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More than 30 Goats Later: A Unique Heritage of Football

By MC1 Tim Comerford,  Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication Outreach Division

Today, two giants meet on the gridiron. Both will strain inordinately to show itself master of the pigskin. But no matter who wins the day, the winner of game is really the service that the giants represent – the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army.

The first game came about from a challenge to the Army and was played 1890 at West Point to a blowout 24-0 victory for the midshipmen.

Army-Navy football game, 1916. (Source: Library of Congress)

Since then, the games’ outcomes have been pretty even overall. Regardless of the outcome, the build-up to the game tends to be a main focus between the institutions – midshipmen and cadets spending weeks to months developing the posters, banners and paraphernalia used during the games, in addition to spirited exchanges between the “squids” and the “woops” the week prior.

For more than a century, the Army-Navy football game has captured the attention of officers and enlisted alike from both services and Americans in general. The preparation for the rivalry of the game itself is an amazing occurrence, with military units deployed around the world offering recorded verbal encouragement to the team of their choice.

But there has been one form of encouragement to the midshipmen that has been there since the first game – their mascot.

“On the train to the Army-Navy game, [the players] were discussing the Yale bulldog, somebody said, ‘oh well we need a mascot,’” said James Cheevers, senior curator at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. “They borrowed a goat from a farmer in Highland Park, N.Y., and they won the game, so they considered the goat lucky.”

Army-Navy football game, Nov. 28, 1908. (Source: Library of Congress)

Since that first game in 1890, the U.S. Naval Academy has been through more than 30 of the mascots, many named Bill. Though, there is one, which was stuffed after his passing and remains on display at the Naval Academy, with something of a strange name, Three-to-Nothing Jack Dalton. The goat was named after a famed field goal kicker in the 1910-1911 seasons who won two games against Army three to nothing.

“Jack Dalton kicked the field goals for the win. They renamed Bill IV, who was the goat at that time, Three-to-Nothing Jack Dalton,” Cheevers said.

With more than a hundred meets in the series, it’s hard to fathom that there might not be an Army-Navy game, but there have been 10 times when the game was not played. What could ever cause these two powerhouses not to meet?

Spectators, including President Woodrow Wilson, watch the Army-Navy football game played at the Polo Grounds in New York City, 1913. (Source: Library of Congress)

The first time was four years after the rivalry began and lasted five years.

“The game of football was getting a lot of bad press, because a lot of kids were getting injured and actually dying. The games came to an end for a little while. One of the presidents, Grover Cleveland, agreed that the game should be ended,” Cheevers said.

A more colorful version of the story says that a reputed incident between a Navy admiral and an Army general, which nearly led to a duel after the 1893 Navy victory, had President Cleveland calling a Cabinet meeting in late February 1894 to diffuse the situation. Later, Secretary of the Navy Hillary A. Herbert and Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont issued orders to the respective academies stating that other teams would be allowed to visit Annapolis and West Point to conduct football games, plus the Army and Navy football teams were “prohibited in engaging in games elsewhere.” So the teams could not meet.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed and the game resumed in 1899 until 1909.

The game that year was not played out of respect for an Army football player who died earlier in the season in a game against Harvard.

The games were again suspended in 1917 and 1918.

“In World War I the games were suspended once again due the war,” Cheevers said.

The last time the game was not played was between 1928 and 1929.

“There was a dispute between the schools over the rules,” Cheevers said. “They couldn’t get together on the rules of the game.”

U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen take the football field for the 113th Army-Navy Football game at Lincoln Financial Field, Dec. 8, 2012. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge/Released)

Through the years, Navy footballers have achieved varying degrees of fame. Everyone has heard of Roger Staubach, Class of ‘65. But even he never achieved a level of notoriety to merit being memorialized on the academy grounds in glass as did one member of the Class of 1927.

“Tom Hamilton became a major football hero and they made a board game named for him, and is a figure in the stained glass window of the Naval Academy Chapel,” Cheevers said.

This storied rivalry can also take credit for giving the U.S. Navy its own theme – Anchors Aweigh.

According to the Navy, Lt. Charles A. Zimmermann was selected as the bandmaster of the Naval Academy Band in 1887, where he started the practice of composing a march for each graduating class. In 1906, Zimmerman was approached by Midshipman First Class Alfred Hart Miles with a request for a new march. As a member of the Class of 1907, Miles and his classmates “were eager to have a piece of music that would be inspiring, one with a swing to it so it could be used as a football marching song, and one that would live forever.”

Supposedly, with the two men seated at the Naval Academy Chapel organ, Zimmermann composed the tune and Miles set the title and wrote to two first stanzas for “Anchors Aweigh” in November 1906. This march was played by the band and sung by the brigade at the 1906 Army-Navy football game later that month, and for the first time in several seasons, Navy won. Anchors Aweigh was subsequently dedicated to the Naval Academy Class of 1907 and adopted as the official song of the U.S. Navy.

A complete listing of every game in the series is available here.

Kick off for tomorrow’s game is 3 p.m. EST. Check your local listings to find out where you can see the game and cheer: Go Navy! Beat Army!

Who do you think will win?