Local Army alums know all about 'living in enemy territory'

Navy might have a homefield advantage on paper Saturday, but there are plenty of West Point alums in the area.

The 115th Army-Navy football game will be played just 25 miles from the United States Naval Academy on Saturday, so it's probably natural to view the game at M&T Bank Stadium as a home date for the Midshipmen, even though the Army has a very significant presence in and around the Baltimore area.

There are several thousand Army personnel at nearby Fort Meade and there is a thriving West Point alumni community in Annapolis, but the lofty national reputation of the Academy and the magnitude of the Army-Navy Game make all that seem counterintuitive.

Army coach Jeff Monken knows all about it. He spent six years as an assistant coach at Navy (2002-07) and said recently that he doesn't remember giving the Army presence in the region a whole lot of thought.

"No, I didn't sense that at all,'' he said. "I say that with no disrespect. I think these academies, they are so unique and there's not a local following, a local fan base, as much as there is a national fan base. The Fort Meade presence, we certainly knew it was there, but there wasn't a lot of Army news. There wasn't a lot of attention that we felt like was being pulled away from Navy."

The base at Fort Meade is, technically, an Army installation, but it houses personnel from all the service branches and actually has its own Army-Navy football rivalry, which hasn't been quite as one-sided of late as the one that will be broadcast around the globe Saturday.

In fact, in the 15th annual Army-Navy flag football showdown last month, Army prevailed for the fifth time in the past six years, by a score of 19-6. But the soldiers at Fort Meade have gotten used to being overlooked because of the proximity to the Naval Academy.

"I don't think we get the recognition we deserve,'' said staff sergeant Keith Whitfield, who has quarterbacked the Army intramural all-star team the past two seasons. "You just don't hear about us as much as Navy."

That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of enthusiasm at Fort Meade for the big game Saturday. Whitfield will be attending the Army-Navy game for the first time, thanks to a ticket provided by game sponsor USAA, and he's hoping to see his Army brethren take care of business the way he and his buddies did on a much smaller stage five weeks ago.

Steve Heinecke, a West Point grad (Class of '77) and retired Lt. Colonel who works on the base, said there is definitely something special about the week leading up to Army-Navy.

"Among the Army personnel, I know a couple of other West Point graduates, and we know what's coming up and it's right on the tip of our minds,'' said Heinecke, who also is on the board of directors of the West Point Society of Annapolis. "I also work alongside a Naval Academy grad. He's not a big sports enthusiast, but he knows what week it is. He hasn't said anything all year long ... not a big football fan ... but he does know what week it is. When I was on active duty, I would say it does resonate on the Army bases that I've been on."

Aberdeen Proving Ground, another Army facility, is also a short drive from Baltimore. In general, the West Pointers in the area seem to enjoy their role as the loyal — make that very loyal — opposition.

"It's quite fun at times,'' said Bill Taylor, a '70 grad who lives in Gambrills. "We literally talk about living in enemy territory. We wear our West Point Society sweatshirts and our Army T-shirts around town and get a lot of funny looks from people."

The football part, however, has not been as much fun the past 12 years. Navy has thoroughly dominated a series that has swung back and forth for more than a century, but has never before swung in one direction this long.

"I think it's really unfortunate that every graduate from either academy doesn't get to experience the thrill of beating the other,'' Taylor said. "When I was at West Point, we won three in a row and I still regret the fourth. Navy has gone a little extreme on us, winning 12 in a row, but Army won eight of 10 in the '90s."

Joe Samek (Class of '87) grew up in Essex a Navy football fan, but he accepted an appointment to West Point more than 30 years ago and feels no mixed emotions about a rivalry that graduates on both sides say transcends mere sport.

"When you're in the military, it's about winning," Samek said. "We prepare to go to war if we have to, and if we have to, we go to win. There are a lot of analogies between football and military life, because it's a lot about teamwork and it's a lot about the winning spirit. So, it's really painful for the alumni at West Point to have this streak going the way it has."

The oddsmakers are fairly certain that the streak will continue. They've posted the Midshipmen as a 15-point favorite and probably are figuring in a home-field advantage that may not really exist.

"These games aren't in anybody's backyard,'' said Monken, who is in his first season as Army's head coach. "We're playing in an NFL stadium. Every year it's played in an NFL stadium. It's not a home game for either team. ... We could play this thing in the Walmart parking lot or on the face of the moon. It wouldn't matter. These two teams are going to battle and it's going to be a big deal."

pschmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
75°