Cold? Who, me?

Bucket list visit to Army-Navy game leads to joy, thoughts of Washington

Special to The Sumter Item
Posted 12/12/17

I found myself staring at a painting of the signing of The Constitution in Philadelphia's Independence Hall on Saturday and could not get the thought out of my head.

There's George Washington, who lost his life at age 67 because he failed to be …

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Cold? Who, me?

Bucket list visit to Army-Navy game leads to joy, thoughts of Washington


I found myself staring at a painting of the signing of The Constitution in Philadelphia's Independence Hall on Saturday and could not get the thought out of my head.

There's George Washington, who lost his life at age 67 because he failed to be properly dressed for a wintry, snowy day in December.

Why such a thought?

Because as soon as this tour at Independence Hall concluded, I was headed a few blocks south to fulfill a lifelong dream. Army and Navy were set to meet for the 118th time in their historic football rivalry at Lincoln Financial Field, and just a few months past my 60th birthday, I was finally going to make it.

How can you not like the Army-Navy game? In a world of big-time college football the term student-athlete at most campuses is a joke. This game, however, features young men who from the moment they step on campus understand their overriding and singular purpose is to prove capable of meeting the demands of an experience that prepares future officers for our nation's military. Football is still a big deal on campus though, especially when the two face each other.

The first time the two played, in 1890, Army lost 24-0, and for good reason. It was the first football game Army ever played.

By 1926 the game was filling the nation's largest stadiums. That year 110,000 brave souls, some of who had handed over the unheard price of $100 for a scalper's ticket, squeezed into a snowy, windy Soldier Field in Chicago. Navy carried a 9-0 record into the contest while Army sported a 7-1 record, the sole loss coming against a Notre Dame squad coached by Knute Rockne.

Borrowing a tactic that Rockne had employed against his team, Army coach Biff Jones started the game with his second string on the field, hoping his rested starters would prevail by game's end. That helped Navy to jump ahead 14-0 in the first quarter, but by the fourth quarter Army had rallied for a 21-14 lead. Navy tied the game 21-21 late in the fourth quarter when Tom Hamilton converted a point-after touchdown by drop-kicking the extra point. Army had a chance to win on the game's final snap when Larry 'Lightfoot" Wilson slipped a bit while trying a 24-yard field goal. To those who know the rivalry best, the 1926 21-21 tie is thought to be the greatest game the two have ever played.

Fans around Sumter may argue the 1945 game was better. The nation celebrated the end of World War II by watching Bishopville's Doc Blanchard score three touchdowns in Army's upset of a 7-0-1 Navy team. Blanchard secured the Army win with a 52-yard touchdown return of an interception. This performance helped Blanchard secure the Heisman Trophy three weeks later. Bishopville proudly sports a statue of Blanchard in its downtown.

Of course, it's more than the games that define the rivalry. So does a good prank, like the one Navy pulled in 1971. A few minutes before kickoff, the "presidential limousine" drove on to the field during pregame ceremonies, passing the Army cadets in the stands, who stood in proper salute. As the Cadets showed proper respective to who they thought was President Richard Nixon, out stepped Navy's mascot, a goat, with a sign attached that read "Army's Commander-In-Chief."

The game has also been responsible for two major innovations to the modern game. In 1958, Army head coach Earl Blaik showed a new offensive formation, placing one of his receivers, Bill Carpenter, so distantly wide from the rest of the unit that Blaik called Carpenter his "Lonely End". To keep Carpenter from growing tired from running back to the huddle after every play, Blaik devised a series of hand signals by which the "Lonely End" would get the play call. Thus was born what is prevalent in every level of football today, the no-huddle, spread offense.

In 1963, former Army cadet Tony Verna, while serving as the television producer for the Army-Navy game, devised a new way to fill the 30 or 40 seconds of dead time that occurs when teams huddle. Verna's idea - instant replay. It is hard to imagine a broadcast of any sport today without it.

There's also the pregame pageantry, which begins three hours before kickoff when the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen enter the stadium and march in formation on opposite sides of the field. So after catching my early morning tour at Independence Hall, it was time to scoot down to the stadium. I did not want to miss out on a second of my chance to be part of what has become rightfully known as "America's game."

There was a problem though. I was cold.

I know enough about geography to know it's colder in Philadelphia than it is in Sumter, so I packed accordingly. A couple of pairs of wool socks, big, baggy sweat pants to go over my first pair of pants, enough shirts and sweatshirts to go under my cold weather jacket, and a pair of ski caps to cover the head. The big snow storm that dumped a few inches of snow in the western part of the Carolinas on Friday landed in Philadelphia on Saturday morning, and all I could think about was how Washington died.

It was a similar day at Mount Vernon in December 1799. Washington began the day as he always did, riding on horseback to check on his farm. A wet, blowing snow rudely greeted Washington on his morning ride and continued throughout the day. The weather sent Washington to his bed later that night, and he passed away in the early morning hours. The news began to spread across the nation that even the seemingly indestructible Washington was vulnerable to the curses of Mother Nature. I do not recall a time in my life when anyone called me indestructible.

I was shivering the second I walked into the stadium - three hours before the 3 p.. kickoff. It was then I realized something else about Washington that gave me a new spirit of hope. Just a few miles north of Philadelphia sits the Delaware River, which Washington's army somehow managed to cross on a miserably cold, snowy night on Christmas Eve, 1776. Catching the British by complete surprise on Christmas morning, the Battle of Trenton proved to be a much needed victory by Washington's army. So rather than dwell on what killed Washington, I decided it would be better to be inspired by the will of his army's crossing of the Delaware.

It didn't exactly help my little mind games to survive the wintry weather when the guy sitting next to me, a big, burly fellow with a huge Philadelphia Eagles jacket, plopped down in his seat, turned to me and immediately stated, "I ain't never been this cold in my life." Then when I told him I lived in South Carolina he told me, "Man, it must be really cold to you." Then when I told him how old I was - for some reason he had to ask - I told him I was 60 and he stated, "You get your age you can't handle the cold like you used to." What a pep talk.

However, it did help that by halftime I was joined by hundreds of other frozen old men who thawed out a bit in the only place heat could be found - the men's bathroom.

Rejuvenated, I made it through the second half. To make things perfect, the game was as good as it gets. After a late Army touchdown put the Cadets up 14-13, it came down to the final play of the game, as it often has in the rivalry, when Navy kicker Bennett Moehring barely missed a 49-yard field goal. It was 1926 all over again.

Inspired by Washington's crossing and the purity of sport that the Army-Navy game embodies, I left the stadium grateful I was able to cross off another item on my list of things I hope to do before I die. But most of all, I was most grateful that I did not freeze to death.