Author Chris Overdorf attended West Point where he studied geography and computer science before unfortunate injuries sidelined his military career. Chris is SCJ’s Principal Landscape Architect in our Wenatchee office.
At this time of year, I always get nostalgic, somber, yet antsy and excited. The Army-Navy Game is upon us.
This Saturday, for the 120th time, the United States Military Academy football squad squares off against the United States Naval Academy on a field of “friendly strife” to battle for more than just bragging rights. This is a storied rivalry that eclipses college sports and brings focus to personal character, sacrifice, and fortitude. The first game was played on “The Plain” at West Point on November 29,1890, which unfortunately Army lost 24-0. Currently, Navy leads the series 60-52-7.
What makes this game special is that all the players (and their classmates and soldiers-in-arms) are not playing because of the lure of big potential professional football contracts, but because they want to serve our country as career military officers. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for our country and our ideals. They are dedicated, committed, smart, talented – they don’t give up. They play not for themselves, but for their fellow soldiers next to them and ultimately, for us.
It’s more than just a game. Athletics plays a prominent role in the life of a cadet or midshipman (or “zoomie”—sorry Air Force Academy). Corps squad (NCAA-level) athletes practice and compete on a daily basis in addition to a crazy academic load and leadership responsibilities. Club sports athletes and intramural athletes are always active as well, often having to also participate in parade drill practice. Athletics isn’t just for fun; it’s a graded pillar of development at West Point comparable to academics and leadership.
About Army athletics, General Douglas MacArthur said, “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory.” The lessons and experiences athletes take away from competition leads to more competence and confidence in battle and, with it, victory. And for many of them, the lessons learned in athletics will resonate as they trade one uniform for another and become leaders in our armed forces.
The ultimate outcomes and importance of athletics come down to teamwork, supporting a common mission, sacrifice for the greater good, exhibiting courage and perseverance when fear and pain is pushing you to quit. When I was a cadet, I had the honor to serve alongside many people that were extreme examples of fortitude.
Greg Gadson was one of them. A defensive tackle for Army, he epitomized what it meant to be a cadet and to serve his country. After graduating from West Point in 1989, he rose up through the ranks, leading soldiers in Baghdad during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. While serving there as Commander of the 2-32 Field Artillery Battalion in 2007, his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. The explosion left Gadson badly injured and he had to have both legs amputated above the knee because of irreparable damage.
Instead of taking a medical retirement, Gadson requested to stay on active duty. In 2014, he retired after serving as the Garrison Commander of Fort Belvoir, VA, where he oversaw more than 50,000 military personnel. Today he is known for his work as a motivational speaker, actor, and photographer.
In an interview after his retirement, while reflecting on his resilience, Greg said, “My time as a football player and cadet has been very helpful. One of the first things I said when I regained consciousness was about Army-Navy. Certainly, the lessons I learned at West Point and on the football field, in terms of working hard, about never giving up and always looking forward helped. One of the things I share with people is that if you make a good play or a bad play, it’s in the past. You have to play the next play. That was one of the bigger lessons I learned. You can’t live in the past. You have to continue to prove yourself, continue to play.”
Those are incredible words to aspire to.
So this weekend, while watching Army-Navy, please think about your friends, neighbors, and relatives who have served or are currently serving. Think about their sacrifices and how you can find inspiration in playing the next play.
And definitely watch to the end. Following each game, each team’s players sing both teams’ alma maters while both legions of cadets and midshipmen stand in silent respect. The winning team joins the losing team and sings facing the losing team’s students. Then the losing team joins the victors on their side of the field and sings the winner’s alma mater to its students.
This act is a show of mutual respect and solidarity that still turns me into a blubbering mess as I remember standing alongside and being in the company of people like Greg.
Go Army! Beat Navy!