They will play the biggest college football games starting on New Year's Eve when the playoff begins, and we will begin to find out if anybody is good enough to beat Alabama this season. And maybe there will be a moment in the playoff, or in the other big bowl games, that will remind us why we love the sport, and why we all love sports, better than the one we got on Saturday in Baltimore between Army and Navy, on the Saturday afternoon when Army finally beat Navy, after losing this game 14 times in a row.
This was a day and a game to remind us why we care about these games the way we do, whether you were rooting for Navy, or whether you were rooting for Army the way I always do just because my Pops was once a bombardier in the Army Air Force in 1944, when he was the same age as these players.
Army and Navy played this game in Baltimore, both teams, all day, as if they were the ones fighting for the title. And when it was over, and Army had taken the ball down the field one last time and Ahmad Bradshaw, their quarterback, had scored the touchdown that would ultimately win the game, all you saw on your television screen was the happiest pictures you will ever see in your life of what is known in this country as the long gray line, the one Army coach Jeff Monken talked about on the field in his first postgame interview, as his players and the cadets in their long coats, spilling onto the field, were going a little bit mad in Baltimore. Wasn't just sports you were seeing with these pictures. It was America.
It was 14-0 for Army at halftime, and so you knew they were in this game, and so you knew they had a chance. But then it was 14-10 and then Navy's backup quarterback, Zach Abey, made a wonderful, long run, and it was 17-14, and you started to think that this would be another heartbreak game for Army, which hadn't won this game since 2001, and lost last year by the same score it won on Saturday, 21-17.
But when the Cadets needed to take the ball down the field, they did. They sure did. Bradshaw made a big throw to start the long drive and then he finished it by keeping the ball, and Army was finally going to beat Navy. And the seniors who had never beaten Navy were finally going to win the day.
The other day, Army linebacker Andrew King wrote a piece for The Players Tribune about this game that was really a tribute to a defensive teammate, Brandon Jackson, he'd lost and Army had lost in a traffic accident in Croton, N.Y., in September. The headline on the piece is "For Our Brother." King is an Army linebacker and near the end of his piece, this is what he wrote about Army vs Navy:
"Beating Navy is such a big deal here. During the season, we have to take games one at a time: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3 … but during the off-season, it's "Beat Navy!" on every breakdown. For plebes, it's almost always acceptable to greet upperclassmen with "Beat Navy, sir!" or "Beat Navy, ma'am!" There's a lot of stuff going on here all the time -- academics, intramurals, drill, athletics, training. Part of what West Point teaches you is how to prioritize and focus when you have a million different things going on. But beating Navy is the one constant for everybody.
"When I got here, Army had lost to Navy 11 times in a row. So many classes have graduated without ever experiencing a win over Navy. We can't control the past. We have different players every year, and different leaders, too. I feel like this year we have great guys -- the right guys -- who give us a chance to win every single week. This game is different from every other game we play, but it's also the same."
But there is something that is always different about Army-Navy, which really has the stage to itself on this Saturday in December, and wherever the game is played. There is always something fine and beautiful about the game, and the young guys playing it, and it is always about the crowd, especially all the men and women, young and old, in uniform, all the way to the early evening, when the anthems of both schools, "Navy Blue and Gold" and the Army alma mater, are sung and the Navy in the place and the Army in the place stand at attention.
Four years ago, Trent Steelman, the Army quarterback, looked as if he had his team on the verge of beating Navy, and then he fumbled a handoff and Navy recovered and Army lost again, and there were all these images of Steelman crying on the field. CBS' Gary Danielson said during the telecast on Saturday that it was as iconic and memorable moment as he had ever seen calling college football. Because the game is different, and always will be different. Because they always do seem to be fighting for a title only they truly understand.
So the winning drive, which would take 80 yards and 12 plays, started with Bradshaw throwing to Edgar Poe -- in Baltimore, of course -- for 29 yards, and ended with Bradshaw, who was briefly thought to be on his way out of the program in the summer, taking the ball across the goal line himself. There were still six minutes left. Plenty of time for Navy to do it to Army again.
But then they blitzed Abey from everywhere and put him down on first down and stopped Navy on third down and Navy ended up punting. And never got the ball back in Baltimore. At the end, Bradshaw took one knee and then another and then it was over, and then all you could see was gray in Baltimore.
"They play for the love of the game and the spirit of their schools, and their services," Monken had said on ESPN before this game.
Monken also talked about how the key for his players was not to let emotion get the best of them, but how could they not? This was Army-Navy. So much changes in college football. So much has changed in the past few years because of the new playoff system, and four teams getting to play for the championship sport in the end. But Army-Navy is different.
Verne Lundquist, a giant of broadcasting calling his last college football game on this day and going out with a beauty, said at one point that there were more people on the field than in the stands. There were. All that gray, filling your screen and maybe your heart. Long gray line in Baltimore. Army 21, Navy 17. Yeah. You wanted to stand at attention for that.