Lots of football rivalries have history. Then there’s Army-Navy, who've got history.
Football teams representing the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Naval Academy first played 133 years ago, on Nov. 29, 1890. Benjamin Harrison was president. The Wright Brothers’ pioneering first flight was still 13 years away.
The more established Navy squad beat Army 24-0 on “The Plain” at West Point in a game that preceded the implementation of the forward pass.
Since then, America’s Game, as the matchup between the two service academies has come to be known, has become a staple of gridiron lore.
College football acts as a gateway to nostalgia, reminding fans of their youth and forging rituals across generations. Army-Navy goes even further, carrying the weight of representing the stories we tell about ourselves and our country.
And while the game of football has changed and morphed into the flashy product it is today, the Army-Navy Game has proudly seeped itself in the tradition of years past.
In a way, that makes the game a bit like Boston, a place caught between the grip of yesterday and the pull of the future. And being home to the Battle of Bunker Hill and the U.S.S. Constitution, the Boston area has deep connections to both branches.
But with such ties to both the Army and Navy, who will have a home field advantage when the game comes to New England for the first time Saturday at Gillette Stadium? The answer may depend on your view of history.
A port that still shapes a city
The whirl of tools doing work on the U.S.S. Constitution echoed through Charlestown Navy Yard as David Hannigan rattled off an encyclopedia’s worth of facts and figures in his signature hat and forest green jacket.
Hannigan, a park ranger at Boston National Historical Park, said although the Navy was technically born in Philadelphia by an act of Congress, Boston played a major part in getting it out to sea. By March 1776, there was an active naval presence in the Harbor, with Bostonians using their port to make a point to the British.
“I think if Boston had not been liberated and if the Navy had not been able to continue to use Boston as an active seaport and base of operations, we might have seen a very different outcome for the Revolution,” Hannigan said.
When Congress officially established the Navy Yard in 1800, Boston received an economic boost — one it’s still feeling today.
Hannigan said the yard and all the industry surrounding it created tens of thousands of jobs at the peak of its production and employment. During World War II, the Navy Yard employed upwards of 51,000 men and women working around the clock.
Naval facilities once took up nearly half the South Boston waterfront. The headquarters for First Naval District — which included Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire — was in Boston. And Chelsea had a Naval Hospital.
Eventually, this all came to a close when the Navy Yard shut down in 1974. But Hannigan doesn’t think Boston would look the way it does today if it weren’t for the Navy.
“The city and the harbor would have developed in a very different way,” he said. “With the Navy Yard here, the constant presence of the Navy in Boston, with the constant need to expand the Navy’s facilities, you saw the city literally expanding physically in the South Boston waterfront, even here in Charlestown where landfilling operations would have been taking place as early as the yard’s establishment.”
It’s safe to say the Navy helped shape Boston into what it is. And that’s why Hannigan says Boston is first and foremost a Navy town. (It doesn’t hurt that his father served in the Navy, or that watching the Army-Navy Game was a family tradition growing up.)
It’s a take that the Patriots’ long snapper Joe Cardona, one of the few players from the Naval Academy to be drafted by an NFL team, co-signs enthusiastically. He’s played in some big games during his time in New England, including three Super Bowls, but says they all pale in comparison to Army-Navy.
“I mean, Boston’s a Navy town, there’s no doubt about that. We’ve got the [U.S.S.] Constitution. There’s a ton of Naval history that goes through Boston, but there’s also a ton of Army history, too,” he said to some chuckles from reporters at an Army-Navy luncheon last week. “I don’t want to discredit, you know, George Washington and Bunker Hill.”
"Boston’s a Navy town. ... There’s a ton of Naval history that goes through Boston."Joe Cardona, Patriots player and former Naval Academy player
Navy senior quarterbackXavier Arline put it even more bluntly.
“Every town’s a Navy town. There’s no question about that,” he said.
But, as is natural in any rivalry, not everybody agrees.
Boston, and the roots of the U.S. Army
“America is an Army town. Every town in America is an Army town,” declared Army head coach Jeff Monken. “We wouldn’t have a nation without the Army. So, it’s an Army town all the way.”
That was Monken’s answer when GBH News asked him whether Boston identifies more with Army or Navy. Oddly enough, one of his coaching stints before getting the head role at West Point was as a member of the staff in Annapolis.
The Massachusetts National Guard, which contains the oldest units in the military, dates back to 1636. And when the Colonies needed an army? They turned to Massachusetts.
Few know that history better than Brig. Gen. Leonid Kondratiuk, who was the chief historian for the National Guard’s bureau in the Pentagon for 16 years and the National Guard historian for Massachusetts for nearly a quarter of a century.
“On June 14, 1775, Congress adopted the militia forces in Boston as part of the Continental Army. So, the Continental Army was actually born in the Greater Boston area with troops in Cambridge, Roxbury and Dorchester,” Kondratiuk said. That army is the one George Washington came to command on July 3, 1775. “So, the U.S. Army was born in the Boston area.”
"The U.S. Army was born in the Boston area."Brig. Gen. Leonid Kondratiuk
And the Army’s local history extends well beyond the Revolutionary timeline. Until after World War II, artillery forts lined the coast. The former South Boston Army Base was a major port of embarkation during the Second World War. The Watertown Arsenal was a major supplier of artillery.
Even West Point may have not been what it is now if not for the region. Sylvanus Thayer, the man who is credited with transforming the academy into the prestigious institution it is today, was from Braintree.
Given its long history with both branches, Kondratiuk thinks Boston is both an Army and Navy town.
But if Massachusetts’ role in the Revolution and forming the Army hadn’t been as profound as it was, he believes history may have played out very differently.
“I think we would have been saluting the king right now,” Kondratiuk said. “Just like Canada does.”
A rivalry that goes beyond the game
Until now, America’s Game has not been played in Massachusetts. Philadelphia has done the lion’s share of hosting duties as the halfway point between Annapolis and West Point. And sites in New York and New Jersey have gotten a decent chunk, too. Maryland has hosted the game nearly a dozen times and Chicago got it in 1926. The game was played in California once.
For the Kraft family, having the game in Massachusetts is something that has been years in the making. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft remembers that as kids, his dad would sit him and his brothers down to watch the Army-Navy games.
They understood rivalries like Lakers-Celtics or Red Sox–Yankees, and Robert Kraft wanted to make sure his kids knew this game was that type of rivalry.
“But unlike those professional sports rivalries where the players didn’t really like each other when they left the field or the rink, the men who played in that game, my dad would tell us: 'They fight hard on the field — but they have the utmost respect and trust in each other. Because they know that when they’re done with being at the academies, they’re gonna go out and protect and defend this country and have to have blind trust in each other out in the field,'” Jonathan Kraft recalled.
So as the last regular season Division I football game of the year comes to New England, Boston gets a chance to reflect on its role in forming this nation’s Army and Navy, and how they both shaped Boston. And even if both sides disagree on who rightfully lays claim to Boston, Cardona thinks the game will have something for everyone.
“This is a town that there’s not an everyday exposure to the military, so I think for this week leading up to the game and on game day, Boston’s gonna be a full military town, that’s for sure,” he said. “Everybody’s gonna have their team and everybody’s gonna be watching this game.”