PHILADELPHIA -- Just running onto the field for the Army-Navy game is a privilege, an honor and an accomplishment.
John Howell understands the accomplishment.
Howell is Navy's slotback and team captain. Two years ago, he caught the longest pass in Army-Navy history, a 77-yarder from Ricky Dobbs in a 31-17 Navy win. He suffered a gruesome ACL tear against San Diego State in September. He was unable to play in his final Army-Navy game on Saturday, but he dressed. He bore the Marine Corps flag and led the Midshipmen onto the field, jogging a few paces behind the other flag bearers as healthy teammates raced past him.
Not that Howell, the son of a Navy Seal with a sister in the Marine Corps, lets lost opportunities get the better of him. "Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to play football. But that's not going to break me down from who I am," Howell said in November. "There's no need to be down and depressed, because that can spread to some of the guys."
With Howell sidelined, teammates like fullback Noah Copeland and receiver Shawn Lynch stepped up all season long. They stepped up again in Saturday's 17-13 come-from-behind win over Army, Navy's 11th straight victory in the historic series.
Navy runs a "flexbone" option offense. Slotbacks like Howell and Gee Gee Greene typically motion before the snap to take option pitches from quarterback Keenan Reynolds, while Copeland serves as a battering ram to keep defenses honest. But the slotbacks line up at wide receiver and spread the field. The spread threat gives the Middies a big-play capability other run-heavy teams cannot match.
When dives and pitches failed to move the ball against Army in the first quarter, Navy adapted, with Reynolds rolling right to find Lynch on a 19-yard corner route, then hitting receiver Matt Aiken on a "smoke" screen for a first down on third-and-5. With the outside passing threat established, the middle of the field softened, and Copeland scored the game's first touchdown on a 12-yard dive.
But Navy missed Howell for much of the game. Their offense became too reliant on Copeland as an inside-outside threat. Army spread its defense out to allow the fullback dive and dared the Midshipmen to move the ball at four yards a pop. Greene dropped a sure touchdown pass before halftime, the kind Howell might have caught. Copeland dropped a third down pass in the fourth quarter.
Only in the final minutes did the flexibility of the Navy offense become too much for Army to handle. Reynolds found Brandon Turner up the right sideline for a 49-yard bomb with 5:18 to play, then switched back into option mode for an eight-yard touchdown run.
Reynolds, Turner and Copeland were Navy's biggest stars, but Howell provided an extra spark of inspiration. "He's one of our leaders. Our guys love John Howell. When we got hurt, we lost one of our brothers," coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game. "So for him to be able to work and come back and go into that game … we are super, super happy for John Howell."
To grasp what kind of accomplishment it is to run onto the field for an Army-Navy game, start with the stringent requirements necessary to enter a service academy, then layer on top of them the athletic talent needed to play Division I football. It takes extraordinary skill, drive and commitment for a young person to meet one or the other of those standards. Over 150 young men just like him ran onto Lincoln financial field on Saturday, including one young man whose leg was too damaged to do anything else.
Just running onto the field for the Army-Navy game is a privilege, an honor and an accomplishment.
Trent Steelman understands the honor. Steelman is Army's senior quarterback. He holds a host of Army records. He has led Army to a bowl game. He belongs on any list of great Army players of the last two decades.
But Steelman has never beaten Navy, and he knew entering Saturday's game how much that matters. "Quite honestly, I don't feel like I've accomplished anything if I walk away from here without a win over Navy,'' Steelman said last week.
Steelman runs a T-formation offense. Rub your eyes, and you would think it is 1944, Army's last undefeated season, the season that inspired Saturday's Black Knights uniforms (complete with a Battle of the Bulge map stenciled into the letters and trim). In the Army system, Steelman pivots and hands off or pitches to running backs Raymond Maples, Larry Dixon and Malcolm Brown. Or, Steelman fakes the handoff and runs off tackle himself. Passes are rare -- Steelman threw just 85 all season -- and fourth-and-7 is a rushing down, which demonstrates the limits of a modern offense based on World War II principles.
But when the T-formation offense works, it's an infantry charge that inspires both awe and nostalgia. After a choppy, fumble-marred start, Steelman engineered a brilliant second quarter drive, rushing for 20 yards, executing a perfect option pitch to Brown for 14 more, and finally keeping the ball for an 11-yard touchdown and another academy record (most single-season rushing touchdowns at any position, with 17). When Army recovered a fumble at the Navy 37-yard line, Steelman and Maples played keep-away, combining for 34 rushing yards to set up a field goal to give Army a 13-10 lead while Navy lost a defensive guessing game. He finished with 96 rushing yards, his pitches and ball-fakes helping Maples gain 156 more. Steelman was also 4-of-5 passing, including two sharp passes on Army's fateful final drive, which ended with a fumble on Navy's 12-yard line in the final minute.
