Deep in the heart of SEC country, college football rivalries are a fact of life. But chances are the players on your favorite team are not taking off one uniform to dress in their military dress. And most of your favorite team’s players will not be spending their careers putting their lives in danger for the sake of serving their country.
That’s what makes the annual Army-Navy game different.
“Words really don’t — I don’t even think — would do it justice,” said Lt. Col. Brandan Rooney with the 4th Battlefield Coordination Detachment at Shaw Air Force Base. Rooney graduated from West Point and played halfback and kick returner for the Black Knights from 1996-1999. He returned for the 2000 season as a graduate assistant coach.
“To be part of it — it’s just a great atmosphere, a great game, and it’s something you look forward to all year,” he said. “Everywhere at the academy it’s ‘Go Army! Beat Navy!’ So that’s what you look forward to all season and all off-season and throughout the year. . . All year you’re waiting to play Navy.”
Despite that motivation to win, nothing is tighter than the military connection.
“I always root for Navy when they’re not playing Army and between us, neither of the services root for Air Force to win,” Rooney said with a chuckle. “You root for the other guy because really, at the Navy, you know they’re going through pretty much the same kind of stuff you’re going through as a player and as an athlete and, of course as a student.”
Eventually, their service careers bring them together again. Rooney said he’s run into several former Navy players in his six deployments.
“It’s great to have a discussion and talk about it and, I don’t want to say reminisce, but joke about the different trials that we have gone on. The blood, sweat and tears that you put into football. And then, of course, going to school there, so it’s good to talk to those guys.”
That connection and respect among the players, cadets and midshipmen are unequaled. That respect is apparent after the final seconds tick off the clock and each team goes to stand at attention as the other academy’s band plays its alma mater.
“After the game you’re standing right next to these guys at attention as you listen to the Alma Mater and hopefully you’re the one that gets to sing second,” Rooney said. “That means you won the game. That’s the most important thing is being able to do that last. The emotions for me, personally, were after the game as I walked off the field. One last look back on to the stadium you’ll be like, ‘Hey, this is the last game I’ll ever play.'”
Cadets at West Point endure a grueling plebe year their freshman year, designed to either make or break a cadet. But Rooney said playing football was more challenging than plebe year. He said he knew what to expect since he’d attended a prep academy prior to West Point.
The Lake Havasu City, Arizona native majored in Systems Engineering and currently is a field artillery officer.
Rooney’s wife dresses their two daughters in Army gear to watch games. But there was one time — not on game day — when he put his daughter in a Navy onsie a Naval Academy graduate gave her while he and Rooney were stationed together at Fort Leavenworth.
“I did put it on my kid,” he said. “Unfortunately my kid went to the bathroom all over it. I thought maybe that’s why she did it because she was wearing Navy gear.”
Rooney’s prediction for Saturday: 35-14. “Absolutely Army,” he said.