On Saturday, Army and Navy will take the field to renew their legendary football rivalry for the 114th time. The teams are playing in Philadelphia, which is also where they faced off in 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. The players that year faced a sobering new reality: the nation was at war and they’d soon leave the football field behind for the battlefield.
In All American, author Steve Eubanks recalls that game through the eyes of two players — Army quarterback Chad Jenkins and Navy linebacker Brian Stann. Jenkins and Stann didn’t go to military academies purely to serve; these were places that offered a free, quality education and gave them the chance to do what they love — play football.
Jenkins, a stand-out high school quarterback from Ohio, tells NPR’s David Greene how he told his parents about his decision to go to the U.S. Military Academy:
“I come home, I’m like, ‘Mom, Dad, I’ve finally figured it out. I’m going to West Point.’ And, you know, my mom was quickly breaking down into tears, like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re not going into the Army.'”
Stann, a Pennsylvania native, recalls choosing the U.S. Naval Academy.
“It wasn’t one of those things where I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to go to war,'” he tells Greene. “It was one of those things where I thought, ‘Hey, a guy as serious as me, I think the military would be a good fit for me.’ But I certainly went there first to play football.”
Fast forward to 2001: Stann was a junior at the Naval Academy and Jenkins was a senior at West Point. They were just beginning the football season when Sept. 11 happened. Weeks later, Jenkins led West Point to victory against the Naval Academy.
The game had more television viewers than any other college football game that decade, Eubanks says, but it wasn’t because of the football.
He tells Greene, “The Navy wasn’t very good and the Army was having a losing season, so these were two losing football teams. But [the audience] wanted to see the men who were playing it, and that Army-Navy game more so than any other — because the people understood who they were watching, if they didn’t understand what they were watching.”
On their eagerness to join the war effort after Sept. 11
Jenkins: We were ready to go right then and there. I mean, it just lit a fire underneath you. It was such an anger of what had happened. So I think the realization and, you know, the mindset of what it was to … be at West Point … well that’s what it was for, you know. The culminating event is to go and ultimately defend our freedoms and defend our way of life and that was becoming a real possibility by the minute.
Stann: This is going to sound a little odd and I certainly don’t mean to come off egotistical, but, honestly, I was afraid it would end before I served. I did not want to be someone who went to the Naval Academy, there was a conflict and I wasn’t involved in it because I graduated late. And that’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s kind of how you have to think if you’re going to be a warrior.
On how game crowd reactions changed after Sept. 11
Stann: That year we played at Notre Dame Stadium which, you know, for anybody who’s a football fan and plays, there’s so much history there that it was a really cool experience for all of us. And for me, I kind of took it all in.
But when we came out onto the field, the entire stadium gave us a standing ovation. And it was incredible. I mean it was moving, I mean everything stopped. We kind of all started looking around; we didn’t expect it. And we played really, really hard and I think that they noticed that and obviously recognized the fact that most of the men they were watching play were going to go on to do something much larger than themselves and certainly larger than a football game.
On the locker room visitors each team had before the 2001 Army-Navy game
Jenkins: We were first visited by Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf. … What a pivotal moment. I mean it’s, you know, forever burned in my memory, just him walking through. And he said, “Gentleman, today the Army’s at war. You guys are at war with Navy. … The Army does not lose wars.”
And he gave that look to you like, You better not disappoint me, you better not let me down. And it was just so neat because it was simple but it summed it up perfectly: What our mission was, what we needed to do that day. And, you know, we were going to fight to the end to try to make it happen.
Stann: Let me address this real quick: I think this game should have an asterisk on the W for Army now, since they had the general come in and give them a motivational speech. I mean, you know, Sen. [John] McCain came in. He’s a fantastic human being; motivational speaker he is not. … George Bush comes in — the president, that’s really cool. Like I said, no motivational speech, though. We didn’t get the rev up from a general. That’s wrong.