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Notre Dame-Navy: More than football tradition

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, November 11, 2005

The midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy come to Notre Dame Saturday for the 79th consecutive meeting between the football teams of Navy and Notre Dame. Although Notre Dame has dominated the series for the last 41 years, the history and tradition of the two intertwined schools makes the game special.

During World War II, enrollment at Notre Dame fell drastically. Students left in droves to serve in the war. On campus, women began to fill the jobs once held by student males. Many of the male students remaining on campus were ineligible to serve due to medical deferments.

The Navy needed a place to train more men for war; and Notre Dame, financially strapped, needed assistance. Notre Dame offered Navy a place to train men. Thousands of young men came to Notre Dame for officer training in classrooms, drills on the quadrangle and mass meetings in the theater and dining hall.

A neighbor’s father proudly proclaimed himself a Notre Dame alumnus when I was a student at Notre Dame. When he brought out his “yearbook,” I couldn’t believe the pictures of hundreds of blue uniformed men in formations behind the familiar buildings of Notre Dame. He had been an “officer candidate” at Notre Dame during World War II and not an Notre Dame student at all. But he was just as proud of his time at Notre Dame as any graduate.

Years later, at a Navy change of command, a three-star admiral was introduced as the new leader of an important and prestigious Navy command. He rose and introduced himself by saying, “I was a member of the 1963 Naval Academy football team: the last team to beat Notre Dame.”

Thirty years after that athletic struggle, the admiral wasn’t thinking about his own promotion and his own new job. First he wanted to remind us of a great game of triumph with his teammates. He brought us back to a great struggle and victory over almost insurmountable odds.

That game in 1963, which Navy won by a score of 35-14, marked one of the crowning achievements in Roger Staubach’s Heisman Trophy winning season. That same year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. But some people still remember the Notre Dame vs. Navy game.

Long before the 1963 game, even before World War II, people recognized the unique relationship between Notre Dame and the service academies. In the 1927 Navy/Notre Dame game program, Rev. Mathew Walsh, President of the University of Notre Dame wrote:

“Notre Dame, Army, and Navy make an ideal group for a football triangle. Their students live on campus, they draw their student body from all parts of the country … The outcome of our games with the Navy and with the Army is not so important as that the best feeling of sport and good-fellowship always prevail. We are indeed happy to have Navy on our schedule: we trust it will continue so long and so amiably as to become a part of our best loved traditions.”

One might add to Father Walsh’s comparison a few other things. Notre Dame and Navy football teams are known to pray together. Both teams are known for never giving up. They always fight hard, even when considered underdogs. This team reputation is a reflection of the spirit and culture evidenced every day on the campus of Notre Dame and at the Naval Academy. At these institutions, ethics, moral courage and character still matter. People have a way of conducting themselves with honor and distinction at the Naval Academy and at Notre Dame. At these schools, people learn how to conduct themselves in life – in a way some just call “classy.”

At Notre Dame, above one door of Sacred Heart, one can find the words “God, Country, Notre Dame. “At West Point and at the Naval Academy, one frequently hears words like “Duty, Honor, Country.” The message is the same.

At both the Naval Academy and Notre Dame one finds deep commitment to our nation and to service. The culture of Notre Dame and Navy sets these places apart, making this football game worth playing and worth watching every year.

John Careyalumnusclass of 1976Nov. 10