Traditionally played in early October, organizers decided a 9/11 Air Force-Navy football game would be a fitting way to honor those who perished, rescued, and supported on that painful day.
“We will use this nationally televised opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our freedom and the competitive spirit of our nation,” said Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk in a press release issued by the Naval Academy athletic department. “Two service academies coming together to display our strength of unity and our determination to forever persevere.”
Scheduled for Oct. 2, it was changed to accommodate the anniversary commemoration. The 2021 contest will be the earliest these two academies have faced each other on the gridiron.
“This is an appropriate move for our country to have our service academies play on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in celebration of our armed forces,” said Air Force Academy Athletic Director Nathan Pine.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo was less hyperbolic and more straightforward than his athletic director. “It’s a great honor to be a part of this game that remembers those who were tragically killed, those that served … first responders … to honor those people. It’s really special for our program.”
The rivalry itself is spirited and dramatic and adds an uplifting element to the solemn festivities. The Falcons lead the series 31-22 and prevailed over the Midshipmen last year 40-7.
“I don’t think these institutions particularly care for each other,” said T.C. Cameron. Cameron is the author of “Navy Football: Return To Glory” and a former reporter at the Annapolis Capital-Gazette.
As far as game day goes, he thinks Navy and Army respect one another — a shared kinship — but that same respect doesn’t carry over to the Air Force-Navy rivalry. Both produce pilots. “And it makes for some intense theater.”
Cameron sees close parallels with the Michigan-Ohio State-Michigan State rivalries. He said the Wolverines-Buckeyes annual game is as iconic as the Army-Navy game. But Michigan State and Air Force came to the rivalry party later.
“I’ll also say the success Navy has enjoyed for the last 20 years does not happen without Air Force,” Cameron said.
The Falcons dominated the other service academies during long-time coach Fisher DeBerry’s tenure at Air Force, regularly winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
“Well, it’s been a great matchup, a great rivalry, we have great respect for Air Force,” Niumatalolo said. “For many years, Fisher DeBerry was the head coach. Air Force dominated. Then Coach Johnson (Navy Coach Paul Johnson, 2002-2007) came and kinda turned things around. We kind of went back and forth … we had some really good games against Coach Calhoun and their staff and their program … Last year they got after us, but we look forward to playing them here in Annapolis.”
Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun said they tend to be good matchups. “They’re really pretty evenly matched games … goodness, just everything that’s involved.”
The writing was on the wall when DeBerry started losing the CIC trophy and Navy began consistently defeating Air Force, Cameron said.
“If you’re Navy, Army is the game you have to win. Air Force is the game you cannot lose … it’s just that important,” the author said.
While the game is certainly served up as compelling entertainment and bragging rights on a bed of purity — absent of the money-driven commercialism that drapes over a Buckeye-Wolverine showdown — the 2021 version is ultimately about what makes the nation special.
“These kind of games make you realize we’re proud to be Americans,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re proud of our country. It’s not perfect, but it’s still the greatest country in the world. There’s still millions and millions of wonderful people.”