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Navy rivalry more than football

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, November 11, 2005

It’s more than just a football game.

By now we all know that Notre Dame has beaten Navy the past 41 years. We all know that none other than Roger Staubach was the last Midshipmen quarterback to beat the Irish.

But what we sometimes forget is that the Navy-Notre Dame game is always about more than football. It’s about pride. It’s about passion. Most of all, it’s about respect – a respect for what each school has done for the other.

On the heels of Frank Leahy’s 1943 national championship season, World War II had escalated, and Leahy left to serve in the Navy.

The war took many young men from then-all-male Notre Dame, presenting financial problems for the University as its enrollment dropped dramatically. But with the war came a need for more trained officers than the Naval Academy could provide. So they instituted a program in which Universities across the nation became a place for young men to receive a college education as well as officer training. Notre Dame was one of these sites.

And so Notre Dame’s enrollment increased, and the school survived through the war. As a result of Navy’s gesture to keep Notre Dame afloat during the war, the Irish agreed to play the Midshipmen on the football field annually for as long as Navy wanted. The two teams had first met in 1927.

Even when Irish coach Charlie Weis, a 1978 Notre Dame graduate, was at Notre Dame, he sensed a respect for the Naval Academy.

“I know one thing, the academies were something that we always revered in a different light than any other opponent,” Weis said. “They were like their own separate entity. And I think that you get a Catch 22 here because you have an opponent on the one hand that you want to beat badly. On the other hand, the respect factor for the young men that you’re going against is higher than anyone else you’re going against because you know that they’ve chosen a path that when their college careers are over, they’re not going to go play in the NFL, they’re not going to go take some cush job, they’re going to go represent our country. It’s a different mentality altogether.”

The fact remains – the Navy-Notre Dame is special.

Notre Dame has full-pads intramural football, just as Navy has full-pads sprint football. Notre Dame is revered for its academics and Catholic identity and its ability to balance that with athletic excellence. Navy is revered for the men and women that make a commitment to serve their country, all while maintaining Division-I athletic programs.

“We understand that these are dedicated Navy men,” Irish running back Darius Walker said. “These are the guys that are fighting for the country. We have much respect for these guys and the things they are doing out there. For them, football is kind of like a leisure activity. It’s one of those fun things they do, so they’re really playing for the love of the game.”

And among all of this, what about football? What about the 79 consecutive years Navy and Notre Dame have battled on the gridiron?

Well, every year Navy gets closer to getting a win.

In 2002, it was Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holiday who stepped up and made two plays with the Irish down eight late in the game. He first hit Omar Jenkins to set up the tying touchdown and then hit Jenkins again for a 67-yard touchdown pass with 2:08 remaining to give Notre Dame a 30-23 win against Navy, who was 1-8 at the time.

Two years ago it was Irish kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick’s 40-yard field goal as time expired that allowed the Irish to escape 27-24 at home.

Last year, Notre Dame finally beat Navy by a larger margin, 27-9, dealing the Midshipmen their first loss of the season.

And so the Navy-Notre Dame rivalry has become less of Notre Dame beating up on Navy as it has been some close games.

But in 2003, even as Irish fans were jumping up and down with excitement as Fitzpatrick’s kick fluttered through the uprights, they soon calmed down as Navy left Notre Dame Stadium through the tunnel on their end of the stadium.

“U-S-A, U-S-A,” the student section chanted as the Midshipmen ran through the tunnel.

And why?

Because Notre Dame-Navy is about so much more than just football.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Heather Van Hoegarden at [email protected]