Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 11, 2016

The Black Knights Make Their Moon Shot

It was a hot September day in Houston more than half a century ago. Sixteen months earlier, in the wake of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to orbit the earth, President John F. Kennedy had gone before Congress in May 1961 to announce a bold plan to jump-start the American space program, which clearly lagged far behind that of the Soviet Union. Kennedy proposed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Now in the autumn of 1962 the President was in Texas to observe the construction of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center).

While most Americans supported the space program, Kennedy’s job was to convince both Congress and taxpayers to commit to the massive increase in funding for NASA that would be required to achieve his audacious plan. Speaking to 35,000 people in the football stadium at Rice University, he compared the challenge of safely navigating a human being through the vacuum of space to Earth’s nearest neighbor and back with other daunting endeavors.

In the middle of his eighteen minute remarks, Kennedy said, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech comes to mind every year on the final Saturday of college football’s regular season. For that is the day, after conference championships have been settled and before fans are inundated with the yearly tidal wave of bowl games, that the world of college football focuses on a single game – Army versus Navy. Yet for the better part of two decades the question for fans of the Black Knights from West Point has been just like the one Kennedy rhetorically asked about another gridiron mismatch long ago, why does Army play Navy?

Much like unheralded Rice against mighty Texas, not because the cadets had any hope of winning, based on recent results. Coming into this weekend’s contest at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore the Navy Midshipmen had won fourteen years in a row and seventeen times in the last nineteen renewals of the old rivalry. Not only was that streak the longest period of dominance by either team in a competition that dates to 1890, most of the games were not close. Navy’s seventeen wins were by an average of nearly three touchdowns. Seven times Army’s score failed to reach double digits. In contrast the two lonely Army wins over that nineteen year period, in 1998 and 2001, were by an average of less than a touchdown.

No matter the results, the two teams play in part because they always have. The Army-Navy game isn’t the oldest rivalry in college football. The first contest came several years after first Princeton and Yale, then Harvard and Yale, and even Lehigh and Lafayette began their annual football battles. That initial battle was played on the West Point campus and won by visiting Navy 24-0 in late November 1890. The following year Army returned the favor at Annapolis.

But only the first four matchups, and two games during World War II have been played at either academy. All of the others have been at neutral sites. Those have ranged from once at both the Rose Bowl and Chicago’s Soldier Field to several games each at the old Polo Grounds and the original Yankee Stadium. Baltimore also has hosted a few times, including this year, though the most frequent location has been Philadelphia, in large part because it is situated roughly equidistant from West Point and the Naval Academy.

A neutral site has long been required because neither school’s football stadium can accommodate the large crowd that the Army-Navy game attracts. It is a rivalry about which fans who have never served in the military are often passionate. Perhaps it’s because a parent was in the service, or perhaps it’s because the game evokes fundamental national values and reminds fans of a time when college football was something other than the commercial behemoth that major programs have become.

While the occasional player from both schools has gone on to the NFL, most notably Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, who had a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys, the post-graduation service obligation that every player on both squads faces means that virtually every player on the field is playing for the love of the game, not in hopes of signing a fat professional contract.

So the game endures, a reminder of the beauty of amateur athletics and the pull of patriotism, set between the championship games of Power Five Conferences and the cash cows of the bowl season still to come. In the days when JFK was urging Americans to take on great challenges he and other Presidents of that time would attend the game. This Saturday the President-Elect became the first of his status to do so, renewing the old tradition of splitting halves between both sides of the field in a display of rooting neutrality.

When the final gun sounded early Saturday evening, fans were reminded of another reason why the game is still played. Just one week earlier Navy lost both its starting quarterback and running back in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Those losses clearly cost the Midshipmen, especially in the early going. In the first half Army scored 14 unanswered points, while the Navy offense could manage just thirteen plays from scrimmage and committed three turnovers.

Favored Navy rallied in the second half when Army had its own trouble holding on to the ball, and the Midshipmen went ahead 17-14 early in the final quarter. That’s when Army’s junior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, born decades after Kennedy warned that overcoming great challenges is hard, led his team on a 12-play 80-yard drive for what proved to be the winning touchdown. At the Navy 11-yard line sophomore running back Andy Davidson converted a fourth and inches, and two plays later Bradshaw ran in from nine yards out. With the 21-17 win Army stopped the record losing streak in this game, and also ensured just its second winning season since Navy’s recent period of dominance began. It turns out that as sure as men have walked on the moon, Army really can beat Navy.


  1. A nicely woven tapestry of history and sportsmanship, Mike.

    • Thanks Allan, and thanks so much for sharing the Patti Smith Nobel video.


      Michael Cornelius

      • Thank you, Mike.

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