Steelman cried during the singing of the alma mater. He was consoled by military officers as he left the field. "I was pretty torn up," he admitted after the game.
He may have felt like he accomplished nothing. Few young people in America have more to be proud of. "We should all be proud, as Americans, that guy is going to protect our country" Niumatalolo said of Army's quarterback after the game.
To grasp what an honor it is to run onto the field for an Army-Navy game, in more than just an old war movie sense, think of the moments set aside during a typical football game to honor the armed forces: the color guard, the flyover, the brief acknowledgements during timeouts, the moments of silence. In those fleeting moments, fidgety kids and wobbly drunks, bored spouses and distracted guys tracking fantasy stats on smartphones, refocus on something grander, more important, less trivial and ephemeral than the thrills of the moment.
The Army-Navy game is nothing but those moments. There is no disconnection between the young men who ran onto the field on Saturday and the people we came to honor. They are one and the same.
Just running onto the field for the Army-Navy game is a privilege, an honor and an accomplishment.
The family, friends and teammates of Rafi Montalvo understand the privilege. Montalvo was Navy's freshman third string quarterback before an auto accident on Thanksgiving night. He is now lies in a medically induced coma in a Miami hospital. "It puts a lot of things in perspective," Niumatalolo said last week. "As big as this game is, it's just a football game. So we're all praying for Rafi."
The Army-Navy game never lacks perspective. Perspective can be found in every uniform, every moment of patriotism, every symbolic patch and sticker on the jerseys and helmets. Army players wore patches representing historic and contemporary regiments and companies; kicker Eric Osteen, who kicked two field goals for Army but missed a third, wore the patch of the 7th infantry; Steelman wore the Black Lion of the 28th infantry in honor of Dan Holleder, an All-American who died in combat in Vietnam. Navy players also wore patches, Howell to honor J.P. Blecksmith, a former Navy player who was killed in action in Iraq on Veterans Day 2004.
Every Navy player wore a sticker in support of Montalvo. From the Battle of the Bulge through Vietnam, the Gulf War and a non-combat accident on Thanksgiving night, Army-Navy provided its usual surplus of perspective about life, honor, sacrifice and death.
Sometimes, perspective overwhelms the game, especially now that big-time FBS football has almost completely outgrown the service academies. The 113th Army-Navy game was not a game of catch during a parade. It was competitive, high-level football. Stars emerged: Reynolds, the freshman quarterback with exceptional upside; Army linebacker Nate Combs, who tipped a pass near the Navy end zone and forced a fumble; Navy safety Kwazel Bertrand, whose shoelace tackle of Chevaughn Lawrence saved a touchdown on the final drive.
The stands were filled with Cadets and Midshipmen in uniform, but there were also fun, zany elements: tee-shirt cannons, beachballs, Joe Biden. The game was close, sharp and competitive. Army-Navy is college football in America, a celebration of youth and possibility as much of patriotism. "If you are just a fan of college football: what an awesome game," Niumatalolo said.
Which was all the more reason to remember Montalvo. News of the death of Dallas Cowboys defender Jerry Brown Jr., and the arrest for vehicular manslaughter of teammate Josh Brent, broke during the Army-Navy game. Youth and life themselves are privileges, one servicemen and women learn not to take for granted. Niumatalolo said he had not been in touch with the Montalvo family on Saturday. "We can only pray for him and hope he gets better."
And after the prayers, Navy will take a break before preparing for Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. A big victory like this requires perspective of its own. "We're gonna enjoy this one," Niumatalolo said.
To grasp what a privilege it is to run onto the field in an Army-Navy game, wander the streets of Center City Philadelphia on Saturday morning before kickoff. The city, already decked out in Christmas decorations, also grows crowded with dress blues and camouflage, blue-and-gold scarves and black-and-gold wool caps. Retired officers window shop on Walnut Street and snap pictures in Love Park. Little boys clutch Black Knights footballs on the Broad Street Subway. America's most jaded sports city is suddenly awash in love for all that is great about football: the sportsmanship, human achievement, tradition and connection to some of our highest ideals.
The young men who ran onto Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday -- and the critically-ill teammate who could only be there in spirit -- captured the imagination of a city and a nation on Saturday. It was also a privilege to watch them.