I recognize, that from time to time, I am prone to bouts of hyperbole. Despite what you may think, I am keenly aware of my flair for the dramatic -- especially in my reflective prose. But if you will forgive the excesses of my writing past, please indulge me this piece.
Fans of the just and right often have little to cheer over. Those who stand on principle often go wanting, as the vast majority of outcomes in our lives are the result of all-too-real social and fiscal economics. After all, we are the society which bore the primacy of the free market -- we can hardly expect the goodness of something to have greater influence than its value. But for those intrepid souls who live their lives for those brief moments of principled victory -- the points of sheer righteous clarity shine in the sky of their lives like stars. And for all the black of the night sky, isn't it the stars we remember in the end? As I write to you, dear reader, today -- there is a new bright star in my sky.
Sports, for me, and for many others, has often provided a microcosm of the world around us -- both as a player and (much more frequently as genetically dictated) as a spectator. The simplicity of sport, the winning and losing, the keeping of score, the (ostensibly) infallible impartiality of its officials (amongst many other qualities) makes it seem like the perfect arena to see our virtues rise to victory and our vices fall to defeat. And yet, as we pull back the stage curtains with our ever increasingly powered media - we find this not to be the case at all.
I have always loved college football for its passion and the pageantry that it bears. These teams were more than a collection of athletes -- thee were ambassadors for their institutions. And great institutions bore great teams. I grew up believing in this greatness, and being the son of a military man -- ultimately to become a military man of my own, believing in the greatness of those college football teams who bore the mantles of our armed services rather than their institutional titles. For these teams weren't known as West Point, Naval Academy or USAFA. They were known simply as Army, Navy and Air Force -- and their iconic uniforms read the same.
There was once a simpler time, at least for sports, when these fabled teams dominated the college football landscape in much the same way their namesakes dominated the world's mid-20th century battlefields. But, time marches on, markets and economies develop, and the popularity of college football, and football, in general, ultimately beget a new hierarchy. And in this new athletic economy, pride didn't trade as well as fame and the opportunity to seek the riches promised by professional sports, and in time, the once proud service academy football programs were relegated to relative obscurity along the national sports landscape. There was perhaps no greater example of this shift than the Navy-Notre Dame rivalry.
To recap, Notre Dame has been playing Navy annually in football since 1927, a contest whose roots lie in Notre Dame's NROTC program. During WWII, Notre Dame was in severe financial distress, and the location of a federally-funded military training center there literally kept the school afloat. The invitation to play football against one another was extended indefinitely, as a result. But there are times when its validity has been questioned. Before the 2007 season, the series stood at 70-9-1, and many have wondered aloud if playing the Midshipmen was doing more harm than good to the Irish's reputation.
There is little doubt that the proud roots of this rivalry are all but lost to the generation of students which now roams these storied campuses. Notre Dame is a private school which attracts many of the nation's best students along with the sons and daughters of its most affluent families. The United States Naval Academy still requires a military service commitment from its graduates of at least five years (and many more for others), and there is hardly any ambiguity regarding the willingness of the young and wealthy to serve their country. These two institutions, once closely connected despite their geographical separation, are now much farther apart than the simple 635 miles between Annapolis and South Bend. They are, very nearly, ideological opposites. It isn't difficult to see, then, why the many fans of the Fighting Irish don't see the value in a game and rivalry whose beauty is much more subtle than the glamorous match ups that the BCS and the major college conferences provide weekly.
Navy versus Notre Dame has become a battle of ideals. It is the conflict between the gifted and simply hard-working. It is a war of entitlement against perseverance. It is a test of heart, and the ability to achieve against overwhelming odds. The value of continuing this contest lies in its impossibility. It is the ascent of Everest, the comeback from down 3-0 in a seven game series, the proverbial David versus Goliath. The fact that they should stop playing the series is precisely why it should endure -- because for many of us, the chance to exceed our abilities comes rarely, if ever -- and if sports is nothing else, it is the chance to for us to live vicariously through the young warriors which populate its participatory ranks.
This past Saturday, after four quarters and three overtimes, and the accompanying stress of the possibility of yet another defeat, I had a moment of sheer unadulterated bliss; a moment of clarity and relief; of seeing the last mile of what I thought may have been an endless road. Although there were countless great moments football moments to remember from the contest, I only recall watching one over and over again: the perfect moment where the score went from possible to final: Navy 46, Notre Dame 44.. I have watched and participated in many celebrations in my life, both athletic and otherwise, and I have never seen joy so complete. Forgotten were the unfriendly confines of Notre Dame stadium, and the hushed murmur of a now-beaten throng of revelers searching for explanation and excuse. For all the composure that has been and remains to be demanded of those young men under the most extreme and unforgiving circumstances - this was a moment to release, to embrace their brothers in arms, and to celebrate as only Navy Football can, over the body of a finally vanquished foe, whose day had long since been due. I expect that I will watch that moment many times in the coming years, on various screens and in my mind. And I expect that very same tear to come to my eye each time, as it did on Saturday.
I feel no sadness for fans of the Fighting Irish. They have cast downward glances at my alma mater and the football team it sends out to represent it for decades, and the dim recollections of its older alumni do little to diminish the impact of this constant condescension. I don't hear their excuses as they do their best to devalue this victory under the guise of diminishing their defeat. I don't hear their cries for mercy on behalf of the fresh-faced young men who have endured this season of Irish failure, for they have laughed at the expense of great young men and women who roam Bancroft Hall for over four decades. This day, the economies of modern sport meant nothing. This day, principle drove its flag into the earthy flesh of the belly of the beast, and claimed victory despite urging of the mindless mob. This day, those whose comfort and excess is ensured by the countless thousands who sacrifice what they are unwilling to, must finally take notice, if only for a moment, of that brave class. This day was, and will forever be, ours.
A final note to Matt Couture, and the hundreds of thousands of Notre Dame fans who unfounded and senseless support of this failing dynasty is a tribute to the modern triumph of hype over quality: as I asked you three weeks ago, take off those ridiculous ball caps, shut your mouths and stand up for our alma mater: "Blue & Gold", because we earned it, it's the least you can do, and we had the colors first.