Football terms are often used to make the sport analogous to war, even though the metaphor cheapens the true meaning of courage and suffering in a military conflict.
The late comic George Carlin had a famous bit about war references in football, but there is nothing funny about the commitment of the players on the United States Military Academy’s football team.
I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.— Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff in World War II
Those Army players wear uniforms off the field, too, and when they graduate from West Point, they’ll serve at least five years in our nation’s armed forces knowing that their lives could be put at risk for our nation.
So the cadets understand that someday they could face much greater stakes than they’ll encounter Saturday when they play Ohio State in football for the first time.
Yet don’t think for a moment that Army (2-0) is content to come into Ohio Stadium as cannon fodder, pardon the pun. The Black Knights are aiming for an upset, no matter that oddsmakers make then 30-point underdogs in their matchup against the No. 8 Buckeyes (1-1).
While football games pale in seriousness to warfare, there is tremendous pride in an Army program that not only is bound by the academy’s honor code, but also is tied to a bygone time when no one held the line like The Long Gray Line.
“When you’re talking college football, there are certain names that jump off the page,” Army executive athletic director Bob Beretta said. “There are names like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Notre Dame.
“But when you’re talking pure history and think back to the golden era of college football — back in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, when it was arguably the most popular sport in the country — I think Army stands atop that list first and foremost.”
Army’s golden era produced three national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners, and a national appeal — even Hollywood glorified academy football in the movie “The Spirit of West Point” — at a time when the NFL hadn’t established prominence.
At the center was Earl “Red” Blaik, who grew up in Dayton before becoming an All-America player at West Point in 1919.
Army hired Blaik away from Dartmouth in 1941, and the U.S. entered World War II in December of that year. The symbolic importance of football played by the academy soon spread nationwide from its campus near the Hudson River, about 60 miles north of New York.
“It was kind of magical,” said Beretta, in his 28th year in West Point’s athletic department. “You look back at those times and you can see how this Army team captivated the imagination of the country.
“The nation looked to the Army football team as kind of a bell cow, kind of a standard. They rode Army’s success in college football in those years to parallel the success of our Army and our military.”
World War II prompted some schools to stop playing football. Many players headed overseas to fight Nazi Germany or Japan. Some top players went to West Point because wartime transfer rules allowed them to play right away at service academies.
With academy enrollment doubled in size, Blaik put together a super team, led by the duo of fullback Doc Blanchard (“Mr. Inside”) and halfback Glenn Davis (“Mr. Outside”). Both became Heisman winners and three-time All-Americans, and led Army to a 27-0-1 record from 1944 to ’46.
Undefeated Army finished atop The Associated Press poll, ahead of No. 2 Ohio State, in 1944, but it was the ’45 team that Blaik, Blanchard and Davis each always said was the best of the three West Point powerhouses.
The ’45 season began four weeks after the signing of the treaty that ended World War II. Army added to the nation’s high spirit by going 9-0 — including wins in New York by scores of 48-0 over No. 2 Notre Dame and 28-7 over No. 9 Michigan — for a second straight year. Blanchard won the Heisman.
A year later, Army was No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 2 when they met at Yankee Stadium in early November for what was dubbed the “Game of the Century.” There were more than 1 million ticket requests. A crowd of 75,000 saw the top two teams play to a 0-0 tie.
Notre Dame finished No. 1 in the final AP poll at the end of that ’46 season, but Army (second according to AP voters) took first in other polls and so claimed a share of a third consecutive national championship. This time, Davis won the Heisman.
Scorn and scandal followed five years later. On Aug. 3, 1951, President Harry Truman signed an order approving the dismissals of 90 cadets, including 37 football players, from the academy for sharing test answers. Among those dismissed was quarterback Bob Blaik, the coach’s son.
At the behest of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a former manager for the Army football team, Red Blaik refused to resign despite a national outcry over the cheating scandal. He coached through 1958, a season that restored the program’s glory.
Army went 8-0-1 in 1958, finished No. 3 in the final AP poll, and Pete Dawkins became the program’s third Heisman winner. He was team captain, Cadet First Captain (the academy’s highest ranking cadet), class president and ranked in the top 5 percent of his class academically.
Once again, pride radiated from The Plain, where Michie Stadium on campus provides a breathtaking view of the Hudson River Valley.
The Black Knights no longer win as they once did under Blaik, whose 121-32-10 record included six undefeated seasons and eight top-10 teams in his 18-year Hall of Fame career. Blaik died in 1989, Davis in 2005 and Blanchard in 2009.
Army’s last great season was a 10-2 mark in 1996. The Black Knights went 64-172 with only two winning records in the subsequent 20 seasons, including a 0-13 record in 2003.
However, coach Jeff Monken has Army improved in his fourth season. Last year, the Black Knights went 8-5 and won the Heart of Dallas Bowl. More important, they beat Navy 21-17 in their annual grudge game for the first time since 2001.
At game’s end, the Cadets stormed the field as cannon fired. It seemed like days of yore.
“We were able to deliver something the Corps so desperately wanted, something that hadn’t been experienced in 15 years,” Beretta said. “The raw emotion that poured out of the stands will always be one of my favorite moments.”
And Army will always be woven in the fabric of college football.
After all, the Black Knights once played as well as anyone, and their commitment to duty, honor, country always puts the sport in proper perspective better than everyone.
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