By Thomas Brading, Army News ServiceDecember 14, 2019
PHILADELPHIA -- As the stadium emptied following the 120th Army-Navy game, its conclusion marked the last time many of the West Point players would wear their college football uniform. But it also brought them one step closer in their Army journey.
With his cheeks smeared with eye-block grease, senior linebacker Cole Christiansen spoke with media about the last time he and fellow seniors would play again.
Christiansen, a soon-to-be field artillery officer from Suffolk, Virginia, was fresh from his team's 31-7 loss to rival Navy. His 1st Cavalry Division-inspired uniform was visibly damp and coated in grass stains.
"We've learned more as leaders this year than we have in all the past three," he said, "and we're both grateful for that and I'm proud of all my brothers in class of 2020."
Nearly 70,000 energetic gridiron fans packed into the sold-out Lincoln Financial Field here to experience the latest edition of one of the most famous rivalries in sports.
On Saturday morning, a blanket of fog fell over Philly. The grey skies and wet weather didn't hamper the game's traditions and pageantry, as cadets and midshipmen performed synchronized marches onto the field before the game and a "prisoner exchange" where select students walked mid-field before kickoff and reunited with their home academy.
Although the Army showed up in Philly on a three-year win streak, the Midshipmen entered the game as heavy favorites. That said, if the Army could have pulled off an upset, the victory would mark their longest win streak since taking five straight from 1992 to 1996.
Following the invocation and national anthem, President Donald Trump strode onto the field to supervise the ceremonial coin toss, where he was greeted to a round of applause by the crowd. Before the game, Trump visited both teams' locker rooms with other military leaders.
The legendary quarrel dates back 120 years, and is fueled on more than bragging rights; it's meant to bring honor to the winning school, said Benjamin Vosta, a West Point senior who grew up less than an hour away from the school.
For Vosta and many other cadets and alumni, the game, also called "America's Game," is more than a game -- it's an event. Unlike many inter-state college rivalries, he said, the legendary inter-service game is brewed on by West Point cadets year round, and he imagines, the same sentiment is shared by the midshipmen.
In Vosta's case, cheering for the black-and-gold was something he was born into.
"The Army-Navy game has always been a part of my life," he said.
Long before he was a West Point cadet, Vosta knew what "Go Army, Beat Navy" meant. It was a battle cry first chanted by his Uncle Bob, a 1979 West Point graduate, and then later by his parents who have attended several games.
"My whole life I looked up to the institution and the people who went there," Vosta said. "This is an opportunity to serve my country and get a world-class education."
Now his final year as a cadet, Vosta has kept the family tradition alive and well, he said. The future armor officer has attended every game as a cadet, and win or lose, he's enjoyed every moment.
Vosta wasn't alone. Family tradition brought many cadets to the game. Like Cadet Audrey Hamilton, a class of 2021 math major, who has been in the Army's orbit for decades. The daughter of two military officers, Hamilton and her brother are both cadets at West Point, and she's attended seven other Army-Navy matchups.
"I'm here to see the Army beat the hell out of the Navy," Hamilton said in jest, as she laughed with a few cadets in the stands.
One of her classmates, Cadet Caleb Johnson, a West Point senior, shared Hamilton's passion.
"It's the atmosphere here, it's just fun," Johnson said. "It's us against our brothers and sisters from our sister college. We all get together, we compete and we all see who's better in this competitive atmosphere."
For many of the cadets, like Vosta and Johnson, Saturday's game will be the last one they will be a part of. All the more reason to cheer at an ear-splitting volume. However, for the plebes -- or freshmen cadets -- it's only the beginning of their Army-Navy journey.
Like Cadet Christopher Krause, a Lafayette, Louisiana, native, currently in his plebe year, who admitted before kickoff, "This is unlike any football game I've been to and it hasn't even started!"
Other young cadets who sat near Krause agreed with him. For Cadet Will Henry, another plebe-year student, attending the game was the culmination of decades-long dream.
"I've always wanted to be here," he said. "It's even greater to be here as a West Point cadet."
Early on, it was the Black Knights bringing the fight to their academy counterparts, going 78 yards in 18 plays to score a touchdown. At the half, the Midshipmen came back to lead 14-7.
Although the Army started on the right foot, it was Navy's quarterback, Malcolm Perry, who turned the heat up on the Black Knights. First, Perry launched a 55-yard touchdown, followed by a second just before halftime. But the Black Knights still fought on.
"The chief of staff of the Army says 'winning matters,'" Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston said during the game. "It's about competition. You have to get on the field. Sometimes people don't want to play because they're afraid that they're not going to win.
"The first battle, to me, is getting on the field. Competition is kind of in our DNA. You want to test yourself, you want to be the best that you can be."
As the bout waged on, the athletes -- although destined to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the battlefield -- went to war against each other. After three quarters, the Navy continued to hold off the Black Knights.
In the end, the Navy beat their sister academy to the north, and that win brings the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy back to Annapolis.
Per tradition, after the game, the teams came together for the schools' alma mater songs. First, they sung the losing team's song. Afterward, the players went to the Navy student section and sung their alma mater. The practice is a sign of respect among the services.
"I'm really looking forward to the next year because I know that the younger guys below us are exceptional," Christiansen said. "They are equally as capable of being a captain like us and they're going to get this thing going back right direction."
Although it wasn't the outcome they hoped for, the players and Army leaders shared a similar optimism.
"This is Army versus Navy," Grinston said. "This is it right here. 364 days out of the year we're going to fight together, we're going to ride together, we love each other. Then this one day, when everybody gets behind their services. That's why it's America's Game."