Mids in a frenzy for game vs. Army Week before clash is filled with pranks, crazy traditions

December 06, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

It was just past dawn when two midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy fired up a pair of Cessna T-41s and took off from Lee Airport outside Annapolis.

Three hours later, circling above West Point just as 4,000 cadets marched below, the Cessnas opened their hatches and dumped a surprise payload of 1,000 blue foam balls, each with a message printed in gold: "Go Navy. Beat Army."

"They were all looking up and sort of waving and swatting to keep the spongy balls from hitting them," said Jason Mendenhall, one of the Navy pilots involved in Tuesday's sortie.

"We thought it might spice up the Army-Navy competition."

Not that it needed any more spice.

The week before the annual Army-Navy football game is a week of pranks and traditions that go back a century.

Midshipmen devise sneaky tricks to needle their opponents at Army, then brace for retaliation.

The Mids rile each other with capers called "wildmen" (a pitcher of water dumped on the head), "assassinations" (syrup or ketchup squirted on someone's shiny black shoes) and "stink bombs" (a dead fish hidden in someone's room).

The bolder pranksters slip from the dorm for pre-dawn "recons" to desecrate Naval Academy statues.

One crew this week hoisted a Tomahawk missile from its concrete moorings and moved it a quarter-mile away.

Another crew left a portable toilet -- painted "Go Navy," of course -- in front of the dorm.

And Wednesday, a few Mids sneaked into the offices of Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr., littering them with "Go Navy, Beat Army" goodies.

"The midshipmen infiltrated the Pentagon," Academy Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson said, adding with a smirk: "With a little help."

Larson got drawn into the madness when the women's swim team dumped him into the pool Thursday.

"I told them they really shouldn't, but " he said.

Once, the week's top goal was to swipe the opposing team's mascot. And to be safe, Navy mascot Bill the Goat has spent weeks in secure seclusion.

But mascot-napping has declined since 1991, when Mids dressed in Army fatigues stole the Army mule, got chased by Army helicopters and were caught by Pentagon security agents at the Naval Academy gates.

That prompted the signing of a non-aggression pact by the two (( schools the following year.

Top midshipmen have tried to further tone down some of the more aggressive escapades this year and to replace them with more celebratory events.

One of this year's new rites was the "Cannonball Run" held Monday in King Hall, where the 4,000 midshipmen dine.

Participants tried to eat a dozen candy apples, run up a flight of stairs and back without throwing up.

A tradition since 1982 has been for the 13th Company of Mids (companies are subsets of the student body) to run a football from Annapolis, along back roads and in dark of night, to the game.

It began as an attempt to get the unlucky "13" off the campus. Now it's a matter of pride for the 120 company members.

This year, the 220-mile run was tracked by satellite and broadcast live on the Internet.

With each member running three or four miles, "it really brings the company together," said senior Brian Skubin, just before he and his cheering company-mates trotted out of Annapolis Thursday afternoon.

Still, even in these tamer times, the countdown to the football game remains as much a highlight of academy life as the game itself.

L Everyone answers Naval Academy telephones with, "Beat Army."

Academy stationery says, "Beat Army."

The blue weights in the weight room are painted with "Beat Army" in gold.

It short, beating Army is an obsession.

For a century, the final game of the year for Army and Navy has been against each other. Like brothers fighting, it is often the nastiest, closest and most emotional game of the season.

One year, a 0-10 Navy season was salvaged with a win over Army.

But sometimes the game -- Army has won it for the past five years -- seems almost an afterthought. Especially in Annapolis.

Matt Brady, a West Point cadet who has spent the fall semester at the Naval Academy as part of an exchange program between the two service academies, said he doesn't understand traditions that "have absolutely nothing to do with winning the football game."

Other cadets in the exchange program said they've noticed a difference between the two schools: "Up there [at West Point], there's a lot of 'Go Army'," said cadet Dennis Sugrue. "Down here, it's 'Beat Army.' "

"They do have a lot of spirit," said cadet Nick Albrecht. "It's just a little misdirected."

Added Brady: "I think it's very, very immature."

Indeed, some traditions are just plain gross.

Upperclassmen, for example, concoct "Beat Army drinks" out of milk, salt, bits of food and squirts of condiments, then force freshmen, or "plebes," to gulp them down, slam their glasses down on the dining hall table and yell, "Beat Army."

But Mids say there's a point to the madness that goes beyond team spirit.

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