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A Civil War: Army vs. Navy

John Feinstein

A few months ago I took some nasty potshots at ubiquitous sportswriter/radio commentator/ESPN flack John Feinstein. Among the vitriolic slams that flowed from my pen, I called Feinstein an “oafish blowhard,” accused him of being “verbally constipated,” and, just to make sure my point wasn’t getting lost, dubbed him a “sports antichrist.” It seemed that every player, coach, and team I adored he despised and ridiculed. Eventually, Feinstein was alerted to my diatribe by some needling friends, but instead of blasting back, he issued a charming, best-wishes response and, in the gracious process, made me feel like the ultimate shitbag.

Guilt, however, had nothing to do with my wanting to review Feinstein’s new book, A Civil War: Army vs. Navy, a year-in-the-life expose of the two service academy football teams and the tumultuous buildup to the 1995 enactment of one of the greatest rivalries in sports. It was more like giving the guy a fair shake. Maybe I had been too hard on him, maybe not. If the book sucked, it sucked; if it was good, then I’d be man enough, and gracious enough, to bring forth the praise. Well, wouldn’t you know it: While the pacing stutter-steps a bit leading up to the grande finale, A Civil War is, in fact, a highly engaging read at a time when intelligent sports books are few and far between.

North Carolina-Duke. Yankees -Red Sox. Raiders-Chiefs. Cubs-Cardinals. Alabama-Auburn. These rivalries have spawned unruly grudge matches for decades, making disgust and bile common ingredients whenever, wherever feuding fans convene. But there really is no rivalry as pure as Army vs. Navy (or, as midshipmen demand, “Navy vs. Army”). Before the epic battle detailed in the book, the teams had cracked helmets 95 times in their history, with the total point differential a minuscule 54. Army had come away with 45 victories, Navy 43. There is rarely a blowout when these foes thunder onto the field (seven ties tell a significant tale), but there is always a well-fought battle. Early on in A Civil War, Feinstein, in a consistent, reporterly fashion (fancy prose is neither his style nor strength), issues the plain-spoken truth about the matchup, setting the playing field perfectly:

Everyone thinks that their sports rivalry is the best, the most special, the one that stands above others. But Army-Navy is unique. It is played with the fervor of people who know they are doing something that they love for a final time, that they are closing a chapter in their lives. And it is played by teams who try to crush each other for three hours, then stand at attention together when the game is over…

But it is more than that. For all their flaws, West Point and the Naval Academy still represent what this country can be. When we look into the faces of the cadets and mids, we see the future. We see potential. We see, in most of them, a willingness to die so the rest of us can go on living the way we have for the past 220 years.

Something tells me the young men at the University of Nebraska, each a pro prospect the second he tugs on a Cornhusker jersey, just aren’t in it for the same reasons. In fact, since all the students at West Point and the Naval Academy—not just the athletes—are essentially off the job market, the players are lacing them up and airing it out for a single cause: the love of the game. On top of all the stresses and rigors of military training, these men take on one more gargantuan task, simply out of a desire to compete.

The ideals of glory, pride, and duty, however, are meager sustenance while the players are still in school; it’s not until after they graduate that they can truly appreciate the journey they’ve survived. The bulk of their educational experience is anything but a joyride; it’s more like hell in a uniform. One cadet describes life at West Point as “a $250,000 education—shoved up your ass a quarter at a time.” The rules are unforgiving—curfew, dress code, cutting corners in the halls—and some are beyond asinine (you can only sleep during scheduled times; to get your uniform cleaned, you are designated a dry cleaner—if you go to the wrong one you can be suspended or expelled). If a lieutenant isn’t blowing fire up your ass, an upperclassman is. When Feinstein unleashes the old gag about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron, you can tell he finds more than a few of the academies’ procedures just plain foolish. Feinstein’s buddy (and Duke basketball coach) Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point alum, admits that the academy “taught him how to fail, a key ingredient, he believed, in his success.”

Feinstein keeps A Civil War’s pacing fresh by marching out a parade of intriguing characters, all grappling with the pressures of the looming skirmish: Mid placekicker Ryan Bucchianeri, whose two missed field goals in consecutive Army-Navy games—both of them losing Navy efforts—have made him a pariah among his peers, not to mention making him the fourth-string kicker his senior year; the Fat Men’s Club, Army’s massive offensive front, men so proud of their girth that they display their endless blubber like gridiron buddhas and often scare their teammates into victory; and the head coaches, Navy’s Charlie Weatherbie and Army’s Bob Sutton, each of whom knows that whether his team goes 10-0 or 0-10 on the road to the big game, beating the other means keeping his job one more year.

A Civil War is packed with enough rah-rah speeches to make Knute Rockne nauseous; by the time the actual “civil war” comes around, those same words of encouragement—”Let’s make sure we get the job done” or “Go out and play like motherfuckers. It’s the only way to win”—ought to sound like empty histrionics. Nevertheless, when cadet meets mid on the frigid Veterans Stadium AstroTurf, with the entire nation watching, Feinstein earns his stars, weaving together names and plot lines and play-by-play into a stirring finish that musters vicious chills as well as a healthy dose of national pride. The book is a winner, and so are many of its inspiring subjects. Finally, something Feinstein and I can both agree on.