“People say it’s a metaphor for combat,” said Rich Ellerson, the U.S. Military Academy’s new football coach, before the season began, “so I think it’s important that Army has a good team.” Ellerson comes from a military family, and should know better than most that his sport is nothing like war. The United States should be grateful that it isn’t: Army’s last winning season was in 1996.
No one expects the Black Knights to compete for national championships, as they once did—winning in 1944, ’45, and ’46—nor to challenge big-conference teams filled with mercenary players angling for the NFL. But Army’s supporters do expect it to beat Navy, at least some of the time. The Army-Navy rivalry is among the most hallowed in sports, and its outsize importance is drilled into the cadets of both academies early and often: the weights in the Navy gym are stamped Beat Army, while West Point’s gift shop sells toddler clothing with the counter-inscription. Yet Army has now dropped seven straight games to its rival, the longest losing streak in the teams’ 109 meetings. Last year, Navy fans held aloft signs taunting, Congress, bail out Army! as the Midshipmen delivered a 34–0 drubbing, the first shutout in 30 years.
“It was heartbreaking to watch,” Army’s freshman quarterback, Trent Steelman, told me in September. A native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, Steelman is handsome and polite and, like his fellow cadets, appends sir to most of his statements. Though he has a grandfather and uncle who served in the Army, that wasn’t what drew him to West Point. “I wanted to get a good education and play football,” he said. The academy was the only Division I school that offered him a football scholarship.
Steelman is the focal point of the team’s new triple-option offense, which Ellerson ran successfully for the past eight years at California Polytechnic State University. A deceptive running attack, the option (when it’s executed properly) can catch faster, stronger teams off guard. Both Navy and Air Force run versions of the same offense, and last year both teams finished 8–5 and went to bowl games. Army, which in 2000 instituted an airborne attack predicated on big-armed quarterbacks and jet-fast receivers that it didn’t possess, has finished 3–9 the past three seasons.
In Army’s season debut in September at Eastern Michigan, Steelman completed only two passes, and they were short ones, but Army won. The 27–14 victory was a milestone in the academy’s history: it marked the first time a freshman had ever started a season opener, and it was the team’s first opening win in 13 years. Technically, Steelman is not even allowed to address upperclassmen by their first names—but the rule is ignored on the football field. The rules will bend for the entire corps in the week leading up to the Army-Navy game on December 12, as cadets drum themselves into a frenzy for the trip to Philadelphia.
“We’re on the right path,” Steelman told me after the team’s second win of the season, against Ball State, but “it’s a process.” He had played that day with cracked ribs, and late in the game, a hard tackle had sent him briefly to the sidelines, across the field from a permanent fixture of Michie Stadium, a bronze plaque inscribed with the words of General George C. Marshall: I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player. The general was talking about sending troops to die in World War II, not converting on third-and-long. But Army players take inspiration from the words—they touch them before every home game.
Steelman leaned over, puked, and rushed back onto the field.