Football rivalry bug bites mayors

Leaders of Annapolis, Highland Falls, N.Y., have Army-Navy bet

November 10, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

For the nation's two best-known military academies, the annual Army-Navy football game is a matter of institutional bragging rights -- a gridiron war aimed at getting the other's goat. Or mule.

But for this year's 100th meeting, the mayors of Annapolis, home of the Naval Academy, and Highland Falls, a New York village of 6,000 a few miles from the Military Academy, also have a little on the line.

Joseph E. D'Onofrio, mayor of Highland Falls, threw down the glove last week and sent Dean L. Johnson, his Annapolis counterpart, a letter daring him to place a bet on the Dec. 4 game.

D'Onofrio even had the audacity to end his letter with "GO-O-O-O-O-O-O- ARMY!!!!!!"

It touched off a friendly competition between the two communities that's likely to intensify in the weeks leading up to the annual test played on a 100-yard battlefield at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.

At stake -- apart from hometown pride -- are a bottle of New York wine and a half-gallon of Annapolis-brewed beer.

So confident was Annapolitan Johnson that he upped the ante by suggesting D'Onofrio fly the Annapolis flag and don a Navy sweat shirt for a day if Army loses.

"Don't forget, Navy had a five-year losing streak until I was elected into office," Johnson said. "Four days after I was inaugurated, Navy beat Army."

Since 1890, Army and Navy football teams have met almost every year, with occasional high jinks involving their goat and mule mascots.

It is the longest-running inter-service rivalry and one that captivates fans all over the country -- but especially those in the hometowns of the academies.

"You wind up having four-star admirals acting like teen-agers in a town where everybody is a Navy fan," said Thomas W. Roskelly, Annapolis city spokesman. "It's a game that stirs up a lot of emotions and means a great deal to midshipmen and cadets. You can lose all your football games in the season, but if you beat Army, you can brag about that for the rest of your life."

D'Onofrio insisted that this year, bragging rights will be his.

"My scouts tell me to have no fear," he said. "That flag will not rise over the village of Highland Falls. Army is just gonna roll over Navy."

This year's bet will be his second with an Annapolis mayor. Several years ago, D'Onofrio said, he wagered a bushel of New York apples with then-Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins -- and won what was to be a weekend stay in an Annapolis bed-and-breakfast. However, he never collected on the bet, D'Onofrio said.

The record between the rivals so far is 48 wins for Army, 44 for Navy and seven ties.

Last year, Navy suffered a heartbreaking loss when an Army fullback ran 70 yards for a winning touchdown in the fourth quarter for a 34-30 win over the midshipmen.

Scott Strasemeier, Naval Academy sports information director, said this year's game appears to be "a toss-up."

"These are kids who are going out and serving the country for a minimum of five years after graduation," he said. "Pretty much everyone has either served or had a relative in the service, so they're naturally attracted to either Army or Navy in this game."

Some, like Johnson, have allegiances to both. Johnson served as an officer in the Army from 1965 to 1967 in Fort Meade and Thailand. But he said his loyalty lies with the Naval Academy.

"In my heart as a kid, I always wanted to go to the Naval Academy," Johnson said. "But my right eye was not 20-20, and my nomination was withdrawn. Now, having lived in the Navy hometown for 27 years, I'm a Navy fan through and through."

Whether Johnson will be celebrating his allegiance with a New York state bottle of wine is anyone's guess, said Bob Beretta, Army's sports information director.

"I've been here 14 years, and you just can't predict the outcome," Beretta said. "It doesn't matter if it's volleyball or cross country or football. With any Army-Navy game, the emotions are so high in this rivalry, it's so intense on the field, it's at such a fever pitch that many times, the most unlikely hero emerges."

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