December 5, 2011
By Rob McIlvaine
WASHINGTON — The Army Black Knights and the Navy Midshipmen, one of the fiercest rivalries in all of college sports, will rumble on to FedEx Field Dec. 10 at 2:30 p.m., as CBS cameras roll on every detail.
This is the first time they’ve met in the Washington, D.C., area, making it the 16th venue to host the event.
“While we will be the fiercest of rivals on Saturday, it’s a great rivalry because ultimately it’s founded on respect. We respect one another at the institutional level and the individual level,” said U.S. Military Academy Head Coach Rich Ellerson.
“The reason we play football at these academies is because of the journey. It’s a valued experience for our graduates. They take those lessons out into the field and they make them work for our country, completely different than anyplace else in the world and some of the things we had to overcome, some of the things we had to deal with, we did and you can see it on Saturdays, though you don’t necessarily see it on the scoreboard.
“But we watched these guys compete all year, they didn’t let the scoreboard talk them out of it. We fought, we stayed together, and we’re better. You’ll see two better football teams play next Saturday than you’ve seen all year, and that’s something to look forward to,” Ellerson said.
Although this is the 112th time the two service academies will meet, Navy has won the last nine meetings, the longest winning streak by either team in series history.
Currently, Navy leads the all-time series with a record of 55 wins, 49 losses, and seven ties.
But Army has something to charge in on their horses about, too.
The Black Knights enter the season’s final game with a chance to win their first rushing title since 1998. Army is averaging 350.91 yards per game. If they can maintain that average, it would be the best rushing average by any team since Nebraska led the nation with 392.6 yards per game during the 1997 season. Army has led the country in rushing seven times: 1944, 1945, 1954, 1984, 1993, 1996 and 1998.
THREE STORIED CAREERS
Andrew Rodriguez, an Alexandria, Va., native and one of three team captains taking the field this Saturday, became a force to be reckoned with as a West Point sophomore when he started all 12 games at the “whip” linebacker position and led the team with 85 tackles.
But then tragedy struck.
During a routine offseason weightlifting session, Rodriguez hurt his back so severely that he missed the entire 2010 season.
“I had herniated discs but also had congenital spinal stenosis … a combination of those two things. I tried some initial physical therapy and shots but had to end up getting two micro discectomies, which is micro-surgery where they go in and take out part of the discs. I think it was my L4 and L5,” Rodriguez said.
He said the training staff was really careful.
“I went through a lot of movement tests and hitting tests on stationary bags and even then they kept me on limited contact for a few weeks. That general kind of process gave me a lot of confidence, ’cause I kept getting to the next step and it’d be alright, so I felt I could go another step further,” he said.
He attributes his quick recovery to the training staff at West Point, as well as the support from friends and family; especially his father, David, a 1976 academy graduate who played defensive end and later became commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and his sister, Amy, a 2006 West Point graduate, who returned from Iraq Nov. 25.
“We initially didn’t think she’d be home until sometime in December. She sent me an email saying she might make it to the Army-Navy game and then we got the call that she’d be coming home early,” he said.
The unanimous decision that he be named a captain along with his two best friends since “day one,” Steve Erzinger and Max Jenkins, has been difficult, he said.
“Especially after having missed the spring and last season, to come in and act as a leader amongst the team … lot of the guys haven’t seen you there, you haven’t been there, but I just tried to go in and show by example how I was going to prepare, practice and play,” he said.
ON THE BALL
Max Jenkins, Army’s senior quarterback, is not only one of three football team captains, he also holds the position of brigade deputy commander, the No. 2 leadership position in the Corps of Cadets.
He said his entry into West Point wasn’t what college was supposed to be like.
“You know you have to adjust fast because they start testing you really fast and football’s coming up and you either get it done or you don’t. So yeah, it’s a little overwhelming at first, but once you get used to it, you get the timing of everything and scheduling, and it gets easy.
“It probably took me a little longer than everyone else. It took me about the first semester to get everything down. I played a lot as a freshman and my weekends were completely taken up. (In) high school, I wasn’t strong academically and I wasn’t used to studying. I’d show up and get my A’s and B’s and then I’d roll out and it wasn’t a big deal.”
“But here, you actually have to study, obviously. It was just getting used to that and growing up,” Jenkins said.
He says their chances to beat Navy are good.
“It comes down to how the team is going to react and respond to the spotlight,” he said. “I think we’ve been getting better and better at doing that these past few years, especially under Coach Ellerson.”
