About the annual Army-Navy football game, superstitions abound.
When I lived across from the Academy, I’d get up in the chilly dark of morning and stand on the cliff, waving good luck to the busses parked along the seawall to leave with the Brigade.
When my wife and I moved to Annapolis, I needed a new ritual. Now I decorate the tulip magnolia in front of our house. When I can no longer watch Navy screw up on the field, I go outside and string the lights. The rule is that I must finish by game’s end.
I realized early in this year’s game that I was going to be spending most of the first half outside. Navy looked out of sync, and Army was knocking the players around like rag dolls.
But in the middle of the second quarter with Army leading 7-0, I panicked. Many of my light strings were dead. I needed more lights.
At the Rite Aide, where I had purchased my lights about five years ago, the cupboard was bare. So, I headed for the Home Depot on Defense Highway, listening on the radio to Omar Nelson bemoaning the Navy running strategy and predicting that the Mids would have to start passing if they were going to win the game. Home Depot had shelves to the ceiling filled with lights. But not the simple, non-LED, 100-foot string of white lights I was looking for.
At the Home Depot in Parole, the only lights left were those icicles that drip from every gutter, even out of season.
Where could I get some lights?
Then I remembered True Value Hardware on Forest Drive.
Traffic was light, no doubt because everyone was home watching Navy’s lethargic performance. On the radio, Army was driving for another score, and it was fourth and one from Navy’s 30 with under three minutes to go in the half.
I had to find some lights. And fast!
As I sailed by Heritage Baptist Church, Navy miraculously recovered an Army fumble. Omar Nelson was practically screaming into his microphone, Pass it to Tillman!
As I pulled into True Value, Navy scored — on a pass to Tillman. The point after was good and the half ended with the score tied 7-7.
I really like an old-fashioned hardware store, and Jared Littmann has a great one. I was glad to return to the scale of shopping where birds do not occupy the rafters and I do not get lost.
Transfixed, I walked narrow aisles crammed with all sorts of neat gadgets until I came to the aisle with the Christmas lights. I found what I thought I was looking for, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to open the box. A guy merrily stocking shelves smiled and confirmed that I had found the right ones.
I bought five boxes of lights for $25 and headed home.
When I walked into my house Navy was marching down the field. But the drive stalled at the Army 30, and the Mids tried a 45-yard field goal. I was shocked when it sailed through the middle of the uprights. Navy was leading for the first time in the game.
Then Army got the ball and started marching toward the Navy goal line.
It was time to finish decorating my tree.
I had all these new lights and I was totally psyched to do the best job ever. Using my jump rope technique, I swung the lights slowly back and forth, then looped them over the branches. I was in Zen mode and couldn’t miss my target.
I had no idea what was happening with the game, but I knew that Navy was going to win.
Back inside, I saw Navy recover another Army fumble and begin eating up big yards as they headed for another score. This time a goal-line scrum on third down that looked more like rugby than football put Navy ahead by 10 with under four minutes to play.
Army wasn’t finished. They started rolling down the field. When the drive stalled on the Navy 35, Army trotted out their field goal kicker, who nailed a 52-yard zinger.
I must confess that I was silently rooting for him to make it.
After 12 years of Army heartbreak, I felt sorry for the team. I wanted Navy to win, but I cheered when Army’s kick sailed through the uprights.
It was now down to an onside kick. I am sure that Navy fans all over the globe were freaking out. I was calm as could be. Navy was going to catch the kick, run out the clock and secure a 13th straight victory.
It was dark by now, and my Christmas lights sparkled in the tree outside my window.
I stood in my living room at attention as the Army players cried their way through their battle hymn before singing Navy Blue & Gold with the Brigade.
The Army-Navy game is special. There is nothing like it in sport. As a former midshipman from the Class of ’75, who did not graduate, I know the sting of defeat.
But this year I learned an important lesson. There is more to victory than lights and superstitions. Army was more inspiring in defeat than Navy was in victory.