PHILADELPHIA — Army-Navy is college football's best rivalry, because it's historic and petty and exceedingly polite.
The schools have an extraordinary history of mascot thefts. Army fans and cadets mercilessly make fun of Navy’s midshipmen for their lolly-gagging form during march-ons, when the student bodies enter the field and then go to their seats. Navy fans loved to lord their school’s 14-year winning streak over Army fans, until it ended in 2016.
How’s it feel to lose? “It’s like your puppy dying,” West Point class of 2014 grad Danny Little says. He came from Fairbanks, Alaska, for this game. For him, one of the best things about 2016’s streak-breaker win was that “Navy had never known a loss.”
But amid the schools’ desires to top each other is more mutual respect than in any other college football series. Army-Navy goes as hard as any game, but it’s really light on actual fighting — physical or verbal, in the parking lots or the stands.
The most audacious thing I heard anyone say during hours of Saturday tailgating was a Navy fan yelling “Shut up!” at a woman who’d yelled “Beat Navy!” toward his tailgate. Her response was a smiling “That’s very rude! That’s very rude!”
There are crowds where such an exchange would lead to charges of fan incest (Pitt-West Virginia or the Iron Bowl, maybe), NCAA violations (virtually any SEC game), and the like. You don’t get that at Army-Navy. You get something like this:
“There’s always a little battle of one-upsmanship, and whatever that might be,” says Larry Needle, the executive director of PHL Sports, the agency that brings the game to Philly. “If Army’s bringing in a big tank, then Navy wants to bring in their bigger ship.”
At Army-Navy, there are just two things that feel out of place: the forward pass and any serious trash talk.
Philly has this down to a science now. The city has hosted 87 of the academies' 118 games against each other. Needle’s group estimates the city gets an influx of 50,000 people, who take up the majority of the nearly 70,000 seats at Lincoln Financial Field.
"They love to drink," says Jimmy Masiak, the general manager of Tavern on Broad, on Friday night, the eve of the game. "They love to drink. I think that's why they always come to Philadelphia, because we're a drinking city. And they fit right in. They were like locusts last night. They came in and just drank everything."
Masiak's bar required restocks, because an Army-Navy crowd goes through whiskey and bourbon fast; Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, largely. The people who come to town may arrive as rivals, but they're there in the same spirit.
"They're just cutting loose," says David Hall, a Navy vet whose son, Matt, used to play fullback for the Mids. "They're having a good time. They don't get that opportunity. Especially the cadets, they don't get that opportunity all the time."
Army-Navy visitors don’t amount to a full-on takeover in a city of about 1.6 million, but they give businesses a big bump from about Thursday night to Sunday. Wherever they congregate becomes a celebration of college football and common bonds.
These are often the same bars where college kids are showing up in Christmas sweaters to drink and dance to “Jenny from the Block,” while a bunch of Army parents from Massachusetts gather in a corner. Sometimes Army-Navy festivities spill out of the bars, into the streets.
An example: On Friday at 11:19 p.m., a guy sits in the passenger’s front seat of a cab at the intersection of Broad and Walnut streets, outside a Wawa. He yells to a 20-something in an Army jacket, “Nice shirt!”
The red light is just about now turning green, but the guy in the Army gear runs over: “That’s a nice ring!” he tells the guy in the cab, whose driver would very much like to move.
He examines the guy in the cab’s class ring for several seconds, then darts across the road and into the bar, yelling “Beat ‘em! Beat ‘em! Beat ‘em!”
This year’s game is extra contentious because the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, given to the team with the best record in games between these schools and Air Force, is on the line. That annual series often ends in a tie, in which case the trophy stays with the school that had it the year before. Army hasn’t won the trophy since 1996.
“Of the three, we’re not known for being good at football, so this would be huge for us to take this back and prove to everyone that we are that school who’s best at everything,” Little, an Army captain, says. “Because we’re better than Navy and Air Force at pretty much everything else, but being better than them at football’s what matters.”
The stakes are high, and yet good vibes abound.
