Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Mini Review: “A Civil War” by John Feinstein

Jim Savard is a regular reader of this Blog, and has contributed many insightful ideas and comments in the past. Jim is a member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s legendary class of 1965 – a class that included Roger Staubach. In posting a comment about my recent review of “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” Jim suggested that I read “A Civil War” by John Feinstein. I was glad that he reminded me of this book. I have, in fact, already read the book and enjoyed it immensely, but I had read it before I began writing this Blog, so I have not heretofore mentioned the book in this space.

Long before the concept of “embedded reporters” became accepted practice, John Feinstein “embedded” himself for the entire 1995 football season with the Army and Navy teams in order to understand and ultimately to write about their storied rivalry. The annual Army-Navy Game has stood for over 100 years as one of the signal events of each sports season – even in those years when the teams have not been nationally ranked.

In this book, Feinstein does an admirable job of projecting the unique dynamics that undergird and envelop this fierce rivalry between “beloved enemies.” If you awaken any West Point graduate – no matter how many years removed from his days as a cadet – one of the first phrases he will utter as he regains consciousness will be: “Go Army – Beat Navy!” Ditto for any superannuated former midshipman: “Go Navy – Beat Army.” The phrases are painted on the roofs and walls of many of buildings on each campus, and are permanently etched into the psyche of everyone who has ever put on the uniform of cadet or midshipman. And yet, over-arching this fiercely competitive spirit is an ultimate grudging respect for one another that transcends sport and scoreboard.

In “A Civil War,” the author takes us behind the scenes and the drama of the annual December game to the long history behind this rivalry. He allows us to observe the hard work that is required to field two teams that ultimately face off against one another in each year’s renewal of this unique contest. Feinstein conveys equal admiration for the players on both teams. By the end of the book, I felt like I had come to know Joel Davis, Andrew Thompson, Jim Canelupe, Garrett Smith and their supporting casts.

Perhaps I felt like I had come to know them because they resembled – in personal history and character – many of the players I have come to know personally who have stood on that field and carried forward that hoary tradition. I was privileged to attend to Army-Navy game in Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in December of 2001 as a guest of the Army football team. Throughout that season, I had come to know about a dozen members of that team, most of whom were members of West Point’s Class of 2002. As their guest, I had amazing seats in the midst of the Corps of Cadets – 40-yard line and 11 rows from the field. I was close enough to President Bush to watch him devour a hot dog during a lull in the action on the field!

The memories and images of that special day are still fresh. This was the first renewal of the Army-Navy rivalry since the attacks of Sept. 11, and patriotism was palpable in the air - on the field and in the stands - in a way that I had never before experienced in my lifetime. The “March On” of both the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen was awe-inspiring. The flyover of Army and Navy aircraft was spine-tingling. The halftime speech by General Norman Schwarzkopf held everyone in the crowd in rapt attention. The game itself produced a rare Army victory. The traditional post-game singing of the schools’ Alma Maters was a deeply moving play in two acts.

David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel captured the spirit of the day perfectly in this article:

In the intervening four years, many of the young men who fought one another on the gridiron that day have joined forces to fight common enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq. I remain in contact wiht several of them.

Since 2001, I have not had an opportunity to return to view another Army-Navy game, but it is high on my list of things to do in 2006. Reading “A Civil War” will allow you to experience vicariously this unique American sports tradition. It may even inspire you to join me on December 2, 2006 in Philadelphia.

And, as is the case each year, no matter what the final score of the football game, when these two teams face off against one another, America is the winner!

Thanks, Jim


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