There's the tawdry world of big-time sports, and then there's Army-Navy

December 05, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

PHILADELPHIA -- On the morning after Victor Conte left an indelible stain on the Olympic movement, Major League Baseball and the NFL with his tawdry steroid revelations on ABC's 20/20, thousands of gray-clad West Point cadets marched onto the field at Lincoln Financial Field to celebrate the unique tradition that is the annual Army-Navy football game.

They were followed by the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy, the landing of the elite paratroop teams from both services, the usual flyover by four Navy fighter jets and a visit from President and Commander in Chief George W. Bush.

The military pomp and circumstance is what makes Army-Navy such an interesting and inspiring event, but there was much more to it than that yesterday. The game takes on an added significance in time of war, and it was a breath of clean, fresh air in the suddenly murky, disheartening world of big-time sports.

The perfect cure for your BALCO hangover.

Of course, the current national sports malaise is not just about the ugly doping scandal that bubbled up from the notorious Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative. There's also the Carmelo Anthony DVD and the Tyrone Willingham firing and -- has it been two weeks already? -- that ugly basketbrawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills. In each case, the stench of big money or little honor left us all bemoaning the degenerating role of sports in society.

Not here. The young men who lined up against each other in the 105th edition of one of college football's oldest rivalries did not walk off the field to the waiting cell phones of their agents and future business managers. There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow -- just a military commission and a chance to represent their country in Iraq.

It was against that backdrop that the Midshipmen completed their winningest regular season since 1963 with a 42-13 victory before a sellout crowd of 67,882, their 9-2 record made more impressive by the difficult academic requirements that make recruiting first-tier high school athletes all but impossible.

USC played archrival UCLA with a lot more at stake (at least from a college football perspective) later in the afternoon. Virginia Tech defeated Miami for a chance to play in the Sugar Bowl against undefeated Auburn, which faced Tennessee in the SEC championship game.

Maybe those were much more compelling football matchups from a purely competitive standpoint, but Army-Navy is not just about football or even tradition. It's about a way of life. It is a symbol of the friendly competition between the services that gives way to their eventual teamwork on the battlefield. It is the ultimate Patriot Game.

No one had to remind the Mids of that, not with the football jerseys of three fallen comrades -- Lt. Cmdr. Scott Zellem ('91), 1st Lt. Ron Winchester ('01) and 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith ('03) -- hanging in their locker room before yesterday's game and displayed on the field throughout the afternoon.

"It's something you can't get away from," said senior quarterback Aaron Polanco. "This year, three guys from this team gave their lives for what they believed in. Football is fun, but we have to go on to the real world. We know there's something bigger we're going to."

Still, the Mids live and work in an insular world ruled by a strict honor code. They play in a world where great sportsmanship is not just expected ... it is required. What a contrast to the sports world outside, where steroids are rampant and some kind of misbehavior has been the lead story on SportsCenter almost every night for the past three weeks.

"It's a shame," said fullback Kyle Eckel, who set a career high with 179 yards rushing yesterday. "Hopefully, the Army-Navy game can serve as an example and help the sports world get its head on straight.

"There are a lot of young kids watching sports, and starting to think it's cool to get into a fight like [the NBA brawl]. Hopefully, people watching this game will see how it can be different."

It was the third straight lopsided victory for Navy, which recaptured the Commander In Chief's Trophy in 2003 with victories over Air Force and Army and renewed it with two more victories over their academy rivals this year. The Mids jumped out to a 28-0 first-half lead yesterday on their way to evening the all-time series 49-49-7.

There was some question whether Polanco would move the Navy program forward after Craig Candeto led the Mids to an 8-5 record in 2003, but he stepped right into Paul Johnson's offensive scheme and led the team to five straight victories before Navy suffered its first loss of the year against Notre Dame.

Navy already had accepted an invitation to play New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco, but beating Army is always Job One in Annapolis, just as beating Navy would have taken a lot of sting out of another difficult season for the Black Knights.

Former University of Maryland coach Bobby Ross made modest progress in his attempt to turn around a struggling Army program that has not posted a winning record since 1996. The Knights scored back-to-back victories over Cincinnati and South Florida at midseason and were competitive in several losses to decent programs, but finished 2-9.

"They're starting off with a new coach and two wins," Eckel said. "It reminds me of how we started off. They'll be back."

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

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