I would venture to say I know more sports trivia than the next guy. I’ve spent a fun lifetime watching and listening and learning so why is it, on the early eve of my three-score-and-ten, I never knew about “the best four minutes in sports” until just now? Oh, for decades I’ve know the annual Army-Navy football game, the latest just played this weekend, was special.
A half-century ago Bear Bryant told me one of his favorite beliefs was born in the Army-Navy tradition: “At the end of the play, you help the guy up who you just knocked into the dirt, brush him off a little, and then tell him, ‘I’ll be right back!’” Bryant, so legendary he’s still in a class by himself, loved winning with class and there is nowhere in all of sports that can match the Army-Navy game in sportsmanship and all else that is good and right in athletic greatness.
But, my mercy, a new wrinkle after many years …
John Feinstein, the great writer for the Washington Post, wrote a beautiful story over the weekend under the headline, “Nothing in sports moves me like the Army-Navy game.” Feinstein is easily one of the preeminent sports writers of our time and on Saturday morning, hours before the 119th renewal between the two service academies, this is an excerpt of the way his story for the day began:
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NOTHING IN SPORTS MOVES ME LIKE THE ARMY-NAVY GAME”
By John Feinstein (in the Washington Post, December 8, 2018)
At about 6:30 on Saturday evening, I will be standing on the field at Lincoln Financial Field while the Army and Navy alma maters are being played.
I have no idea who will sing second, as the winners always do, but I know one thing for certain.
As the last notes die out, my wife — who watches exactly one football game a year — will send me a text.
It will say, “Are you crying yet?”
And I know exactly what my answer will be: “Absolutely.”
It doesn’t matter who wins the game; when they play the alma maters, I cry. For 14 years, when I was the color commentator on the Navy radio network, I would tell Bob Socci, who did play-by-play: “When the alma maters end, don’t ask me a question right away. I’m going to need a minute.”
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In the many decades of years that my emotions have never failed to help me recognize the gravity of the so many precious moments in this life I love, I know exactly what John is feeling. I have stood with the same reverent awe so many times and at so many different events, and let me add the occasions come more often as we age just enough to see what we’ve missed in the past. Yet not until this weekend I was painfully ignorant of what I had watched year after year. I just learned what was really happening. Yet I now understand, and I now relish, what is undeniably the best four minutes in all of sports, not to mention mankind at its all-time greatest.
This year’s game was a classic, with Navy (2-10) closing it to a one-possession battle late in the final quarter before Army (10-2) put the seal on a splendid 17-10 afternoon. I have known for years the losing team sings the alma mater first, and then the winning team steps right in to solemnly and with utmost respect sing the second alma mater.
But wait! What had never seeped into my thick cranium was that when the losing team sings first, it is the alma mater of their victorious opponents that they sing from rote, not their own song. Navy, defeat be damned, proudly sung the West Point Alma Mater! Quickly, the winners from Army then sang with all reverence and glory the words to “Navy Blue and Gold.” Great God Almighty, what I just learned is the absolute-absolute of any and all of mankind’s most precious homages from one warrior to another warrior. Or, much better, from one brother to another brother.
In my memory, nothing can compare to such a treat on a cold and rainy afternoon. And our enemies wonder why in war and in peace we always win.
I can just hear Gen. MacArthur: “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”
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“SOME WONDER WHY WE PRAY FOR A FOOTBALL GAME”
President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis were on hand to start off the annual Army vs. Navy game and, of course, the game is always a solid sellout.
Before the national anthem was sung triumphantly – yes, triumphantly – by the combined Army and Navy Glee Clubs, military chaplain Matthew Pawlikowski gave a pregame prayer which, as you know, is forbidden in every other sports arena.
The chaplain openly wondered why we would pray before a football game. “God of wonders, some wonder why we pray for a football game,” Pawlikowski said. “So I tell them in this game, every player on the field is willing to die for every person watching.”
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for what is truly good.”
Then the chaplain, without a hint of shame or political correctness – and in a strong display of truth that countered some poor misguided souls among us -- he prayed, “And so, God, I do pray for these players on this field and all the good they represent. Their fellow cadets and midshipmen, soldiers, sailors, Marines, firefighters, first responders, police, and countless others who lay down their lives daily in our defense because in your eyes, God, it’s not the critic who counts, but those who actually step in to the arena. And so, almighty God, we who are willing to die for others, we salute you. Let this game begin. Amen.”