CORAL GABLES, Fla. — A few dozen people were gathered inside a small theater for a brunch get-together, the room decorated with all sorts of military accoutrements. Soldiers past and present were there, some in dress uniform, some decades into retirement. They snapped to attention when the nation's colors were presented, recited the Pledge of Allegiance with pride and told stories for hours.
And it was all over what happened on a football field 70 years ago.
"Army-Navy," West Point graduate A.J. Miceli told the assembled crowd, "resonates patriotism within all of us."
But this gathering, while tinged in plenty of Americana, carried even more meaning. It wasn't just to celebrate the 70th anniversary of perhaps the greatest game in college football's greatest rivalry, but it was also to commemorate a friendship that goes back to the early 1940s and somehow only grew stronger when it was tested by competition.
Arnold Tucker was Army's quarterback and Pete Williams was Navy's halfback that crisp fall day in 1946, when heavily favored Army reaped the benefit of a still-debated call on the final play to hold off the upset-minded Midshipmen 21-18. They were teammates at Miami High years earlier, are now retired and back in South Florida, and the College Football Hall of Famers have remained close.
"It's so surprising to me that it's that important to people," Williams said. "It's a football game. We just didn't think about it being something that other generations following us would give a second thought to."
Oh, that's an understatement.
Army was in the midst of perhaps its most powerful football days. Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard led the way to three consecutive undefeated seasons. Navy had just one win in 1946, and carried a seven-game losing streak into the game. Sports writers gave the Midshipmen no chance, and when Army rolled to a big early lead, a rout seemed imminent.
And then it all changed.
Navy got within 21-18, and was driving on the game's final series. Williams took a pitch and tried to get around the right side as time was running out, then attempted to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Dozens of people were packed along the sideline that he was approaching, fans having moved down to the field from their seats after the security detail that would have kept them at bay departed when President Harry Truman left to catch his train.
Navy people will still say Williams hit the sideline and the clock should have stopped. Army folks insist he was tackled inbounds. Officials apparently agreed with the Army version. The clock kept running, time expired and Army escaped.
Williams won't say what he thinks happened.
"That's a secret I'm going to take to the grave with me," he said, grinning. "I just don't want to have to tell anybody anything. It's something that makes the game stay in people's minds. People say they have to find out — and I say well, you'll have to follow me someplace else, because while I'm breathing, I'm not telling."
To think that's only one element of why the game remains talked about.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz were at the game, both giving up their seats for veterans who were wounded in World War II. More than 100,000 fans showed up, and IRS investigators were scattered outside the stadium to tax those who were re-selling the $3 tickets for nearly 20 times face value.
"This game goes beyond the final score," said Army Lt. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo, the Deputy Commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami. "I venture to guess you go to any Alabama alumni or whatever six months from now and ask them what they recollect from the game with Clemson and you'll get some but not much. You ask any West Point or Navy graduate about any game, any year that they personally experienced, it could be 70 years ago or one year ago, and they forever remember it."
They know the names, too.
Case in point: When Army football coach Jeff Monken, born more than 20 years after this particular game, found out that he was autographing a gift for Tucker, he left a recruiting-weekend event to rush to his office and send a handwritten letter as well. Both men got footballs, the traditional Army and Navy bathrobes and helmets, which left the two men cracking jokes.
"That one has a face mask," Tucker said when getting his.
"Maybe I wouldn't have had so many concussions if I had this one," Williams countered.
When the tributes were done, including one from Vice Adm. Ted Carter — the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy who said "we should never lose respect for this game" — Tucker and Williams each took the microphone, offering kind words for one another. They posed for pictures long after the formal program ended, shaking hands and sharing stories.
"It seems that people think this game," the 92-year-old Tucker said, "was really something special."
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