“There’s nothing bitter,” says Chris O’Connor, a 1989 West Point grad and Army major who served 10 years. We’re talking at a tailgate the next morning, while some Black Knights play cornhole on U.S. Army boards that are covered in snow. “You look at other rivalries, and they actually get angry. Nobody gets angry at each other, and we realize that after this, you know, we’re together, and we have to kind of go out and fight this fight.
“Brothers in arms, I guess, people have called it.”
That’s the prevailing view among people who make the pilgrimage to this game. “Camaraderie” is the word that comes up most when you ask someone why they’re in Philly.
“We love them,” says Rita, a Naval vet tailgating a few hundred yards away who preferred not to give her last name. “We love the Army, because they are our sister service. But we love the Navy.”
You’ll meet cool people at Army-Navy weekend. Here are some I met:
- A three-generation military family from Greeley, Colorado. None of the four men had ever attended before. The grandfather is an 87-year old Navy vet, a petty officer second-class named Juils Jorgensen who joined up in 1950 and went to Korea. He’d wanted to make this game since that year, and now he was with his kid and two grandkids, who served in the Marines and the Army. “So yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this,” he said. “Matter of fact, I went to see my doctor and I says, ‘Doc, you’ve gotta keep me healthy for another year.’ He said, ‘OK.’”
- Tim and Mary Flynn, a couple from La Plata, Maryland. They’re Army people, ever since Tim went to West Point and graduated in 1985. I met him at a bar and asked, “Navy fan?” because it was dark and I thought his yellow and black rugby shirt was actually yellow and blue. He was gracious, and the two of them invited me to their tailgate the next morning. They insisted I come and eat. Two of their kids are deployed now, one an Army nurse in Iraq and the other a solider in Korea. They put on a tailgate for their family, friends, and some classmates of their son, Tim, the one who’s in Korea. They said I’d fit right in.
I think this is why Army-Navy is the most respectful football game in the world, even on a day when boxed Fireball is flowing by about 7 a.m. It’s fun, and it’s a salute to the academies and service members — absolutely. But it feels like a family reunion first of all, with “family” defined broadly. Typically, nobody’s going to be mean at a family reunion.
“It’s the only football game I’ve gone to where everybody’s on the same team,” says Phil Bedard, an Army dad visiting with a group from Hopedale, Mass. “You’re up in the stands, and you could be sitting next to a Navy person, and you’re all on the same side. You’re all kind of rooting for the same thing. You want Army to win, of course, but there’s a camaraderie here that you don’t get at other events.”
The academies have homecoming weekends during the year. But this game has a very Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving feel to it.
“I mean, I can’t wait to get [inside the stadium], because I’ll run into classmates when I get in there that I haven’t seen in 10, 15 years,” O’Connor says.
Not everyone there is an Army or a Navy fan. A tricked-out Rutgers tailgating truck makes an appearance near the stadium with fans who just wanted to be there, and who had some military backgrounds among their group.
“It’s the best college football game of the year,” says David Levy, a 31-year-old Rutgers law student from Brooklyn. “It’s amazing, ‘cause even though they’re heated rivals, everybody’s pretty nice. It’s pretty calm.”
At 11:03 Saturday morning, I’m talking — tailgate-provided Yuengling in hand — with another Army dad about the triple option. We’re wondering if the snow that has blanketed Philly is going to stick on the grass at Lincoln Financial Field.
(It will. Army will win on a snow-aided missed field goal on a day when its players, in all-white uniforms, are literally camouflaged into the field.)
Mary Flynn brings over an iPhone and introduces me to her son, Tim, who’s FaceTiming from Korea.
“Welcome,” he says.
It’s after midnight where he is, and this is the first year in many years that both he and his deployed sister, Aileena, aren’t at this event. But this is still their tailgate.
I can’t describe how intrusive I feel. This should be college football’s most exclusive game, given what you have to give up to become part of the academies or the military branches they service. But Army-Navy welcomes all. That includes writers who fans meet in bars, and even the people on the other side of the stadium — to a point.
“Everybody coming here, coming together, just being one big family even though it’s a rivalry and we want to win," says Aidan Flynn, Tim’s brother and Mary’s son. "And we desperately want to win.”