Tomorrow will mark the 121st game between Army and Navy on the gridiron. They have met every year since 1890, apart from two separate two-year breaks during World War I and in the late 1920s. This year they will play at West Point, in spite of the global pandemic. Even at the height of World War II, the game was played. The game on Dec. 2, 1944, will go down as one of the most momentous college football games ever to take place. No. 1 Army vs. No. 2 Navy. Army was undefeated and untied.
Both teams had beaten perennial power Notre Dame. U.S. troops who were fighting across the globe in Europe and in the Pacific, took a short break to listen in on what was billed as the “Game of the Century.” It was the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Kentucky Derby, and the Indianapolis 500 all rolled into one event. The teams met at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The game captured the nation’s full attention during the grim months of late 1944 as American casualties mounted overseas. So integral was this game to the nation’s war effort that everyone of the 70,000 spectators was asked to purchase a war bond with their seat. By kickoff more than $58 million in war bonds had been pledged. Army, led by back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis (“Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside”), claimed the national championship with a tough 23-7 victory. Undefeated Army would repeat this feat the following year and take home a third national championship after beating an undefeated no. 2 ranked Navy team. No sporting event will perhaps ever capture the full rapt attention of the American nation as the Army-Navy game that was played in 1944.
The build-up to the game and the subsequent gridiron tussle are eloquently portrayed by Randy Roberts in his fine book “A Team for America.” Roberts profiles the main characters, choosing to focus on the Army team and players, such as Blanchard and Davis, as well as the Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik, the first man to coach the team that was not a serving officer.
A mere two weeks after the game, a German offense in the Ardennes stopped cold the Allied advance in Europe. Two months after the game, U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima and incurred the single deadliest day in the history of the Marine Corps. The American public settled back into a grim routine, as 1945 proved to be the costliest year in the war for the United States. Some of the men playing that day would be thrust into the fire months after the game. But on the clear, cold afternoon of Dec. 2, 1944, the American public was able to forget about the war for three hours, and revel in watching (and listening to) two of the greatest teams in college football history to face off.
Hopefully, tomorrow we can briefly forget about the terrible news of the losses in our current pandemic and focus on two tremendous teams of young men who will go off to serve their country wherever duty takes them.