Forty years much too long to wait for a game like this

September 04, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

HOW MANY generations of college football fans in this state got cheated out of the possibility of a game like this?

For that matter, how much bigger could college football be in this state had they not been cheated out of the possibility of a game like this?

And last but not least - can anybody justify cheating future fans out of the possibility of a game like this?

The quick answers for these questions, in the aftermath of a contest at M&T Bank Stadium that won't be forgotten anytime soon, are as follows: four decades' worth; way bigger than it is now; and nobody.

If someone doesn't figure out a way to get Maryland and Navy playing every year into the foreseeable future, then our state higher-education leaders and our local service academy officials ought to be, respectively, run out of office and de-commissioned.

Seriously, when was the last time it really felt like big-time college football around here? The Army-Navy games don't count; that's another experience entirely, sort of the anti-college atmosphere. But after that, you might have to go back to the Bobby Ross days, with the goalposts coming down at Byrd Stadium after the '83 North Carolina game. Last year's Florida State upset? Close, but not quite.

Blame Jerry Fishman if you want. Or blame the Navy folks for carrying the grudge a bit too far. Or blame no one. What's done has been done. What's happening now is what matters. And while what happened during that white-knuckle fourth quarter last night was tremendous theater, what happened after the final pass by the sensational Lamar Owens landed in the arms of Maryland's Chris Varner at the Terps' 30 made this rivalry the real thing.

Before exploding with joy or sinking in despair, players on both teams went to midfield and got into a long handshake line. Then, the Navy players made their traditional trip across the field to the corps of midshipmen in the stands and sang the fight song - and the Maryland players stood respectfully behind them on the field until they were done.

Then the victorious Terps - barely, breathtakingly victorious - raced to the opposite corner of the stands to sing their school fight song in front of their fellow students and band. And the Navy players returned the favor, standing respectfully until the singing ended.

"To me, that's what sportsmanship is all about," Terps coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I didn't see anything that was wrong with tonight's game, from anybody."

Sounds like an endorsement to me.

So the ghost of Fishman and his infamous finger were buried for good. Maybe. Then again, give him belated credit. He told reporters all week long that his obscene gesture 40 years earlier was an indication of what the rivalry really should have been. Instead it became the reason there was no rivalry and why all those generations of players and students and future officers and fans were denied the magic of last night - especially Maryland fans, who have been contriving rivalries ever since.

Better yet, the game not only lived up to the anticipation that drew nearly 68,000 to the stadium, but it far surpassed it.

Only Navy had to have seen this coming. They certainly acted, from the very beginning, as if they belonged. The Terps were 12-point favorites, yet they trailed nearly the whole game, except for very early and very late. It was their players who were helped off the field five times, one player twice. Receiver Derrick Fenner was carted off the field in the fourth quarter after being down in the end zone for several minutes after a nasty hit on a two-point conversion by two Midshipmen defenders - and as the cart crossed midfield, Fenner raised his left index finger to the crowd.

Coming after Maryland had finally retaken the lead, it was a seminal moment, a momentum-shifter, a crowd-inspirer. And on the next possession, Navy marched right back downfield, scored a touchdown and went ahead again. And then Maryland marched down again, helped enormously by Lance Ball's second, third and fourth effort on that fourth-down play. And then Navy got one more shot. Nobody dared leave his or her seat until that final interception was tucked away.

Now it's time to replay it next year and the years after, rotating it among College Park, Annapolis and Baltimore. "What I've said all along is, if you want a rivalry game, you have to play it all the time," Navy coach Paul Johnson said afterward. "It would be fine by me. I'd love another shot at them."

So let's get it done. Find room on Navy's schedule and, somehow, on Maryland's packed ACC slate. Take advantage of that 12th game the NCAA now allows. Make this a reality. Don't let four more decades' worth of fans get hung out to dry, pretending to despise Florida State.

Fishman ain't flipping anyone off anymore. You're both all out of excuses.

POINTS AFTER : DAVID STEELE

At least one positive thing has emerged from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: It has given big-time athletes a chance to show how much they get it. And how much they don't. To wit:

Sidney Ponson. So many gifts, so much privilege, all gone to waste. Probably not the only person in America with a new appreciation for what he once had.

Rafael Palmeiro. Poor guy, having to deal with so much adversity. Maybe he can rediscover his priorities and refocus on his job with a vacation to the Gulf Coast.

Serena Williams. Big of her to up the ante on her relief donation, auctioning her $40,000 match-worn earrings instead of giving $100 per ace. Nationwide shame and scorn are great motivators.

Venus Williams. Blissfully unaware of the disaster's impact for most of the week. Looks like it runs in the family.

Jamal Lewis. Demanded a contract extension on the same day teammates are spearheading a player donation drive. Great timing, great vision, just like all the elite backs.

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