Army-Navy hoopla begins well before the game

Do players embrace the traditions that make this rivalry so special?

  • Joe Bellino poses with an Army bathrobe he won on a bet as a player at Navy.
Joe Bellino poses with an Army bathrobe he won on a bet as a player… (Family photo )
December 07, 2012|By Mike Klingaman | The Baltimore Sun

Phil McConkey wasn't surprised to hear that Navy's mascot had been goatnapped last week, for the umpteenth time, prior to Saturday's Army-Navy football game. That the animal was left tethered to a post, outside of the Pentagon, didn't surprise him either.

"The goat is a smelly old thing that defecates all the time, and Army probably couldn't deal with it (after the heist)," said McConkey, a star receiver for Navy in the 1970s. "They also stole our goat when I played there, 34 years ago, and I said the same thing then:

"Good riddance, let Army have it."

After 112 years of hijinks and hoopla, Army and Navy can still find ways to torment each other in advance of their storied rivalry. In 1971, Midshipmen infiltrated West Point and dumped Army's reveille gun into the Hudson River. Cadets have scaled the walls of Bancroft Hall, secured the roof of Navy's dorm and poured bags of flour on their rivals below.

Mids have flown helicopters and Cessnas over The Point and bombarded the campus with everything from Nerf battleships to ping-pong balls that said, "BEAT ARMY."

"The creativity of these guys, on both sides of the ball, has never ceased to amaze me," McConkey said. "They are the best and the brightest."

But do their classmates' shenanigans drive the players themselves, come game time?

"A lot of the hoopla is more for the fan base than for the players," said Ed Malinowski, co-captain of the 2001 Navy team. "We didn't have time to get caught up in the pageantry; we couldn't appreciate a lot of what makes it a Super Bowl atmosphere.

"I remember when (Mids) moved a retired fighter jet (an A-4 Skyhawk) from one spot on campus to another. If someone had approached me, I'd have been tempted to take part. But our focus was on the game itself, and the coaches made sure that was the case."

Not that players aren't touched by the revelry.

"As sophomoric as it seems, the notion of pep rallies, bonfires and the involvement of the Corps are powerful things," said Pete Dawkins, Army's star halfback and the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner. "There's a genuine enthusiasm when the Cadets carry every player out of the mess hall, on their shoulders, as they did before our games with Navy.

"We left for Philadelphia by bus, with two tanks rumbling up ahead to escort us to the (West Point) gate. One year, a mob of hundreds of Cadets ran alongside the buses, cheering us on, for three quarters of a mile. Those things have symbolic power and portray a real sense of commitment and enthusiasm that's important to the team."

Army's Leamon Hall agreed.

"You see the rallies, the bonfires and the shenanigans – our Cadets stole Navy's goat one year and brought it into the mess hall – and it's hard to be totally sequestered from all of that," said Hall, quarterback and captain of the 1977 team. "In some ways, it makes your resolve that much stronger."

During Army-Navy Week, Hall said, "Cadet companies would march out, during football practice, and surround the field to support us. It's like, 'We all win or lose together.'

"Doing that closes ranks."

In his day, during the run-up to the big game, Navy quarterback John Cartwright said, classmates made huge model airplanes, 20 feet long and hung them between the wings of Bancroft Hall, complete with sound effects of fighter jets strafing an army tank.

Mids also dragged players from their rooms during study hour and carried them into the Rotunda, demanding a speech.

"To a point, it was OK." Cartwright said. "But after awhile, with guys knocking on your door every night, you had to go hide in the library to study for a chemistry test."

Returning to his room one night before the big game, Navy halfback Joe Bellino found the doorway decorated to look like the entrance to an underground lair. "Bellino Cave," a sign said.

"You see it, and enjoy it, but you don't get involved in the pranks when you're preparing for war," said Bellino, who won the Heisman in 1960. Nonetheless, one of his cherished keepsakes is the grey West Point bathrobe Bellino won in a bet with an Army player about the outcome of the game.

Navy players haven't always taken a hands-off approach to these antics. In the 1950s, following their final practice for Army, the Mids would grab their coach, hustle him down to the Severn River and toss him into the drink.

"When they were swinging me back and forth, I got a good look at the cakes of ice in the water," Navy's Eddie Erdelatz told The Sun in 1956. "They must have thrown me 15 yards out. I thought I'd never hit and when I did, I wished I hadn't."

Not all of the escapades are aimed at the enemy. A Navy pep rally in 1963 spilled over into downtown Annapolis as hundreds of whooping, singing Mids surrounded the Governor's mansion at 10 p.m., shouting for Gov. J. Millard Tawes.

"They banged on the door and frightened us out of our wits," a hostess at Government House told reporters.

Stuff like that resonates with players, said McConkey, the Navy end.

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