The Naval Academy's annual football banquet Thursday night was not your usual end-of-the-season session normally associated with an eventof this kind.
Instead, it was a celebration of the character and spirit of a group of young men who survived the most embarrassing kind of adversity in college sports -- representing an honored institution and almost setting its worst record in history.
Speaking to a near-capacity crowd at Dahlgren Hall, Coach George Chaump did not talk of the great plays of the season or the near-misses, or make excuses for 10 consecutive losses.
With quiet dignity and deep admiration, he spoke of the desire, the pride and the unity the team displayed week after week. The rousing victory over Army, before a capacity crowd in Philadelphia and a national TV audience, wasthe ultimate reward for a team that simply would not quit.
This theme was echoed by Athletic Director Jack Lengyel, Superintendent Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch and co-captains William Mason and Frank Ogden.Lynch, who captained the 1963 team that finished No. 2 in the nation, spoke of his admiration for the way this team stayed together in the face of cruel disappointments and called it "something very special."
The featured speaker was ABC and WMAL announcer Tim Brant, a veteran of two Olympic Games, the Pan American Games, the World Series and college football. He was also host of the "George Chaump Show," carried weekly on Home Team Sports.
There is no question that the 24-3 victory in December over West Point saved a season from being a total disaster, possibly the worst in the proud history of Navy football. Normally, over an 11-game season in which a successful outcome isnullified week after week, injuries mount, frustrations build up andconfidence is riddled.
Most teams finally fall apart and seek only the end to it all. This did not happen to this year's Mids. Their spirit was never broken.
Leadership on and off the field on a dailybasis was inspirational. Togetherness sounds so trite in this day and age, but this team stayed together through a very long four-month ordeal.
In some quarters, antagonists and armchair quarterbacks dismiss all this as covering up a bad season. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This was not a good football team when wins and losses are being counted. It was, however, a season that provided an opportunity for the future military leaders to face up to adversity of acollective and individual nature, to find themselves reacting under duress and to test character.
In this light, Navy's 1991 team emerged successful. As George Chaump remarked: "It's easy to be a front-runner, it's tough to fight back when losing. When you do, something good eventually will happen." It did in Philadelphia in December.
As the evening progressed, one could not help but attempt to evaluate what intercollegiate athletics was all about anyway. Are we so accustomed to winning at any expense that winning itself is really all thatcounts?
Playing to win on America's field of play has always beena trait that characterized the best in our games. There is no respect for those who do not, those who will not seek to improve and to overcome all kinds of limitations.
There is a place for building a true character under superior leadership, and Navy's 1991 season, fortunately or unfortunately, amply provided the opportunity to build -- or to settle for defeat.
The Mids chose the former, which made thisyear's football banquet a triumph.