The Army Perspective: A Q&A With 2 Black Knights On Army-Navy

via Military Times

After the cacophony of bowl selections and coaching changes at the end of the regular season, there’s one college football game that takes center stage in the most unique of settings. It’s showcased as the definitive display of honor, duty and valor for young men who embark on careers where the enemy is no longer another player. And yet, there’s something deeper and almost unseen that fills the air when these two teams meet.

This past weekend, the 114th annual Army-Navy Game was the latest chapter of the third-longest rivalry in college football, dating back to 1890. Whether in peacetime or the backdrop of war, the Black Knights from West Point and the Midshipmen out of Annapolis have played each other annually since 1930 in one of the deepest antagonisms in college sports. Though the game ended in a 12fth consecutive victory for Navy, the love could never be lost for the Army faithful. In fact, there was none before or after Saturday’s affair.

Prior to this weekend’s game, TSFJ had the honor and pleasure of speaking with two former members of the Army Black Knights. Aaron Alexander was a highly scouted wide receiver out of Louisiana before choosing West Point over Tulane and Louisiana-Monroe (with some attention from SEC schools as well). Battling injuries in his college career, Alexander shined by becoming Army’s all-time leading receiver in 2004 (Jeremy Trimble eclipsed him in 2007).

Seth Nieman, a North Dakota native, started 24 straight games as a junior and senior right tackle in 2004 and 2005. He briefly stayed at West Point after graduation before being stationed in Kentucky and serving two tours in Iraq. Though wounded in action, Nieman continues to wave the flag for nation, Army and, of course, his football family.

Alexander and Nieman talked about the deeper meaning of the game and rivalry between the service academies, the politics of being overlooked by the NFL, and memories of Army-Navy now a few years removed.

Aaron Alexander, pictured at right wearing #19

Alexander: The pageantry, I get why it’s there from the “we’re all Americans” standpoint because they do lay their lives on the line just like we do, and I respect them for that. With that said, I still don’t like those guys. You have the football team, you have the coaches, and then you have this military staff that works as the liaison between the team and the academy. They’re there to keep everyone in line, but they also know when to cut some slack. A lot of the times, those guys are former football players. So you get stories of their experiences and how they feel about Navy. And it gets ingrained in you from day one. It’s, “Be all you can be, and oh by the way, beat Navy”.

Honestly, it’s not even about you in that game because it’s so ingrained. I can guarantee you that if someone came up to me and said, “I played Army football from this year to x,y and z,” we’re gonna have drinks. Not even going to be a second thought because I know what he’s been through physically and academically. We’re going to have an immediate bond and that hate for Navy.

Nieman: I played for Stan Brock, who played for 15 years in the NFL and played in the Super Bowl [XXIX, San Diego Chargers]. He was my offensive line coach. He used to tell us that this game matters to more people than the Super Bowl. When you think about it in those regards, it means a lot to us. But for me, we never talked to the Navy players before or after the game, and quite frankly, I never liked them (laughs). The game matters so much to me because we were the defenders of this country for the last 12 years.

I read the book “A Civil War” when I was in high school. It was written in the '90s. And I learned that if you look back to the days of Vietnam, even those guys that served hated Navy.

TSFJ: In a game like this, emotions are heightened and memories are carved into players' psyches. Considering the rivalry, how are those emotions and memories carried onto the field before and during the game? Also, what is the trash talk like between Army and Navy players?

Alexander: I didn’t want to see [the Navy players] before the game, and I didn’t want to see them after the game in the streets of Philly.

Regardless of what game it was when I was playing, I would get emails and phone calls from people out in the desert saying, “A.A., I need a big game from you this week,” or, “You had a great game this past week.” You walked around with a little more motivation, a little more pride, walk around with your chest out because you had [soldiers] out in the desert getting shot at right now and they’re taking time out to watch on the USO Network, watching you play football. They played themselves, or they need to take their minds off of the fact that they’re in danger, so you don’t want to let them down. They’re over there like any other fans, repping their teams, talking shit and whatever out there. They left a legacy that you want to uphold.

For us most times, there was no bowl game at the end of the year. Especially senior year, Army-Navy was the last game of your college career. You don’t go to West Point expecting to make it to the NFL. You’re expected to go and serve your country. You know the older heads that played and expect that you play well. You have the even older players or what we call “the old gray line” lineage of West Point — the bar is high. People still love Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard from the 1940s, and the standard has not dropped. There’s a lot of pride in this game, but it has nothing to do with the “after the game, we’re brothers-in-arms” thing. This is Army football. This is what we’re about, and we need to go out there and show it.

As much as Ohio State and Michigan hate each other and Alabama and Auburn hate each other, this is worse.

Seth Nieman, via Vimeo

TSFJ: How many players are overlooked by the NFL because they play for a service academy? What are the reasons why?

Nieman: It really depends on the administration, but the NFL knows that it’s going to be a bothersome issue, but also a kid that goes to West Point knows that he’s signing up for nine years of his life rather than play in the NFL. When some fans get bent out of shape about it, they say these academies were built to make officers and not professional athletes, and that’s an archaic way of thinking. If one kid can go to the NFL and actually educates and the NFL want to get players from Army football, I think that’s beneficial to everybody. I’ve done 30 months in combat zones, and if I meet one kid that gets to the NFL, I’d be more than happy for him.

TSFJ: What are the memories that stand out from the rivalry now that you're removed from it?

Nieman: I was on the last team that beat Navy, and we were in Conference USA. We didn’t have a great record in the years I was at Army, but we were playing in a tough conference. When we saw that 13-, 14-game schedule every year, I would always count the two games against the Air Force and Navy defensive ends.

More than anything, I remember the anger my senior year of not beating Navy. One of my mates that I played with for 22 straight games, I remember him slamming his gold helmet. Deep into the fourth quarter, I remember him screaming, “I F***IN’ HATE NAVY!”

Alexander: I didn’t realize that they had these huge expectations for me when I got there. I did phenomenal in the preseason of freshman year and was expected to play and fight for one of the starting spots. The second week of training camp, I broke my jaw, so freshman season’s over for me. I’m not ready to play again until two weeks left in the season. Except for one play in week one of the season, I didn’t play at all. But I dressed up for Army-Navy, and unfortunately, that was the last time we beat Navy.

Unfortunately for the Black Knights and the Army as a whole, the Midshipmen continued their winning streak against their rivals with a 34-7 victory this past Saturday in Philadelphia. It’s been a series of continued misery and anger that the boys of the seas made a competitive game in the early going a rout thanks to the feet of the mobile QB Keenan Reynolds and a stifling defense.

In college football, you may often hear about the need to clean house because a team can’t beat its in-state rival, let alone field a winning record in or out of conference. It’s just as true when it comes to the service academies, especially at West Point where these 12 consecutive losses to Annapolis can have some of the world’s most powerful military personnel demanding new leadership. How much of this losing streak lies at the feet of recently fired head coach Rich Ellerson and how much on his recruits will probably be discussed from the Pentagon to Kabul, Afghanistan to the virtual bar that is social media over the coming days.

Yet, as any team that has spent years in the doldrums, the glimmer of hope that comes from besting the rival is fleeting but comforting when it eventually happens. More than anything else, it was something Seth Nieman said that defines the game and the rivalry in a way that only the players themselves — especially many of those very Black Knights in the last 12 years – can fully comprehend. “Any service academy prepares you for officership,” he said, “but for me, playing Army football, nothing prepared me more for combat than playing football.”

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