Today, Army-Navy Just a Game, Tomorrow It's for Real
PHILADELPHIA -- If the NCAA really wants to cure what ails college football, it should pass one rule. Make every player and fan attend an Army-Navy game.
Maybe they'll get a sense of pride or responsibility or whatever was going through Alejandro Villanueva's mind Saturday night.
"It's time to hand in the cleats and pick up the rucksack," Army's wide receiver said.
Cleats you probably know. A rucksack is a backpack, the kind Cadets lug into battle. As bad as it felt to get beaten 17-3 by Navy, losing the next skirmish could be much more costly, if not potentially life-threatening.
It will be in Kabul or Kandahar or one of those places that would make even Ray Lewis tremble. We all know that drill, how kids like Villanueva go off and serve their country instead of the NFL. We're so used to it that the Army-Navy game is almost a cliche.
They are long-faded football powers who still get top billing because we owe them that much. They play hard, they sing each other's alma mater then we move on to more important things, like who won the Heisman?
Before Saturday, I was for that future No. 1 pick from Nebraska with the unpronounceable first name. Now I'd vote for Villanueva. You would too if you had the privilege of experiencing an Army-Navy game.
Army hates losing to Navy worse than Alabama hates losing to Auburn. Navy hates losing to Army worse than USC hates losing to UCLA. The difference is players and fans at Lincoln Financial Field can comprehend an actual war.
That's why, unlike the standard Eagles game, you could wear a visitors jersey Saturday and not have to worry it would end up in a urinal. With you still in it.
There was no need to worry that your radio antenna would be ripped off your car because you painted "Go Navy" in shoe polish on the back window. You could scan the program and see where starters were majoring in things like Economics, Mathematics and Aerospace Engineering Astronautics.
You could have rubbed your ear as Villanueva discussed walking off the field for the final time.
"When you do everything you can and leave your guts on the field, it's easy to hang up the cleats and say 'It's time to move on to bigger and better things."
There's something bigger than football?
You wouldn't have known it for 3 ½ hours. Navy came in with eight wins and a bowl bid in hand. It had beaten Army seven straight times by an average score of 39.1 to 10.1.
But first-year coach Rich Ellerson had squeezed five wins out of the Cadets. One more and they'd get invited to the Eagle Bank Bowl. The players wanted it so badly, they were willing to spit up blood.
Army quarterback Trent Steelman (pictured) didn't quite do that, though Ellerson said his he might have broken a rib in the first half.
"I'm probably not supposed to say that," the coach said. "I'll probably get sued."
That would be frivolous, and these guys don't do frivolous. The last time the nation saw them, they were at West Point listening to President Barack Obama commit 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
They don't ask why, they just do. A big reason they do it is because they know the guy next to them depends on them. That's why Steelman could turn toward Villanueva after the game and say something without worrying how it would sound.
"I love him."
What's not to love? Villanueva may be the first player in college football history to switch from offensive tackle to wide receiver.
"He didn't know wide receiver from third base," Ellerson said.
Villanueva was 6-foot-10 and almost 300 pounds. But Ellerson noticed he had a nice stride, good hands and decent speed. He issued new orders to his captain. A few million down-and-outs later, Army had a leading receiver.
Villanueva had five catches Saturday for 62 yards. He almost had a sixth catch after Army drove to the Navy's 8-yard line with 2:45 left. But Steelman's next toss was deflected to Navy's Ram Vela. That killed Army's last hope of ending the hated streak.
"All I can say is I wish I caught it," Villanueva said. "I wish I could still be in the game, but it was incomplete."
So was his career. O-for-Navy.
One last time, he walked down and stood in front of the small sea of gray-suited Cadets and sang Army's alma mater. All the whooping Navy fans got quiet and took off their hats. Navy's players stood at attention behind Army.
Then it was the Midshipmen's turn. They ran to the other side of the field, where thousands of classmates in their dress blues were celebrating. The band struck "Blue and Gold," and both teams stood at attention.
You just don't get that from "Rocky Top."
If only the entire football season could be more like Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia. But we have future NFL stars to watch and a BCS title to decide.
Even if you never make an Army-Navy game, try to remember players like Villanueva. All they'll be doing is lugging around those rucksacks, making sure the rest of us can get caught up in bigger and better things.