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The Pride and Dream

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Beyond the Empire: Army-Navy

NCAA Football: Army vs Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine waiting this long. Imagine all the way back to 9/11. Imagine that wait. Imagine the long, twisting, arduous journey of America in this new century. One war. Then another. A hurricane. A global economic meltdown. Four Presidential elections. Five coaches.

Still we waited.

We waited in the cold stands. We waited living rooms. We waited in huddled groups at alumni societies. We waited in plywood shacks at strange hours of the night in far off places.

We waited fifteen years for this.

The moment I emerged from the tunnel into Section 235, I believed. I believed the wait would be over. The flight of Apaches thundered overhead, eight turbines and sixteen rotors rattling the purple seats. The eyes of Old Grads traced their sun-soaked arc over the stadium. This was our game. We had no more wait in us.

When Army went up by seven...and then by fourteen...I believed. When Navy closed the gap to four...I believed.

Then Navy took the lead. That is when I truly believed. For the first time in a decade and a half, my stomach didn’t drop. My heart didn’t sink.

The guy next to me—a 1995 grad—muttered “well, they f***ing blew it again.”

I slugged back my cup of Jameson. “Nope.”

Then I led a round of Sons of Slum and Gravy.

For the first time in ages, I believed it. I believed that Army would summon the collective rage of thousands—those souls across space and time that MacArthur hailed as “ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray” over a half-century ago. I believed the Army team would rally around the memory of Brandon Jackson, a young man gone before his time. His death after the second win of the season seemed to get lost in the shuffle of the college football machine, but looms large at West Point. I believed there was a fight in this team that simply would not be denied. Before the game they hoisted a sign with Jackson’s favorite saying, “Scared money don’t make no money.”

I believed they were no longer scared. I believed they would not make us wait any longer.

The Army Team—the Pride and Dream of Ev’ry Heart In Gray—delivered. Student body left. Student body right. Fullback dive. Quick pitches. Bruising and battering and winning the fight at the point of contact. Winning the way the old greats won. Woody swore that the way to beat any team was to pound them and pound them and pound them until they quit. To that end, there’s no magic to this Army offense. It’s a linebacker-turned-fullback smashing straight into the face of the enemy over and over and over until they toss in a right hook or two.

When Army seized the lead, I knew we had it. The Long Gray Line would not be denied.

I’ve never rushed a field in my life before last night. I’m a rule follower, mostly. But to be there, surrounded by the Corps, hugging generals, and relishing the exorcism of 15 years of December misery...well, some rules demand to be ignored. I lifted a defensive back up right off the ground. He was too young to really grasp why some middle-aged man was crying and hugging him and running around the field like a lunatic. He’ll know someday, when the trials and triumphs of that place are but a gilded memory.

Until then, he just needs to keep beating Navy.