BALTIMORE — Not many players have to wake up before dawn, fulfill military obligations, attend classes and then grind through football practice.
For the athletes at Army and Navy, it’s all in a day’s work.
That is why respect is the operative word in this longtime rivalry.
With the exception of their game against Air Force, the Cadets and Midshipmen usually go up against players who have no idea what it takes to play football for a military academy.
“I know how hard our school is, and I can only imagine how hard their school is,” Navy senior captain Parrish Gaines said. “My respect for these guys, it goes way past this game. The respect you’ve got to have for them is bigger than a football game.
“Those guys do what we do, day in, day out. They’re struggling with the same battles, they have the same sleep habits we do.”
At Army and Navy, sleep is a luxury when there’s so much to accomplish during a typical day. Things are also different on the football field, compared to most Division I schools.
“We’ve all been told we’re not the biggest, not the fastest and not the strongest, but we all play with a chip on our shoulders,” Navy fullback Noah Copeland said.
For 60 minutes this Saturday, Army and Navy will do whatever it takes to win. Afterward, as a show of unity, the players and coaches will stand at attention while the bands play the alma mater of each school.
“The thing that’s always cool is, as bad as we want to beat them and as bad as they want to beat us, there’s a great amount of respect between both schools,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “The sportsmanship after, by us singing each other’s alma mater, shows that. In a sport where everyone’s talking about who’s going to be in the top four, it’s cool to have two teams that just play a rivalry for the pure competition.”
After they’re done playing college football, the participants in Auburn-Alabama and Michigan-Ohio State sometimes meet again on the field at an NFL game. For Army and Navy, there’s a good chance the players will be fulfilling their military obligation together overseas.
“We just respect each other because after this game we’re going to be brothers in the fleet,” Copeland said. “I’ve been selected to be a Marine Corps officer, and hopefully I can do that. I’m leaning toward infantry. So someone I play against Saturday could end up being the guy right next to me.”
That’s one reason why there are seldom any fights or dirty hits.
“Mostly it’s good sportsmanship, helping those guys up,” Parrish said.
Navy has won 12 in a row, the longest such run by either team in a series that dates back to 1890. Instead of harboring jealously or resentment, Army defensive end Joe Drummond spoke respectfully about his foe.
“The Naval Academy has just been able to put together a great program that’s had tremendous success,” he said. “They do a great job executing their assignments and play with an intensity that is unmatched around the country. Having an opportunity to play on the same field with them, and knowing we’re going to on the same team upon graduation, gives the rivalry more luster.”
Teammate Raymond Maples, who received a medical redshirt to play his final season, added: “I have a lot of respect for them, and not just because of what they stand for. At the end of the day, we both represent America’s military. We’re brothers in arms.”