Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 13, 2011

Familiar Stadium, Different Game

By now of course, the ride on the number 4 train from Grand Central north to the Bronx is as familiar as my daily drive to work. The 6 local train carries me the short distance from its stop near my midtown hotel to Grand Central. I cross the platform and a few minutes later the express pulls in, metal wheels screaming against metal tracks as it makes the final turn at the station entrance. If the train were sentient, it would be an elite runner training for the recently concluded New York City marathon; building distance with each succeeding run. From Grand Central at 42nd Street it is seventeen blocks to the 59th Street station. Then an extra ten, twenty-seven blocks in all to 86th Street. Finally there is the longest run, thirty-nine blocks from the Upper East Side into Harlem; hurtling underground through the dark until finally slowing and coming to a stop at 125th Street, the final stop in Manhattan.

Now it is under the Harlem River and the 4 train becomes a local in the Bronx, stopping twice along the Grand Concourse before the final push; the pronounced left turn followed by the gentler swing back to the right even as we start to climb. Finally the train bursts into a cloudless and pleasant autumn afternoon, ascending above street level even as it slows for my departure point. The recorded female voice announces the next stop, “161st Street, Yankee Stadium.”

The Yankees are home for the winter; general manager Brian Cashman busy doing hot stove calculus to determine what free agent signing or trade deal can bring my team its 28th championship in 2012. But the Stadium is alive today, crowds milling about on Babe Ruth Plaza and fans pouring through the turnstiles. Today the new Stadium continues one of the great traditions of its now demolished predecessor, offering itself up as a venue for multiple sports. Knights will joust in the Bronx on this Saturday afternoon. It’s a day for college football, with the Black Knights of Army hosting the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers.

The old Stadium served as host for a variety of sports. The first college football game played there was in 1925, when Army met rival Notre Dame. That annual contest stayed at the Stadium for more than two decades. It was at halftime of the 1928 game, with the score tied at 0-0 that Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne gave his legendary “win one for the Gipper” speech; inspiring the Fighting Irish to a 12-6 victory. The 1946 contest was one of the greatest college games ever played; with top ranked Army and number two Notre Dame battling to a scoreless draw. During the 1970’s and 80’s the Stadium hosted the Urban League Classic, an annual matchup between historically black colleges.

The pros have also met on the Stadium gridiron. As early as 1926, and on and off through the next quarter century, short-lived teams in nascent leagues seeking to compete with the NFL played their home schedules for a year or two in the Bronx. Then in 1956 the football Giants moved to the Stadium, and stayed there until 1973. In their first season at the Stadium the Giants won the NFL Eastern Division with an 8-3-1 record, and then hosted the Chicago Bears in the league’s championship game. On an icy field the Giants chose to wear sneakers rather than football cleats. Their superior footing helped them to a 47-7 romp and their fourth NFL championship. That team featured future Hall of Fame players and coaches. Frank Gifford anchored the offense and Sam Huff the defense; while on the sidelines Vince Lombardi was the offensive coordinator and Tom Landry managed the defense.

Two years later the Stadium was the site of what many old-timers still call the greatest NFL game ever played. The 1958 championship between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts was the first to be televised nationally, and the first to go into overtime. The 64,000 spectators in the stands were dwarfed by some 45 million watching from coast to coast. When Johnny Unitas handed the ball to Alan Ameche who dove into the end zone from the 1 yard line for a 23-17 Colts’ victory, a new national pastime was born.

In addition to football, the old Stadium hosted boxing, including the second bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, one of eight Louis matches staged there. There was also soccer and a variety of non-sporting events, from Billy Graham crusades to three papal masses to concerts by U2 and Pink Floyd.

While the old Stadium is dust, Yankee management is determined to carry on the tradition of multiple uses. It’s an anomaly in this era of single use facilities, but a worthwhile one. Given the prodigious cost of every new stadium and the amount of public funding that is almost always involved, either directly or through infrastructure improvements in the local area, it seems foolish to have any facility sit vacant and dark throughout its primary tenant’s off-season.

So it is that under a perfect blue sky and in front of just over 30,000 cheering fans the two teams take the field. While technically a home game for Army, who ushered in football at the new Stadium with a game against Notre Dame last year, and who will play here again in 2014 and 2015, the fans are evenly divided. Both West Point and the New Jersey campus of Rutgers are only an hour’s drive away, and both schools have plenty of alumni in Gotham. I have no passionate rooting interest, but have taken the opportunity for a few days in the City and a chance to see the Stadium in a different light.

The gridiron stretches from home plate out to the center field fence; and my seat in the tier, which would normally be near the right field foul pole, today looks down at the 40 yard line. On paper Army is the decided underdog, coming in at 3-6 while Rutgers at 6-3 still hopes for at least a share of the Big East title. But despite its status, Army scores first. On their opening drive freshman fullback Larry Dixon breaks free for a 55 yard run to the Rutgers 3 yard line. While the Scarlet Knights defense stiffens, Army converts a short field goal to lead 3-0. By halftime Army has added another field goal, and Rutgers has gotten on the board with a late touchdown followed by a missed extra point. Through two quarters the game is deadlocked at 6-6.

The second half opens with Rutgers asserting its superiority. Led by quarterback Charles Dodd’s passing the visitors drive effortlessly down the field. Less than five minutes into the third quarter, Dodd finds Brandon Coleman with a 38-yard scoring strike. But Army remains tenacious, and helped by an interception of a Dodd pass, drives for a touchdown just as the final quarter begins. But the extra point is missed, leaving Rutgers with a one point lead.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the game finally turns in a matter of three plays. After a Rutgers drive is halted by another Army pick, running back Stephen Fraser takes an option pitch from Army quarterback Angel Santiago and streaks around left end. Fraser races 51 yards from the Army 48 to the Rutgers 1 yard line. Army fans erupt, believing the Black Knights have a chance to improbably take the lead. The Army cannon even fires, the battery men mistakenly thinking Fraser scored.

Instead it is the worst result of all. A tripping penalty negates the run and brings the ball all the way back to a 2nd and 15 on Army’s 43. After two incomplete passes, the Black Knights prepare to punt. All afternoon fans around me have noted how the Army punter stands barely ten yards behind center, a good three to four yards closer than his Rutgers counterpart. This time the formation proves fatal to Army’s hopes for an upset. The punt is easily blocked; Rutgers’ Jordan Thomas picks up the loose ball and runs 32 yards for a touchdown. The sudden turn of events deflates Army’s partisans in the stands. Rutgers adds another touchdown in the closing minute to lock the final score at 27-12. It is a tally that does not reflect the unexpectedly but enjoyably tight nature of the contest.

With the game over, the two teams come together on the fifty yard line. While Army has a long tradition on the gridiron, and while Rutgers has done much to improve its program in recent years, these are not the massive football factories that dominate the discussion; and all too often, the controversy, of college sports. There are few if any dreams of NFL glory dancing in the heads of the young men at midfield. As a group they walk first to the far end zone, where before the corps of Army cadets packing the Stadium’s left field bleachers they sing the Academy’s alma mater. Then they cross the field to do the same for the Rutgers theme song in front of the winning team’s student body.

A beautiful afternoon has become a pleasant evening in the Bronx. But for a bowl game scheduled for December 30th, the Stadium now prepares to sleep for the winter, as the crowd heads for the exits. The Rutgers fans leave with a hard-fought victory; while the Army faithful must content themselves with the certain knowledge of an honorable effort. As for me, the 4 train awaits.

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