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When I Realized the True Meaning of the Army-Navy Game

As Army veteran and Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva sees it, Army-Navy is football at its core in a setting that transcends the sport.​

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I’ve always remembered the day if not the exact date because it was when I came to fully grasp and truly appreciate the Army-Navy game.

Growing up in Philadelphia, my dad had made a habit of taking me to the game because he had wanted me to understand “what college football is supposed to be all about.”

That point was finally driven home on Nov. 29, 1975. It was cold but clear at Kennedy Stadium in South Philly. I was in junior high school and already enamored with the AP rankings and the Rose Bowl. The essence of football in general and of college football in particular was still a mystery, especially as the afternoon grew increasingly colder and Navy assumed an insurmountable, 30-0 lead in the fourth quarter.

And then came the epiphany.

Army got the ball to the 2-yard line.

It took four cracks after that, but Army finally nudged it over the goal line.

It was Army’s first touchdown against Navy in three seasons.

The Corps of Cadets celebrated as if Army had just won the Super Bowl.

Or a war.

It didn’t even matter that Army failed on its subsequent attempt at a two-point conversion.

“I finally get it,” I remember thinking.

And I remember my dad’s smile.

Just over 43 years later on the South Side of Pittsburgh, Alejandro Villanueva had the same type of smile when I asked him about Saturday afternoon’s resumption of the Army-Navy rivalry.

The conversation quickly got around to contrasting Army-Navy with the brand of football Villanueva now plays as the left offensive tackle for the Steelers.

“The games at this level, I don’t mean to discredit the NFL, I don’t mean to discredit the players, but a lot of it, unfortunately, always boils down to money and always boils down to, how am I going to benefit or come out of this game?” Villanueva explained.

“When I compare the two, I don’t know anybody in the stands. I know my family. I know the fans really like to cheer for the Steelers because their parents cheer for the Steelers or they’re from Pittsburgh.

“But when you’re playing in the Army-Navy game and you look at the stands, you’re looking at your classmates, you probably know most of them. And then it’s all the old grads that come back, and so you’re playing in front of your future bosses. You’re playing in front of men and women that have gone before you and that have served and that expect you to at least try your hardest to make sure that the winning spirit of the school is still being upheld. That you’re not a loser, that you’re going to fight to the end and that you’re going to be somebody that’s going to make everybody else proud.”

There’s nothing wrong with playing for money, as the NFL does; it’s downright compelling, in fact.

And there’s nothing wrong with playing for a spot in the ESPN/Nike Invitational and a shot at college football’s mythical national championship.

But Army-Navy is football at its core in a setting that transcends the sport.​

Villanueva gets it because he did three tours of duty in Afghanistan between playing for Army and playing for the Steelers.

And because he did, he appreciates Army-Navy a little more each season.

“It’s unbelievable,” Villanueva continued. “I think the Army-Navy game is the most special game in college football. I think all other college football games are meaningless. The more I’m around football, the more I start appreciating how special the game is. Because at the end of the day most football games are all just about a football game and this one is completely different.

“It’s about the tradition of two great institutions. It’s about the sacrifice, about service, about highlighting special men and women from the academies. It’s three hours of being able to look into life at the academy, which is inconceivable for most Americans in terms of the sacrifices that go into the amount of time you spend preparing yourself to be a leader.”

It’s known as “America’s Game.”

It couldn’t be more appropriately named.

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