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The weight of Army-Navy

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What’s it’s like to prepare for the greatest rivalry in college football amid a 14-year losing streak

Army-Navy

Saturday, December 10, 2016
22 minutes before kickoff

This is the pregame speech Jeff Monken gave to his team, in its entirety, roughly three hours before the United States Military Academy ended its historic 14-game losing streak to the United States Naval Academy:

It is concise. It is aggressive, but within the parameters of orderliness. All of this is by design.

If Army-Navy is not unanimously considered the sport’s greatest rivalry (and it should be), it is unquestionably its most freighted. Monken confided to me earlier that week that by the time the actual football part of Army-Navy arrived, good coaching would be to emphasize brevity, to impart the simplicity of individual tasks.

“Look, these guys want to win this game more than any game in the world. I want them to play like they’re capable. I don’t want them to feel pressure to be perfect. Play your assignment, but turn it loose,” Monken said.

The locker room speech was the third address Monken had given his team in less than 24 hours. There were two others, delivered Friday evening at the team hotel, after dinner.

The first was a reading of the speech General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave on D-Day. It begins:

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”

Monken’s second reading invoked Young Jeezy:

“You scared, Scared money don’t make no money.”

“You scared, Scared money don’t make no money.”

“You scared, Scared money don’t make no money.”

Every player in a Black Knights jersey sported a #28 patch on his uniform, in honor of Army defensive back Brandon Jackson. Jackson died three months prior, in the early hours of Sept. 11, in a single car crash on a winding highway road on his way home to Queens from West Point. Army had just beaten UTEP. He was 20 years old.The Jeezy line was a favorite of Jackson’s, a mantra for his playing style.

*****


When Army football agreed in 2016 to give me access to the Black Knights for the eight days leading up to the Navy game, their motives were plain: to establish a different narrative on football life at West Point. Monken’s entire focus was and remains recruiting, the intense particulars of which are a story for another day.

Army football had a PR needle to thread: to showcase the normalcy of the Black Knights program from the inside of its exceptional standards and setting, to appeal to as many talented college football recruits as possible -- and to do it without shirking or skirting the stark reality of what becoming a cadet means.

In exchange, I got to bear witness to this rivalry’s particular, impossible weight, at a moment where one side had never felt it in such burdensome terms. Navy’s sixth win, in 2007, set a record at the time for the longest streak in the rivalry’s history. Fourteen in a row felt like a total redefinition.

The both-sides life I was supposed to show you here never really materialized during my time with the Black Knights. The schedule of a cadet at West Point is brutal; that of a cadet playing football on Army-Navy week doubly so. And there’s nothing that can (or should) be written to obfuscate the demands on service academy athletes.

But in the 15th and final year of Navy’s win streak, Young Jeezy was audible among the Eisenhower speeches and the Latin aphorisms on Nike equipment, bouncing off those sober granite walls and gothic arches of West Point, drawn on homemade T-shirts and above X&O formations on whiteboards. “Scared money don’t make no money” became as much an in-memoriam as a celebration as a dare; a rejoinder for any anxiety that might confront the team.

Service academies pride themselves on advertising their demands up front. Their football programs toe a line that’s closer to salesmanship, working with the carrot of appeal rather than the stick of honor and duty. As an outsider, you project your own identity and ability against this idea of an impossible life - mental and physical discipline beyond your own range. And it’s easy to fall in love with the weight of it all when you watch the weight of 14 years being removed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Six days before kickoff

While the players were in class there was no need to put on. When they were present, it was a constant effort on the part of the staff to keep any broad ideas of win-the-game-end-the-streak from their minds.

“There’s a reason why there’s signs all over the building that say ‘BEAT NAVY,’ even though, at times, as coaches, we think it’s too much,” offensive coordinator Brent Davis said on Tuesday morning.“I tried to downplay it to our offense my first year.”

“But the first time I walked out on the field, it’s electric. I’ve been to the Iron Bowl, I’ve been to The Swamp … it doesn’t compare. The pressure these kids feel, they’re aware of how much bigger it is than them. What it means to so many people around the world who are watching the game at 3 a.m. in Afghanistan, or wherever.

“When I was downplaying it, they looked at me like, ‘Yeah Coach … you don’t know.’ So when I walked out there on the field I told them, ‘God, you guys are right. You guys need to calm me down.’”

Army-Navy prep never really starts or ends. Plays and formations are held in reserve all year. Every week during the season, Army’s coaches watch Navy game tape. The offensive staff will even scour rival academies’ offenses.

“It’s weird that you’d watch both sides of the ball for your two rivals, but we do. Football coaches are notorious thieves, so we’re always looking to see if we can steal something of theirs,” offensive line coach Bob Bodine said.

Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman routinely crashed the offensive meeting rooms to pick the brain of Monken, one of the handful of working experts in the world on the offense he was about to face. For five seasons, Monken was an assistant at Navy under former Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, working alongside longtime Navy OC Ivin Jasper and current head coach Ken Niumatalolo, whom he’s known since their days together on the Hawaii staff in 1989. In their own head coach, Bateman and the defensive staff have the best in-house scout coordinator possible.

“Thanks for your help, coach!” Bateman boomed, erasing a whiteboard with his hand. He walked out as fast as he walked in, as if he never broke stride.

“I didn’t do anything,” Monken said.

This is an important quote, because it probably doesn’t make sense to you that Monken, a highly successful coach, believes what he’s saying.

But he does: Triple-option football, especially service academy triple-option, is such a rarefied style within a rarefied style that its stewards honestly contend that they can’t “chess match” their way to beating one of the two other teams in all of football with their same unique circumstances.This present duality between former Johnson assistants is what prompted Army to hire Monken in the first place, to replicate Navy. To win this particular game, and in 2016, to end that unbearable streak.

Thursday, December 8, 2016
Two days before kickoff

In a room next to Monken’s office, athletic interns (Army’s version of a graduate assistant) Kelvin White and A.J. Schurr were drawing playcards for practice. They were also eating unattended breakfast burritos that had been dropped off for the coaches.

In 2015, on the last play of his football career vs. Navy, White -- a high school quarterback who played tight end for Army -- threw a Hail Mary pass down, 21-17. It was batted down. White can tell you the arc of deflection and the alignment of the players in the end zone. He thinks about the play at least once a day.

“All of it haunts me. Every single day I walk in here it haunts me.”

He was half smiling, but he wasn’t joking.

“One night in camp I got caught watching it again. And Coach Monken walked in and sat down next to me. I should have just turned the damn thing off. Because then he gets fired up again. For no reason. Right then.”

I found the play on YouTube. White rolls left against a three-man rush and spins out of a tackle as the pocket collapses.

“At this moment, right here, I’m out of that tackle, I swear to you, I thought ‘OK we’re winning this game right now.”

Throughout its history, this rivalry has claimed sweeps for and against entire four-year classes at both institutions. As we watched the clip, White and Schurr had a handful of weeks left at West Point before heading to Germany, then maybe a combat zone, or maybe not. They were among the final links of a chain of hundreds of Army football players who left West Point for active military service since 2001 having never beaten Navy. That is a particular kind of ignominy, one that feels crueler than anything else in sports.

On the screen, White heaves a beautiful pass from Army’s 42-yard-line. It bounces off a throng of bodies in the end zone. White and Schurr can name each player there, recite their responsibilities on boxing out for a hail mary reception and the strategy involved in the ball’s deflection.

We listen to CBS analyst Gary Danielson recap the play as Navy celebrates on the field.

“Army puts in Kelvin White a tight end who played quarterback in high school, I guess because he can throw it the farthest. But this time, nothing.”

“NOTHING!” White says mockingly.

Saturday, December 10
1:40 game time remaining

“Sir, sir, I’m sorry. I’m sorry sir, but you need to see this. I think God wants you to see what’s happening right now.”

Matthew Kaufman, a defensive back for Army, leaned over a bench on the Black Knights’ sideline and put both his hands on the shoulders of Colonel Matthew Pawlikowski, West Point’s head chaplain.

Col. Pawlikoswki had knelt behind the Army bench just as Navy punted. Army was leading, 21-17, with four minutes left in the game. It was very cold and very loud and because of this nothing was still, except for the Colonel.

He prayed through the punt and four ensuing Army runs, on his knees with a silver rosary in his hands, his head turned away from the field and his eyes closed to everything but his God.

“I was praying for both teams, I’m always praying for both teams, and for both to be injury free, and then at the end I said, ‘God, if you don’t mind, I’d really like us to win, but you know best,’”

One more first down.

“Sir! We get this and it’s over! We win! Come see this!” Kaufman said, yelling over the crowd.

Kaufman helped the Colonel over the bench and into a crowd of Army players to see something new: Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw pushing a pile two yards on 3rd and 1.

First down. No fumbles. No curses. For the first time in 15 years, Army sang second. West Point cadets rushed the field.

The Black Knights locker room was still completely empty as Navy personnel and staff began to shuffle back to theirs, save for the trophy sitting on the floor. I watched two Navy staffers deliver it amid the chaos and leave silently.

Bateman was the first one back in the room. He walked right past the trophy, never even looked at it. He paced in circles for 20 seconds, stopped, and began to cry.

“I was thinking about 28. I need to right now. He was such a great kid. No one knows, these are such great damn kids.”

All at once, in a throbbing, almost choreographed mob, the locker room overflowed with 110 players and staffers and a swarm of Army brass and media. Monken helped Morna Davis, Brandon’s mother, onto a stool to stand above the throng. Davis, a New York Police Department detective, thanked everyone, her voice trembling. The players cheered, and told her they loved her. Everyone else — grown folks with children of their own — wept.