|The President’s Game
Army Navy, 1890-2005By Brian Flanagan
he Army-Navy game is truly America’s rivalry. Each year seniors on both sidelines compete in their last football game before graduating into military service. Adrenaline and emotions run high from whistle to whistle — particularly in years of war — but both teams have exhibited solidarity and the utmost respect for one another time and again throughout the century-long rivalry.
Intertwined in the annals of this struggle between brothers-in-arms is a story of the appreciation and support of their Commanders-in-Chief. Presidents, from the game’s beginning, have played a preeminent role in building, preserving, and supporting one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
Army and Navy have combined for 6 national championships, 5 Heisman Trophy-winners, and 49 College Football Hall of Famers.
With 105 games and 7 ties in the record-books, the Army-Navy rivalry is deadlocked at 49 wins each. This Saturday’s winner — the “First to 50” — will win bragging-rights and the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, awarded annually to the team holding the best record in the Army-Navy-Air Force series. The game will be nationally televised and will excite the passions of alumni and veterans across the country.
But all of this was unwritten history and an unlikely future at the turn of the 20th century.
TR and the rough, manly sport
If it weren’t for a future president who admired “rough, manly sports” and found lessons for life at the heart of the game (“…in life, as in a football game,” he once wrote, “the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”), the story may have ended there.
Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote to Secretary of War Russell Alger in 1897 lobbying to reinstate the series:
I should like very much to revive the football games between Annapolis and West Point. …it seems to me that if we would let Colonel Ernst and Captain Cooper come to an agreement that the match should be played just as either plays eleven outside teams; that no cadet should be permitted to enter or join the training table if he was unsatisfactory in any study or conduct, and should be removed if during the season he becomes unsatisfactory; if they were marked without regard to their places on the team; if no drills, exercises or recitations were omitted to give opportunities for football practice; and if the authorities of both institutions agreed to take measures to prevent any excesses such as betting and the like, and to prevent any manifestations of an improper character — if as I say all this were done — and it certainly could be done without difficulty — then I don’t see why it would not be a good thing to have a game this year.
Roosevelt’s letter led to the reestablishment of the rivalry in 1899, but along with the game returned severe injuries and violence that had caused the original controversy. Out of the brutality of the game arose discussion of abolishing intercollegiate football altogether.
But in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt aimed to clean-up the sport rather than abolish it. “Roosevelt didn’t intend to eliminate the occasional broken nose or fractured arm,” writes 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.” So Roosevelt held a White House conference with leading football figures to get the game “played on a thoroughly clean basis.”
Regulations derived from the conference helped reduce the risks endangering the future of the sport and its players, and established the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (a precursor to the NCAA).
In the following years, new equipment and regulations continued to make the sport safer, less controversial, and more secure.
Roosevelt attended the game in 1901, and was the first president to cross the field during halftime. The tradition has continued since: presidents sit on the home team’s side of the field for the first half of the game before crossing to the away team’s side at the midway point.
Some of Roosevelt’s actions, however, did not set precedents. At the 1901 game, he became so enthused after a first half Navy touchdown that he ran to the team’s sideline congratulating players with a slap on the back. When he attended the game again in 1905, writes Army-Navy historian Jack Clary, TR “roamed up and down the sidelines, urging on each team.”
His successors managed to watch the action from their presidential box-seats. Woodrow Wilson watched Army’s 22-9 victory in 1913. Calvin Coolidge attended in 1922 as vice president, and ’26 as president — when his photograph graced the cover of the game day program. No president attended during the next decade, but Herbert Hoover asked that the 1930 game be played to raise funds for the Salvation Army at a time of national struggle.
The Army-Navy game was particularly popular with President Harry Truman, who attended in 1945, ’46, ’48, and ’50. (Army was most successful — posting a 3-0-1 record against Navy — when Truman was in attendance.) Although Dwight Eisenhower was the only future president ever to participate in the rivalry, starting at halfback and linebacker for Army in their 6-0 1912 loss, he only attended the game once during his 8-year presidency.
JFK and the Drive for Five
Kennedy took particular interest in that 1963 Navy team, guided by Junior quarterback Roger Staubach. He even visited Navy’s pre-season training camp in Rhode Island that year, offering inspirational words to kick-start their season.
And they didn’t disappoint. Staubach won the Heisman Trophy leading his team to an 8-1 record and a number 2 national ranking before the Army match-up. “I hope to be on the winning side when the game ends,” said President Kennedy knowing he would spend the second half on Navy’s side.
Then on November 22, 8 days before the big game, the devastating news came out of Dallas, Texas. The president had been shot and killed riding in his motorcade through the city.
The players were devastated. The game was cancelled.
But while both teams of 18-22-year olds mourned the loss of their commander-in-chief, Jacqueline Kennedy, thinking of Jack’s love of the rivalry, stated publicly that playing the game would be good for the nation and a “fitting tribute” to the fallen president.
The game was rescheduled for December 7, at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia (renamed John F. Kennedy stadium the following year). Navy came out of the locker room wearing gold jerseys with “Drive for Five” printed on them — having beaten Army four consecutive years. Army came out equally charged-up and emotional. The stage was set for one of the most thrilling football games ever played.
Navy took an early lead and extended it to 21-7 in the third quarter. But with 6 minutes to play in the game, Army scored a touchdown and converted on a two point try, narrowing the Navy lead to 5 points.
Army kicked onsides and recovered the ball. With a minute and a half to play, Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh completed a desperation fourth-down pass to the Navy 7-yard line.
Three plays later he stood behind center on the Navy 1. It was fourth down with seconds remaining. The audience was deafeningly loud as the Army quarterback called his cadence.
When President William J. Clinton watched Army defeat Navy 28-24 in 1996, he was the first president in attendance in 22 years.
President George W. Bush watched the game twice in his first term, performing the coin-toss and crossing midfield at halftime. But he also set his own precedent in 2004, visiting both teams’ locker rooms before the game and thanking them for deciding to serve their country.
 To read Roosevelt’s complete letter to Alger, see “Roosevelt may be ‘father of the annual Army-Navy football game’ ” at http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/0001/Sep11_00/11.htm