each sweep and gesture
trained and various
echoing the other's art
- "The Great Tree," Michael Ondaatje, 1998
On Saturday I joined in on a great tradition in the city of Philadelphia. A football game held between two military academies meeting in the spirit of rivalry and brotherhood on the green of a football grid. Played in Philadelphia, halfway between West Point and Annapolis, America's finest young men suited up to battle in sport. At their backs, their comrades in service, young men and women, Midshipmen and Cadets in dress uniform, standing in honor as they cheered on the effort displayed on the field. This was my first Army-Navy game. The 111th meeting of these two academeis in the "oldest football rivalry in the history of our country."
Sitting in the stands within a sea of Navy colors and caps worn proudly by the veterans, the parents, and the active duty cheering on their own, I suddenly felt keenly aware of the difference between this game and any other. Spectacular? Yes. The cadet and mishipmen march-on, lining up on the field company after company to salute their fans, was an unforgettable visual. A black and gray sea of precision and erect bearing, youth and deternination. But the difference was not this; nor the presence of the miliatry brass, the parachute jumps to the 50 yard line by the Navy Leapfrogs (SEALS) and Army Golden Knights, not the flyover by the Jolly Roger F-18s or the battle helicopters in perfect formation across a cloudless sky.... None of these things in and of themselves make this event more than an astonishing spectacle.
What makes the game, why fans and family come year after year, is this simple fact: each and every mid or cadet, in the stands or on the field, is on active duty. Whether standing at attention for the entrance of their brethren who have run the game ball 36 hours overnight to Philadelphia - arriving at center field to the cheers of all - or on duty, standing watch back at the academy, or perhaps seeing a familiar face in the crowd, attempting to cross three tiers of packed stands to say hello to a little brother or a parent in the nosebleed section... All of these young men and women serve active duty in our country's great military academies. These men and women first and foremost took an oath of office to protect and defend our country and its principles. What happens on the football field is sport. What happens in their lives is serious, as real as it gets. And with that knowledge in my heart, their sportsmanship is keenly beautiful in its translucent goodwill. On this field they growl and cheer and glorify in a contest of athletics, but on the battlefield you know the comraderie is absolute - "I've got your back, you've got mine."
At the end of the game, a great and awesome show of team force on both sides, Navy carried the day. But what brought me to tears was each team marching to the other's side at the end of the game to stand in respectful attention during the playing of the opposing team's academy song. The lump in the throats of all were real. This game is done, but god speed them all in what lies ahead.