Army and Navy renew the most storied rivalry in college football on Saturday. Let’s discuss what keeps it so meaningful to players, students, fans, and those who serve.
In 2021, we had an Iron Bowl for the ages, three of the biggest brands in the entire sport reached the College Football Playoff to counterbalance unlikely Cincinnati, and the SEC kept writing blank checks to head coaches.
And the Army-Navy game, one of the sport’s oldest traditions, will renew Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium for the 122nd time.
n a sport littered with rivalries, Army vs. Navy stands alone — literally and figuratively. It’s the final game of the regular season, and the only one on the FBS schedule this weekend for good measure. It’s also the only rivalry game that each of the last four presidents have attended while in office. The game has been shown on national TV every year since 1945, and has been held in 10 cities across six states since the first game was held in 1890.
The Army-Navy game is the most important game on the schedule for either team — even for the 8-3 Black Knights, who will face Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22.
“It’s not even close,” said Rich DiMarco, Army’s associate athletic director and football play-by-play voice. “If you only win one game on your schedule, it’s gotta be the Navy game. And if you only lose one game on your schedule, it better not be the Navy game.”
The fans share that sentiment. But it goes further than just wanting to beat the other team. Chase Millsap, a 2015 Navy grad and chief content officer for We Are the Mighty, a veteran-run digital outlet, says that everyone at Army or Navy can benefit from a win. For him, a Navy win meant that his life on campus might be made a little easier.
“It instills with you that if your unit performs well, then at times you can reap the benefits of that.,” he said. “It’s all about being a disciplined, trained unit.”
Outside of the academies, it’s a game with national appeal. Since 1930, the rivalry has been played every year and the traditions remain largely unchanged.
As Blake Stillwell of military.com told Boardroom, “It’s a piece of Americana that just won’t go away.”
Military flyovers happen at major sporting events year-round. It’s different for the Army-Navy game. On Saturday, Navy F/A18 fighter jets, and Army AH-64 and CH-47 helicopters will make three flyovers around MetLife Stadium, weather permitting. The first two are scheduled for the morning as the lots fill with tailgating cadets and midshipmen. The third will come just before game time, which is slated for 3 p.m. ET.
As Millsap says, “There’s no flyover like this one. They bring out all the toys.”
The quirkiest tradition between the two military academies has come to be known as the prisoner exchange. Every year, seven Army students and seven Navy students spend the fall semester on the opposite campus. With the rivalry game held around finals time, the ceremonial ending to their stays comes prior to kickoff when each student tis returned to his or her school to cheer on their team with their peers.
It’s done with all the ceremony and pageantry you’d expect from a military academy….almost until the end:
If an Army or Navy student ever tells you they want to “sing second,” they’re referring to the alma maters, performed at the end of the Army-Navy game. In a show of solidarity, both teams come together after the game and face the student section of the losing team for that school’s alma mater. After, both teams turn to the winning section and pay their respects with that school’s alma mater. It’s a reminder that while the two sides are enemies on the football field, they will play for the same team when it comes time to serve.
The sitting US President does not attend the Army-Navy game every year, and, surprisingly, only 10 have ever done it. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to attend the game in 1901 and 1905, followed by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Since then, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have all been to at least one Army-Navy game as President. Joe Biden has not announced yet whether he will be in East Rutherford on Saturday, but did attend the game while he was Vice President.
Attending presidents are usually asked to perform the coin toss at the start of the game. They also watch half the game on one school’s side of the stadium and walk across the field at halftime to the opposite fanbase, showing no favoritism to either service academy.
The president’s final duty doesn’t come on game day, it comes when he greets the winner of the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, much like he does the sport’s national champion. That trophy is presented to the service academy that wins the season series between Army, Navy, and Air Force. Either Army or Navy have had that honor every season since 2017.