First Army-Navy Football Game Played; Navy Wins, 24-0

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First Army-Navy Football Game Played; Navy Wins, 24-0

Army-Navy Football Game, November 25, 1911 (photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Today in Military History: November 29, 1890

With the college football season winding down, I think it is appropriate to touch upon an upcoming game, featuring what many experts believe to be one of the most intense rivalries in all of college football: the Army-Navy game.

Cadet Michie, the Catalyst for a Tradition

The main person responsible for the start of the annual Army-Navy game was Dennis Mahan Michie. Cadet Michie, a West Point native who entered the university in 1888, learned the game of American football at Lawrenceville Prep. He had to have some help to convince officials of the U.S. Military Academy to accept a challenge issued by the Midshipmen at Navy. [Incidentally, this original challenge was also instigated by Cadet Michie, who had several friends attending the Annapolis academy.]The Army officials agreed to his request on the condition that the game would be played at West Point.

Cadet Dennis Michie, '92 (1870-1898), photo circa 1890
Cadet Dennis Michie, '92 (1870-1898), photo circa 1890

In order to ensure that the game was played, Army helped to pay for Navy's traveling expenses as over 270 Cadets contributed 52 cents each which covered half of the $275 needed for the train and boat trip. Navy had established a football program in 1879, but didn't have teams in 1880-81. Up to that point in their history, they had a career record of 15-12-2.

Meanwhile, Army began their program after the persuasion of Cadet Michie. At that time, West Point had no intercollegiate sports program, and the football team received no funds from the administration. Michie discovered that only two other cadets on campus had played any football before. Army's inexperience would play a large role in the outcome of their first meeting with Navy in West Point. Michie became a one-man athletic whirlwind, serving as coach, trainer, captain and even treasurer for the first Army team. They had to buy their own uniforms.

Background: College Football

In 1890, American football was still in its infancy. It was only in 1874 that "association football" was influenced by rugby and "the Boston Game," two rule sets that would be recognizable to modern fans. At that time, the game was played with an overinflated, egg-shaped leather ball which was not conducive to passing – still a future tactic. It wasn't until the early 1890's that rules committees, heavily influenced by former Yale player/coach Walter Camp (see below) that modern football rules began to emerge. Among the innovations was:

# -- Setting the number of men per team at 11;
# -- Delineating the line of scrimmage;
# -- Introduction of the center snap,
# -- Using downs and distance;
# -- Introduction of standard arrangement of offensive positions (seven linemen, four in the backfield); and,
** -- Invention of the safety.

Of course, none of these were in use in 1890…

Walter Camp (1859-1921), photo circa 1878
Walter Camp (1859-1921), photo circa 1878

At that time, one of the most brutal plays used by nearly all collegiate teams was the flying wedge. The play was a direct descendant of military formations from antiquity. It was usually seen on kick returns, but was often used as an offensive play. Once the ball was snapped, the offensive players would link arms and run forward, seeking to protect the runner and deal damage out to the defense. This single play was known to cause serious physical damage and even deaths on the football field. [It was finally banned in 1906, with some input from President Theodore Roosevelt.] Most players were equipped like the photo of Mr. Camp: no pads, no helmet, virtually no protection of any kind.

Game Day: November 29, 1890

The Midshipmen arrived by special ferry on game day. Looking for a mascot, the Navy players spotted a feisty goat tired up outside an Army NCO's quarters. The invaders "borrowed" the goat, thus acquiring their mascot which lasts to this day. The game was played on a gridiron marked off on the Plain, the main parade ground at West Point and the site of annual summer camp until 1922. A good crowd of 500 spectators was on hand to see the competition. The "competition" quickly turned into a rout.

Use of the flying wedge by Navy was a huge factor in this game as Army's Kirby Walker was knocked out four times. The last time resulted in him being carried off the field to the hospital after not recovering consciousness. Fights did break out in the game, but the result wasn't a surprise to historians that were on hand. In addition, at one point during the game, Navy scored a touchdown on a fake punt for which Army clearly wasn't prepared for. In fact, Army protested the play to the officials not knowing the fake punt was a legal call for a team to make. Navy had come to West Point to beat the debuting Army football team. The game was one-sided, with Navy prevailing 24-0, and Cadet Michie wasn't pleased with it at all.

Football game on The Plain, circa 1900
Football game on The Plain, circa 1900


The very next year, Army traveled to Annapolis, Maryland to play Navy with the result of the game being clearly different than their initial meeting. Army won 32-16 with help of a score from Michie to even the series at one a piece. The 1891 Army team was much better prepared to battle the Midshipmen, having won three games, tied one, and lost only to powerful Rutgers. Michie starred in Army's triumph. Both teams attended a big dance at the Navy boathouse that night, and the players congratulated each other on a fine game. At the event's conclusion, Michie shook hands with Worth Bagley, Navy's star quarterback, and they wished each other well.

Bagley and Michie exemplified the special nature of the Army-Navy rivalry not only on the field but also in their service and sacrifice off it. Both would lose their lives in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Bagley died aboard the USS Winslow on patrol duty near Cuba, the only naval officer killed during the conflict. Captain Michie was organizing the brigade prior to the assault on San Juan Hill when he was killed by a Spanish marksman on July 1. He was only 28 years old.

Footnote #1: The next meeting between Army and Navy is scheduled for December 10. It will be the 111th game in the series. It will be played at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland near our nation's capital. The contest has traditionally been played in Philadelphia which is roughly equidistant between West Point, NY and Annapolis, MD.

Footnote #2: Navy currently leads the series at 56-49-7, and has a current winning streak of nine games in the series.

Footnote #3: The game was originally played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. In 2009 it was moved to the second Saturday in December, making it the last regular season game of Division IA college football. [I despise the term "FBS" and refuse to use it otherwise…]

Footnote #4: The Army-Navy game has produced five Heisman Trophy winners. For Army they were Doc Blanchard (1945), Glenn Davis (1946), and Pete Dawkins (1958). For the Naval Academy, there were two: Joe Bellino (1960) and Roger Staubach (1963).

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