the stadium nearly silent, its seats practically emptied. The 111th edition of Army-Navy, like the previous eight, resulted in victory for the Midshipmen. Six turnovers - four by the Mids - helped keep it competitive, if not crisp.



Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs had dropped to a knee, officially ending the affair, 31-17, at 5:55. The players traded handshakes - especially poignant for the seniors, whose careers as opposites were over, their calling as teammates just beginning - and stood for their alma maters.

West Point's was heard first. Blue and Gold was played second.

It's still almost unfathomable. Entering my first Army-Navy broadcast, the Black Knights had won the previous five encounters, by 10 points total. After this most recent, the Midshipmen captured their ninth in a row, by an average margin of 25.3 points per game.

I was happy for the Mids. I felt for the Cadets. They wear different uniforms, but are cut from the same cloth. The love for their country is equal and unequivocal.

A bit later, I sat down to dinner, with one of the original New England patriots, Samuel Adams. Though less famous than cousin, John, Samuel makes for much better company with a plate of scallops.

Behind the bar of the restaurant, a muted television displayed a montage of football highlights. The TV was tuned to ESPN's coverage of the Heisman Trophy presentation, and clips of Auburn's Cam Newton were flashing across the flat screen.

That's when I decided to offer a toast. Not to Newton, or any of the other Heisman candidates, as much as I respect their physical brilliance.

My glass was raised instead for those young men and women, who a couple of hours earlier could be seen on `The Linc's' gigantic video boards, and heard singing their alma maters.

Why them? Why wouldn't I?

Why wouldn't you?

In New York, Newton was about to be handed what has long been considered the most prestigious individual award in college football. Thanks to a deal that Mississippi State actually did refuse, one can only wonder if he'll have to give it back someday.

Maybe the Heisman will be Newton's to keep. Or perhaps it's only, as with past winner Reggie Bush, a rental, should we ever discover that Can knew that his father, Cecil, was delivering a pay-for-play pitch to the folks in Starkville.

In fairness, Newton was eligible Saturday to be in New York, where he was announced a landslide winner. He's also expected to be eligible on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., where his unbeaten Tigers take on the undefeated Oregon Ducks.

They'll meet in the so-called BCS National Championship for what, without a true playoff, smacks of a mythical title. It should be high scoring, and highly entertaining, unless you fancy a defensive stalemate.

I'm already in suspense wondering what uniform Nike, whose founder is Oregon alum Phil Knight, will conjure up for the Ducks. By the way, is it me or are football teams dressing far too much like James Caan's Houston club in the movie Rollerball?

Fashion aside, Auburn and Oregon follow a disturbing trend. According to the latest NCAA report on graduation rates, released in late October, the Tigers and Ducks fell below the major-college football average.

Tracking players who entered school in 2003 over a six-year period, Auburn and Oregon graduated, 63 percent and 54 percent, respectively. For the Ducks, that's an improvement over the 45 percent rate for freshmen in 2002.

As for Newton, his stay on the plains is likely as short-term as one-and-done. After a troubled year at Florida and a championship turnaround in junior college, he's had a sensational season for the Tigers despite suspicion and scrutiny. Next stop is the NFL.

I don't blame him. I don't begrudge him.

I just see him differently than his contemporaries at the academies. To them, college football carries at least a nine-year obligation - 10 if they attend prep school - the last five of which fulfill their commitment to serve.

By next Christmas, while many of the Tigers and Ducks are in `The League,' many of the Mids and Cadets will be following the NFL from places like the Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

So, I chose to salute them, and everyone else who makes Army-Navy unlike anything else.

Already, I'm counting the days until their 112th meeting, on Dec. 10, 2011. For the first time, the Midshipmen and Black Knights will intersect inside the Capital Beltway.

Much further south of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, they'll meet to the east of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, at FedEx Field in Landover.

I'll miss Philly for a year. But I'll savor Army-Navy all the same. I encourage you join me.

Perhaps I'll even convince Mr. Adams to come too.

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