Can't stop, won't stop: Army-Navy plays on despite different location and pandemic

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Army and Navy are playing at West Point on Saturday, one of the oddest turns in the oddest of seasons. They will not have the second Saturday in December to themselves, as has been the custom in recent years. They will play with only their fellow cadets and midshipmen in the stands. But they will play.

Make no mistake. If they played Army-Navy during two World Wars, they will move Bear Mountain to play Army-Navy during the coronavirus pandemic.

"What it really speaks to is both the Army and Navy culture," said Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the West Point superintendent and a former Army defensive lineman. "This game must be played. We'd play this game in a parking lot if we'd have to."

After the late October announcement that the game would move from Philadelphia to the safe haven of West Point, Army athletic director Mike Buddie barely found time to exhale.

"You celebrate for a little bit," Buddie said. "We all realized, 'Wow, even more pressure. That's a must-win game.' But hosting them on your own field, it becomes more than a must-win."

Officials from the city of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania balked at the idea of allowing the corps of cadets and brigade of midshipmen to travel to the game scheduled for its traditional neutral site of Lincoln Financial Field. Academy brass and Pentagon officials agreed to move the game to Michie Stadium, which sits on the West Point post, property controlled by the federal government.

"My whole football career, everything I've done, leads up to this moment," Navy safety Mitch West said. "I wish it could be in Philadelphia and my family could go. It would be a cooler atmosphere. But it's still a pretty cool experience to go up to West Point. I've never been there. To have just the midshipmen and the corps there will be cool."

Only once since the earliest days of Army football has the quintessential college football rivalry been held at West Point -- on Nov. 27, 1943, when there was a war on, mister.

Congress debated whether to allow the game, historian Sally Mott Freeman has written, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy and a Midshipmen football fan, wanted Army and Navy to play. The rivals took the field in Annapolis in 1942 and at West Point in 1943, but the commander in chief allowed the game only under strict circumstances.

Because of the national need to conserve gasoline and rubber for the troops, most people could forget about domestic travel. In 1942, the cadets didn't travel to Baltimore. In 1943, the midshipmen didn't go to West Point. Roosevelt limited ticket sales each year. West Point sold about 12,000 seats, approximately half the capacity of Michie Stadium at the time. The president, again trying to discourage travel, decreed that only residents within a 10-mile radius of West Point could purchase the $4.40 tickets (about $66 today), and do so only after producing proof of residence.

On the day of the game, "a surprisingly large number of non-residents," came up to the ticketing window, "who either don't read the newspapers, listen to the radio, gather to hear the latest gridiron gossip or simply are of the opinion that rules are made to be broken," Louis Effrat wrote in The New York Times.

One couple explained they should be able to purchase tickets because, "Our son played at Harvard." That didn't work. A small group of freeloaders also parked themselves on a hill behind and to the side of the press box.

This Saturday, that won't work, even if Michie Stadium hadn't been enlarged to 38,000 (the hill isn't a good seat anymore). Civilians aren't allowed on the post during the pandemic, even if their son played at Harvard. There are no ticket sales at all. However, the brigade will attend the game Saturday, the first spectators other than cadets to see the Black Knights at home in this singular 2020 season.

Bringing the midshipmen to West Point will avoid the awkward arrangements made in 1943. In a well-meaning attempt at fairness during the war effort, the West Point brass divided the Corps in two and assigned the task of cheering for Navy to the 1st Regiment. The roll call of West Point midshipmen included senior John Eisenhower, whose father didn't attend the game, what with being in London planning the invasion of Europe.

By cheering for Navy, John Eisenhower inadvertently fulfilled his father's vision. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower espoused his Army working closely with the Navy throughout his military career, up to and including his two terms as commander in chief.

"Eisenhower was keen to promote joint and allied teamwork and solidarity during the war," professor Ray Millen, an Eisenhower scholar at the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at West Point, said via email. "As president, Ike played the honest broker among the services, much to the irritation of Army officers."

On the day before the 1943 game, the naval spirit detail -- two cheerleaders and Bill IX, the Midshipmen goat mascot -- arrived at West Point to school the new Navy fans, whom Times columnist Arthur Daley referred to as "the lend-lease regiment." West Point issued the 1st Regiment white caps to wear instead of the uniform gray. The cheerleaders taught the 1st Regiment the words to "Anchors Aweigh," and "On, Navy, Down the Field," as well as a few cheers.

The brass meant well, but let's just say that if the 1st Regiment put the same heart and soul it did into cheering for Navy into the war effort, we'd all be speaking German today.

In his 1960 autobiography, "You Have to Pay the Price," Army head coach Earl (Red) Blaik wrote that, in the first half of the game, "five separate fist flights flared up. Somebody remarked afterward that we could have got by all right without a ball."

The faux midshipmen, wearing white caps atop their gray uniforms, eventually had a lot to cheer. An older, more experienced Navy wore down Army in the second half, scoring two touchdowns to win 13-0. After the second touchdown, Daley wrote that some 1st Regiment cadets cheered, but "most of them stood in stunned silence."

The ignominy of cheering for the wrong team would not be soon forgotten. In fact, the 1944 edition of "Howitzer," the West Point yearbook, made sure of it. Along the way, the editors threw wartime shade at the midshipmen, who live an easy life, if you believe cadets for the past, oh, 100 years or more.

"It is rumored that the first regiment is going to have to lay claim to a blank shield in the Old Cadet Chapel after this year," Howitzer reported. "Well that they should, because they not only cheered for Navy, but the Country Club set went on to win the game. As usual, the outcome was unpredictable, but not the animosity, which even made itself felt in the empty bleachers."

About that "blank shield": Hanging in the Old Cadet Chapel is a shield that once held the name Benedict Arnold, the American general whose plan to surrender West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War was foiled.

This year, the Midshipmen will have a cheering section that will root for them and mean it. The rest of the stadium will be rooting against them and most definitely will mean it. "We love messing with the Mids," Cadet Captain Jack Chronister, a senior, said. "Even better to mess with them on our home turf."

That leaves the players, trying to focus amid the passion of one of the game's great rivalries. The seniors will remember this game forever even if it were played, oh, in a parking lot.