Not too many rivals among Maryland-Navy tailgaters

Fans tried to 'work up the hate' as Md., Navy prepared to reignite old rivalry

September 06, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The guy with the big fork wore a Terps polo shirt as red as the sausage he was grilling. His buddy, a retiree in a blue Navy football jersey, stood nearby, hoisting a beer and laughing.

The two were gearing up for a game that was supposed to reignite a 105-year football rivalry — by grilling together. "Sometimes you have to be nice to the less fortunate," said Bob Billig, the Maryland fan, when asked why he would tailgate with Navy supporter Steve Rigterink.

In the parking lot east of M&T Bank Stadium, where thousands of fans slung Frisbees and footballs, cooked chicken and burgers and hovered near coolers before kickoff, the bright afternoon sun felt more sizzling than any sense of animosity between fan bases that have, at times over the decades, felt something less than affection for each other.

"It's time to forget the past — you know, when Jerry Fishman flipped off the Navy Brigade," said Jessica Wing, a 2004 Maryland alum. She was referring to the legendary incident in which Fishman, a fiercely competitive Terps linebacker, twice extended middle-digit salutes to Navy supporters during the 1964 game.

As the story goes, that was the reason Naval Academy administrators didn't schedule another game against Maryland until 2005, when the Terps beat the Mids, 23-20, before more than 67,000 at M&T.

Few among the tailgaters, it seemed, would have thrown a red flag at Wing's idea. Tom Smith of Glen Burnie, who sported a wig in Terrapin red-and-white as he clutched a cold beer, said it's tough to "work up the hate" against a school whose students will soon be going on active duty to serve the country.

Besides, he said, it takes time to develop the sort of feeling he associates with a real rivalry. The Terps and Midshipmen have played only 20 times, and 11 of those came before World War II.

"What I'm looking forward to is Sept. 18, when we go to West Virginia," said Smith, a social worker who holds Terps season tickets. "I respect the Naval Academy, but there's nothing to respect about West Virginia."

In some ways, the festivities felt more cross-cultural summit than pending battleground. At least three-fourths of the fans sported some form of Maryland red, and smaller clusters in blue and white dotted the parking lot, but neither side had much invective for the other.

Dennis Logan, a Navy fan who works at the Washington Navy Yard, compared the not-quite-rivalry to that of the Orioles and Washington Nationals in baseball. "There's not much to get worked up about yet," he said. "It's not Army-Navy. It's just good fun."

Many fans saw a bigger picture at work. "I think having this game is great for the city and the state, and they should do it on a regular basis," said Michael Douglas, a Maryland graduate and longtime Terps season ticketholder. "It raises lots of revenue and keeps it in the state."

"It'll never be the chief rivalry for either school, like Maryland vs. Virginia," said his friend Kyle Graves as he reclined in a captain's chair. "But it's nice to see who's [the best team] in the state. And [Monday's] game isn't on ESPN2 or ESPNU. It's the 4 o'clock game on ESPN, coast-to-coast. That should elevate both programs."

He agreed with an almost universal sentiment: That the powers-that-be should keep the rivalry going. "Why not do this on a regular basis?" he said. "No matter who wins, I'll be OK with the result."

Still, as he turned sausages and chicken breasts on the grill, Billig — who had come from his hometown, Damascus, in a minivan packed with 10 fans — tried to work up the sort of hostility that might befit the occasion. Asked how he'd feel if Maryland, a much bigger school, lost to its cross-state rivals, he shook a fist in the air. "I'm not going to feel that, because we're not gonna lose!" he bellowed.

But his pal Rigterink wasn't buying the drama. He has been a Navy fan since boyhood, he said, and has attended the last 40 Army-Navy games, so he knows rivalries.

"Sure, it would be great if we waxed those guys," he said, savoring the moment with a thick cigar. "[Maryland] has been a good team under Coach [Ralph] Friedgen. But look around. Isn't it great? When you get right down to it, it's only a game."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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