“I’m sure every captain comes in here and tells you they’re going to beat Navy this year,” Jenkins said. “But the facts are, it’s going to be a game. It’s going to be a fun game, and both teams are going to be ready to play. So, we’re excited. We’re looking forward to it.
READY TO BREAK RECORDS
Sophomore Running Back Raymond Maples is on the verge of individual history. The former West Philadelphia Catholic High running back and strong safety received immediate playing time as a plebe.
His explosiveness at West Point has garnered him 984 yards, only 16 shy of posting the 15th 1,000-yard season in Army history. He averages 7.4 yards per carry, which would be the best average in academy history among players with at least 100 attempts.
Maples is one of only six players in the nation with at least 100 rushing attempts to average more than 7 yards per carry. Tulsa’s Ja’Terian Douglas, Missouri’s Henry Josey, Northern Illinois’ Chandler Harnish, Air Force’s Asher Clark and Oregon’s LaMichael James are the other five.
In his last seven games, he is Army’s leading rusher with 118.1 yards per game, averaging 8.2 yards per carry with four touchdowns in that same span.
Navy beat Army 24 to 0 at the first game in 1890, but the rivalry then was more war-like than now where respect for each other remains supreme.
One report said players were often severely injured, even killed, with spectators clashing in violent disputes in the stands. One game was so barbaric, said the same report, President Grover Cleveland prohibited the match between the two academies.
But Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote to Secretary of War Russell Alger in 1897, calling for the series to be reinstated.
Roosevelt’s letter led to the reestablishment of the game in 1899, although the violence continued.
“Roosevelt didn’t intend to eliminate the occasional broken nose or fractured arm,” wrote biographer H. W. Brands, “but the head and neck injuries that were literally killing dozens of players every year were hardly improving the physical or moral health of the nation.”
Regulations derived from a White House conference, held by Roosevelt, helped reduce the risks and established the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, a forerunner of NCAA.
President Roosevelt attended the game in 1901, but not many presidents have visited since.
Woodrow Wilson watched Army’s 22-9 victory in 1913. Calvin Coolidge attended in 1922 as vice president and in 1926 as president. Harry Truman attended four games in 1945, 1946, 1948 and 1950, watching Army post a 3-0-1 record against Navy.
Dwight Eisenhower, who started at halfback and linebacker for Army in their 6-0 loss in 1912, only attended one game during his eight-year presidency.
President John F. Kennedy, who commanded PT-109 during World War II, attended the 1961 and 1962 games. But when he was killed Nov. 22, 1963, and the game was cancelled, Jacqueline Kennedy announced that the game would be a “fitting tribute” to the fallen president, so it was rescheduled for Dec. 7 at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, renamed John F. Kennedy stadium the following year.
Out of 111 gridiron battles, only six games have been played on the campus of either academy.
Because of the historic significance of Philadelphia as the first capital of the United States, and the equal distance between Annapolis and West Point, John F. Kennedy Stadium has hosted more match-ups than any other venue in the history of the series, even hosting the game years after the 1971 construction of nearby Veterans Stadium, which finally became the game’s host in 1980.
The game has been hosted at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles. And every four or five years, the game has been held at a site other than Philadelphia — either at Giants Stadium or M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania hosted the game in the early 20th century before it was moved to JFK. New York’s Polo Grounds holds the record for most games hosted outside of Philadelphia and Baltimore has hosted a number of games.
The Rose Bowl hosted the game in 1983 and Chicago’s Soldier Field played host to the 1926 game.
112th GAME APPROACHES
With the teams clashing on FedEx Field this Saturday, this is the first year the game has been played in the Washington, D.C., area. It is being touted as a sold-out crowd with one of the largest crowds this game has ever seen.
This Army-Navy game is a collaboration between the service academies, the Washington Redskins, the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, and corporate sponsors.
“This game, America’s game, represents the best of American competition and all that is right in collegiate athletics,” said retired Rear Adm. John Townes, senior vice president for military affairs at USAA, and 1972 graduate of the Naval Academy. “While some of you may look at this as the good guys versus the bad guys, in reality it’s the good guys versus the good guys.”
“I think we can all be proud that while these two teams will be giving their all to win this game,” Townes explained. “When their academy careers are over, they’ll be joining the same team, and that’s protecting all of us through their military service for our nation, and in true fashion become the leaders of America’s future.”