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Army-Navy Game: A Proud History of Tradition

By Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach

You have to go back … pretty far back in history like … WAY BACK to find the last time the United States Military Academy beat the Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy (OK, it’s 2001). Facebook wasn’t even around back then! No matter the facts or statistics, still the rivalry continues. Why? Because of tradition … Oh and #GoNavy.

Once again, USNA Midshipmen and the USMA Black Knights will meet in competition. Navy’s record against Army currently stands at 60 wins, 49 losses and seven ties. This year’s matchup is in Baltimore, Md. and will be carried live — check your local listings and #GoNavy.

It may be difficult to believe that the very first Army-Navy game was actually an Army idea, by Cadet Dennis Michie. He advocated bringing sports to West Point. After much effort and playing off the pride and rivalry between the services, he finally convinced USMA leadership to hold the first game in 1890 at West Point. Oh, by the way, Navy won 24-0. (Although to be fair, the Naval Academy had been fielding a football team since 1879) #GoNavy.

Official Program 1942


Why is this game so important for our Midshipmen, cadets and even our nation? Sports are often used as common ground — to bridge gaps, to understand and relate to each other — all for the love of the challenge and competition. From the lowliest plebe to the most senior first class, these future naval leaders often find value often inspiration in this rivalry – for both teams, this is the game that matters. Still, #GoNavy.

For more than a century, a series of traditions have developed with the game (in addition to Navy winning). From Anchors Aweigh to the N-Star, to the painting of the Tecumseh statue, the Prisoner Exchange, Navy having lost only once this century, oh, and #GoNavy.

Pre-game ceremonies have always played a major role in the Army/Navy games, from the march on, to the singing of each academy’s theme song at the end of the contest. Shown here at the 1988 game is the traditional “exchange of prisoners”, where midshipmen and cadets that have taken part in the student exchange program, are returned to their respective academy prior to the start of the game.

Here are a few other notable traditions:

13th Company – In 1982, there was a push to get the 13th Company out of the Brigade of Midshipmen and the academy. And so a new tradition was born. Mids assigned to the “Unlucky” Company are lucky to have a unique honor. Days before the game they run the game ball from Annapolis, to the stadium hosting the game. This one time effort to rid the academy of something it once considered unlucky has turned into one of the most iconic and highly spirited events of the Army-Navy game as the 13th Company delivers the game day ball.  #GoNavy.

Mascot – A number of entertaining legends surround the selection of a goat as the Navy’s mascot. At the 1890 game one story notes that after the Midshipmen arrived by ferry at West Point, one snagged a goat from anArmy NCO’s quarters. From time of sail to early steel ships, livestock on board provided the crew a fresh source for milk, eggs and meat. They also often served as ships’ mascots. For example, USS New York’s mascot a goat named El Cid (meaning Chief), was at the fourth game. After ANOTHER Navy victory and celebration El Cid became one of the sources of the old Navy term, “Goat Locker.” It wasn’t until 1900 that Navy’s mascot was first called by its present name Bill after ANOTHER win by Navy in Philadelphia. This tradition still lives on with Bill XXXIII and Bill XXXIV. #GoNavy

The Victory Bells – They might not be at the game but flanking Bancroft Hall are the USS Enterprise and Gokoku-ji Bells. The “E” Bell comes from former academy fullback Fleet Adm. “Bull” Halsey’s flagship, aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV 6). The 1854 Gokokuji Bell, is a replica of a Japanese Bell presented to Commodore Matthew Perry during his expedition to Japan. Donated by Perry’s widow to the academy, the original bell was returned in 1987 to the people of Okinawa. The ringing of these bells acknowledges when the Navy is victorious over Army during and after the game. The bells have rung every year since 2002.#GoNavy.



Another reason the game has become so popular for the academies is it’s a chance for frivolity before these future leaders graduate and are entrusted with the security of the Nation, a heavy responsibility that sometimes comes with a heavy price.  For an example we can look back to the first and second games.

In 1891, Cadet Michie once again returned to challenge the Navy Mids and their quarterback Worth Bagley for the second Army-Navy game. Army won, 32-16, to even the score.Nearly seven years later in 1898 during the Spanish-American War both Michie and Bagley were killed in separate actions.  Ensign Bagley and four others died aboard the USS Winslow (TB-5) after a shell exploded on the deck during the Battle of Cardenas off the coast of Cuba. He was the only U.S. Naval officer killed during this action. Army Capt. Michie was killed by a Spanish sniper while organizing a brigade for the Battle of Santiago. West Point would honor his legacy as the cadet who started what would become the greatest tradition in sports by naming its football stadium after him.

Similarly one of the legends of naval aviation is Marine Lt. Col. Joe Bauer, Class of 1930, an aggressive fighter squadron skipper during the heated air battles over Guadalcanal in 1942.  He was called “The Coach” by those he led, a fitting nickname for a three-sport athlete at the Naval Academy, including playing halfback on the football team.  Bauer was shot down on November 14, 1942, posthumously receiving the Medal of Honor.

At the end of the day and with the final whistle of the game, it’s not about the Navy or Army or who wins; it’s the camaraderie, among the players, the other Midshipmen, Cadets, alumni, family and all fans. It’s about the traditions and legacy the game builds upon – because everyone playing and watching knows and painfully understands that these future Sailors, Marines and Soldiers will one day go in harm’s way protecting and defending our nation … That is the real lasting tradition. #OneTeamOneFight