The race for the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy begins when Navy takes on Air Force in Annapolis on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN), a year after a thrilling win by Navy. It is an under-the-radar rivalry.
But from some interviews with former Midshipmen, the message is clear: this rivalry is serious business.
1. It is every bit as fierce as Army-Navy, if not more so.
You know that Army-Navy is a big deal. Nobody really needs to explain one of the most storied rivalries in sports. But the matchup that Navy has with the third football service academy, Air Force, has different significance.
“From us, our era, and I think this has kinda stuck since, but we wanted to beat Air Force from a player’s perspective probably more so than Army,” J.D. Gainey, a lineman in the class of 1998, said. “The reason why I say that is that Army-Navy — that’s a natural, expected rivalry. Everybody in the country recognizes it. It’s really for the fans and it’s really for the alumni to get together.”
“One thing I know about that game was there’s a lot more trash talk in Air Force-Navy than Army-Navy,” Wyatt Middleton, a safety in the class of 2011, said.
By comparison, Army-Navy often has an in-family feel.
Air Force is relatively new blood. Army and Navy were both established before 1850. It would take another hundred years for the Air Force Academy to come around. Army and Navy have met on the gridiron in nearly every year since 1890. The rivalry has only been three-pronged since 1972.
The team with the best combined record in the annual series goes to the White House, and Navy last brought it home in 2015.
Air Force was also pretty good, and had Fisher DeBerry as head coach from 1984-2006, a stretch that included two 12-1 campaigns. Between 1984 and 2002, the Naval Academy team had two winning seasons, before coach Paul Johnson became head coach in Annapolis.
“I always felt like Air Force was the top dog when I played,” Travis Cooley, a class of 1998 linebacker, said. “They were the elite academy with a chip on the shoulder. And there was more of a rivalry for me internally against Air Force to beat them. All games we wanted to win, but I would say a bitter rivalry, vs. where the Army-Navy game is more pageantry.”
2. It can tear families apart.
Former linebacker Clint Bruce, from Navy’s class of 1997, played on those mid-’90s teams as well. Jokingly, he said his .500 mark against Air Force helps him skirt some family strife.
“I’m 2-2, so Beau Morgan and I can continue to coexist,” Bruce said. “Beau Morgan’s arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in my mind in academy football history. That’s not a slight to anybody else. I just played against him so I know what he’s like.
“He grew up with my brother-in-law and grew up with my wife, and so it was fun to have that familiarity and history with each other while we competed.”
Morgan was an incredible QB for Air Force, prolific through the air and on the ground. He rushed and passed for over 1,000 yards in two seasons, the first player to do that. He would finish 10th in Heisman Trophy voting in 1996.
3. It can be a catalyst for glory, just like the Army game.
After going 3-30 in their previous three seasons, the Midshipmen came into the 2003 game 2-2. They played Air Force in Washington, D.C., but linebacker Bobby McClarin, from the class of 2005, had a broken wrist. That day, he wore a boxing glove encased in in athletic tape on his left arm to protect himself, and he made a huge play late in the first half.
“I wore a cast around my left hand, and people talk about it as the play that kinda changed Navy football,” McClarin said. “I broke up a pass on third down, and it was Air Force was driving down to score in the first half, they woulda gone up by about seven points and on third down and I laid out and deflected a pass away with my broken hand.”
Navy would win the game, 28-25, and go on to make a bowl.
4. The nature of recruiting makes it interesting.
Talented service academy players may look like diamonds in the rough when they burst onto the scene, like Keenan Reynolds in 2015, but they are known quantities to the academies that scout them. It’s not uncommon for a Navy player to field offers from Air Force and Army.
“I tried to kinda block out what each academy kinda had to say about the other and just kinda take it from a how I felt about the places,” Reynolds said. “Two great institutions. Great program. That’s how I felt. I kinda felt like Navy was the best fit for me, was closer to home. I really didn’t allow somebody else’s opinion on one way or the other sway me it’s more about the place and how it fit me.”
A big thing in the service academy recruiting battle is what you wanted to do after school. For Reynolds, those who wished to sway him away from Navy (and it wasn’t just opposing football recruiters) would ask one question: Do you really want to be on a ship?
“That was kinda the main thing. Especially if you’re not there, you don’t understand what all the service opportunities are,” he said. “That’s what was kinda like the real big thing. It wasn’t just from other schools. It was from people in general.”
“Air Force was in a conference, and I remember going on my visit — that’s one of the main things they talked about that separated them from any other service academy, the fact that they were in a conference,” Middleton said.
Navy was an independent until 2015.
5. You’re not playing in a jet at Air Force, but altitude is still a factor.
Colorado Springs is at an altitude of over 6,000 feet. It’s a far cry from Navy’s Annapolis campus, which is literally at sea level.
“We were making sure that we didn’t mentally defeat ourselves by playing at altitude,” Gainey said. “This was the time sports nutrition was getting into the college scene.”
The seeds were sewn in preseason conditioning under former Navy coach Paul Johnson.
“My best friend was a Navy SEAL, Lane Jackson. I played linebacker next to him,” McClarin said. “His quote was: ‘I went through halfway through BUD/S to experience something like the first day of four quarters we had under Paul Johnson.’”
What’s BUD/S? Oh, only one of the most rigorous mental and physical training programs on Earth. It promises sleep deprivation, near hypothermic conditions and pushes participants to a breaking point that causes two-thirds or more to quit. Apparently Johnson’s preseason workouts, which started a 4 a.m. with a strength coach waking everyone up screaming “prepare for victory,” were BUD/S-caliber.
It left such a mark on Gainey that he had the phrase printed in his battle orders as a commanding officer.
6. To the victors go the spoils.
But sometimes, you have to wait on it, like Middleton did his junior year when a pass came near him late in a game the Midshipmen would pull out, 16-13, in overtime.
“I intercepted it,” he said. “Probably returned it 15 yards before I went out of bounds and it was over. Then a flag came down and they called roughing the passer. So Air Force got another chance, another set of downs, and that’s when they ended up trying to kick the field goal and we won that game.”
But when that win does come, you hold onto it forever. Cooley called the 1996 win over Air Force one of the biggest wins Navy had in decades.
“I always remember this, ‘cause i still have it,” Cooley said. “The quarterback chucked a Hail Mary, and I still have the football in my home office today because it bounced fairly close to me and I just kept it.”
And that win lasts forever. Middleton went 3-1 against the Falcons in his career. Does he still rub it in when he comes into contract with Air Force grads?
“All the time.”