Friday, November 03, 2006

43 and Counting | by Pete

43 years and counting. We all know the number, and announcer never neglect to note it when announcing the annual matchup. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to seeing Notre Dame face Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore this past Saturday. Yes, the Midshipmen had lost their starting quarterback last week, and yes, Notre Dame should be able to handle the smaller, albeit fesity, Navy football team.

While riding the Light Rail into Baltimore, the train was packed with both Notre Dame and Navy faithful. In fact, I even ran into the man, geared up in his blue and gold, who was kind enough to hunt down 4 extra tickets for my family who came down to the game, two of them 20 rows up on the 40 yard line, no less. He was an alum, so he was more than happy to help out a recent grad. Capt. Rusty Yeiser, 1974 Naval Academy graduate, greeted me with a smile, but lamented my choice in jersey. The ride down to the stadium was pleasant and calm, a sign of a meeting where both sides understand the other, and understand what this game means beyond the final score.

Arriving at the stadium, I was once again reminded that a Jumbotron and its accompanying sound system has as much of a place inside Notre Dame stadium as an orchestra pit. It was a shame that such a historical rivalry had to be tainted by Top 40 songs blaring in our ears and a host of advertisements schlocking their products during the game. Jeez, I've only been out of school for six months and I'm already sounding like an alum.

I'm not sure what made television coverage, but the game started with the marching out of all the Midshipmen. Group after group marched onto the field in smart unison, and each group leader (I'm not even going to attempt proper military jargon) and his hometown was announced. Small clusters of cheers could be heard as supporters cheered each of their Mids. A nice reminder that the uniformed mass below us was made up of a bunch of 18-22 year old actual adults, with families and friends.

Once all the groups filled the field from end zone to end zone, the Midshipmen turned to face the side of the field that contained the upper deck that housed the majority of the Notre Dame fans. In tight military unison, every Midshipmen at the Naval Academy spelled out I-R-I-S-H and yelled out, "GO IRISH." A tip of a mass of white caps followed, and the Notre Dame Victory March was played over the loudspeakers. The Mids then turned and did the same for Navy, with the stadium clapping along and cheering both fight songs. People can say that the SEC is real college football, but it wouldn't hurt if this experience was a bit more reciprocated. A really special moment, and refreshing to see two programs show actual respect for each other, regardless of ranking, conference affiliation, or BCS implications.

Following an always impressive flyover, we were ready for kickoff. I don't need to rehash the game, it's been hashed beyond recognition. Fast forward to halftime, and I moved over to sit next to my father, the '77 alum that bred me to be a Notre Dame fan, and the man that I've attended countless games with, including a few against Navy.

I turned to him and ask the question I usually ask Sunday morning when we're recounting the game: "So, are we happy?" His response, per usual, "Of course not. Our defense looks like a sieve, they're running all over us. These guys beat UMass by ONE, and we're letting them hang around? I don't like it one bit."

I've come to a conclusion about the Notre Dame-Navy game. When are we ever happy with how it goes? I remember watching Derrick Mayes pull in a second-half touchdown in front of us to FINALLY take the lead over Navy as a backup quarterback named Tom Krug replaced Ron Powlus after he was taken out with a broken humerus. I remember seeing Jarious Jackson complete a pass on 4th and 10 that went for 10 yards and one inch. I remember seeing a Navy player catch a last second pass, and keep running, and running, and running, finally to be pushed out of bounds at the one yard line to end the game. As a student, I remember beating Navy on a last second field goal. During the aforementioned Krug Game, Lou Holtz was leading the team into the locker room trailing at halftime, and an exasperated fan yelled out, "HELLOOO, THIS IS NAVY!" Of course it was Navy, it was an inexplicably close game, per usual. I've learned (or at least attempted to convince myself) not to ever get worked up over a Navy game. We have to be the most unhappy group of fans to beat a team 43 times in a row. So long as we keep winning, that's all that really matters. We stand to lose more beating Navy 70-3 in respect than we could possibly gain in the polls.

Anyways, the game continued as we all know. Brady looked like the best player on the field, as he should. The best part of the game? It was just FUN. Occasionally, Midshipmen-made videos lambasting Notre Dame would play over the Jumbotron, but always in good fun. Hell, one was inspired by the Beastie Boys "Sabotage" video, what's not to love? This was just a great game where both teams understand each other, and both agree to go out and play hard, and let the final score be just that. Final.

The game ended without much fanfare, and the fans strolled out of the stadium after cheering for both teams. And of course, Charlie led Notre Dame over to join Navy in their alma mater. He may curse, but college football stands to learn a lot from Charlie. No planted flags or swinging helmets here.

All in all, an incredibly pleasant day out to a game. As I walked back to pick up the Light Rail back, a Navy fan walked around saying, "It's alright, Mids. Next year's our year, we'll get them." Even though 43 straight wins makes for a bit of a lopsided rivalry, every game continues to carry that energy, that something special happens despite its now happenstance outcome. I don't know if I'll ever live to see Navy finally beat Notre Dame, but if I do, I'll stand up and cheer. They'll certainly have earned it, in more ways than one.

Oh, and thanks, Rusty!