On the morning of November 9th, 2002, I was standing at midfield of what was then called Ravens Stadium, talking to Ed Malinowski a couple of hours before kickoff of Navy’s annual game against Notre Dame.
Malinowski had been Navy’s quarterback a year earlier and had been the team’s captain. On the day of the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia the previous December, Malinowski had been asked to make the call on the coin flip—the coin being flipped by then-President George W. Bush. This was three months after 9-11. The security in the stadium was airtight. The atmosphere as the president walked to midfield to meet the captains was electric.
As the coin went up into the air, Malinowski could be clearly heard by all 70,000 people in the stadium saying, “HEADS-SIR!”
It was said in a tone that everyone instantly recognized as meaning, “Bad guys, we’re coming to get you.”
After the game, my friend and colleague, Dave Kindred, would write about Malinowski, who was going to become a marine when he graduated the following spring and made it clear to Dave when he spoke to him that if he was asked to personally chase down Osama Bin Laden, he would willingly take on the task.
The last line in Dave’s column was direct: “Osama better find a bigger cave.”
His point? If our country was in the hands of guys like Malinowski, we were going to be just fine.
In his crisp marine uniform, Malinowski, who was generously listed as 5-foot-10 during his playing days, cut an imposing figure standing at midfield. He was spending the fall at the academy as a TAD-Temporary Assigned Duty officer, before learning exactly where the marines were going to send him.
He looked up at the empty stands, which he knew would be filled with far more Notre Dame fans than Navy fans by the time the game began at noon, and shook his head.
“A lot of the seniors playing for Notre Dame today will be playing in places like this on Sundays next year. Most of our seniors will be overseas someplace fighting for their lives.” He could have added: “me too,” but didn’t.
Notre Dame came into the game, 8-1. Navy, in the first season of the remarkable rebuild done by Coach Paul Johnson, was 1-8. And yet, Navy led for much of the afternoon before the Irish rallied in the fourth quarter to win, 30-23.
I think about that morning and Malinowski’s comment every year when Navy plays Notre Dame. I will be thinking about it again on Saturday when Army plays at Ohio State and Air Force plays at Michigan. Malinowski’s words apply to these games the same way they apply to Navy-Notre Dame.
Games like this are played because of money. Every year, Notre Dame and Navy people drop all sorts of flowery words about the tradition of the game and how Navy helped Notre Dame out during World War II and the bonds between the two schools. In English all of that means: “It’s a huge money game for Navy and usually a win for Notre Dame.” From 1964 through 2006, Notre Dame beat Navy 43 straight times.
The only thing that makes the game justifiable — just as with Army-Ohio State and Air Force-Michigan — is that the players want to play the game. They want to test themselves against the college game’s superpowers. They honestly believe they can win.
Jim Cantelupe, who was Army’s captain in 1995 when the Cadets came up a two-point conversion shy of beating Notre Dame in a 28-27 loss, said it best: “If you can’t play for Notre Dame, the next best thing is to BEAT Notre Dame.”
The same would be true of Michigan or Ohio State or any of the other schools where football is a deity.
Air Force doesn’t play Notre Dame every year, but plays the Irish often. Dating to the 1980s, when Fisher DeBerry first made Air Force into a team that annually won at least eight games, the Falcons are 6-15 against Notre Dame. Navy broke the 43-game losing streak in 2007 and, since then is 4-6 against the Irish, including a win last season.
Understand this: Malinowski’s point on that gleaming November morning was this: there’s NO WAY any service academy team should beat one of the football factories. It can’t happen. Notre Dame has every possible advantage you can have as a football school: great facilities; an 80,000 seat stadium with “Touchdown Jesus” looking down on it; tradition; the fight song and the fact that every Catholic kid in America who plays football has to at least THINK about Notre Dame if the Irish come calling. Notre Dame even has its own TV network: NBC – or, as it is known at Navy based on listening to the announcers who call the games year in and year out: “The Notre Dame Broadcasting Company.”
It isn’t much different at Michigan or Ohio State: huge stadium, great tradition, amazing facilities; every game on TV and very famous coaches. All those schools are looked at as gateways to the NFL by top high school players.
The academies? They offer a great education and the chance to see the world — often under fire. The NFL? Well, if you’re REALLY good — like Roger Staubach in the ’60s — you can give it a shot after you serve your five years of active duty. Occasionally exceptions are made — and then sometimes yanked away by a change in administration — but your chances of playing in the NFL are less than one percent.
If you love football and you’re smart, that might be appealing. If you think for one second you have even a chance to play in the NFL, not so much.
And yet, Navy’s players; Army’s players and Air Force’s players will all tell you there’s no reason they can’t win these games they’re sent to play to stock the coffers of their schools. Several years ago, Ohio State agreed to play a “home-and-home” with Navy. The Mids would open the 2009 season in Ohio Stadium and the Buckeyes would come to Navy the next year — to play in the same stadium where Malinowski and I had stood eight years earlier.
I was working as an analyst on the Navy radio network when the scheduling of the games was announced. That Saturday, I ran into Chet Gladchuk, Navy’s athletic director pre-game at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.
“Hey, Chet,” I said, “why don’t you play Ohio State HERE? Imagine what a great day it would be for the Midshipmen. You could jack up ticket prices and you’d still sell the place (37,000) out in a heartbeat. Let your kids play a power school at home for once.”
I knew I was tilting at a windmill, but I figured I’d bring it up anyway. Gladchuk’s a good man. Now though, he looked at me as if I was crazy. “John, do you know how much money we’ll make playing that game in Baltimore?”
I didn’t, but I did. Plenty.
So, this Saturday as you watch Ohio State and Michigan almost certainly dominate Army and Air Force, think about what Malinowski said all those years ago. Think about where the seniors from Army and Air Force are likely to be next fall as opposed to the seniors at Ohio State and Michigan. Think about it when Navy plays at Notre Dame on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Think about how remarkable it is that Navy has now been to a bowl game in 13 of the last 14 seasons; Air Force in nine of the last 10 and that Army turned it around a year ago to go 8-5, finally beat Navy after 14 straight losses, and win a bowl game.
Try to understand how remarkable all those young men are who play football simply because they love it. And understand that what their seniors will be doing in a year is a lot harder and a lot more important than what the other guys will be doing.
John Feinstein’s new Young Adult Mystery, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” is just out and takes on the issue of race in sports and our society. His next non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published next month. Both books can be ordered online now.