About a month ago, I was sitting down on my couch watching TV and scrolling through my Twitter timeline. Like any other Saturday, I was getting ready to watch college football.
Then something caught my eye as I continued to swipe down on my phone.
Breaking: For the first time, GameDay will be LIVE from Baltimore for the Army-Navy game on December 13th! #GetUp4GameDay
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) November 8, 2014
The College GameDay crew was going to be in Baltimore, Maryland for the Army-Navy game. In my mind this read: "Lee Corso and those guys are going to be less than two hours away from me, previewing a game that I grew up on and watch every single year. I'm going."
Growing up, I never really had a favorite college football team. In the NFL, I loved the Steelers, but I just couldn't pledge my allegiance one college or university the same way. I watched a ton of games, and still do, and I always root for Maryland and Navy, but I like a few other schools too.
My college football fandom was just never to the level that it was for the Steelers in the NFL or the Orioles in MLB. Football is football, so I'm attracted to it, but one team never blew me away more than another did.
Except with Navy, there was something different.
My Dad didn't go to the Academy, but he served 20 years in the Navy and like me, doesn't really have a favorite college football team. Still, most years, the Army-Navy game was a must-watch and I grew up saying the words "Beat Army."
Navy stuck with me because it means something more to me than just football. I still like and root for other teams, unless they're playing the Mids and whenever people ask who my favorite college team was, I had an answer; Navy.
So yea, I was going to Baltimore on Saturday.
It wasn't terrible, I made it to Baltimore in a little over an hour and a half from the Eastern Shore, but I did catch traffic. It wasn't your ordinary heavy Baltimore traffic though. When I was about 30 minutes outside of Baltimore, I rolled up to two cop cars in front of me who were going about 15 miles-per-hour on I-97.
Not only were the cars going that slow, but they were riding on the lines, slowing down three lanes of traffic. I was thinking, "What the hell is this?" but then I looked ahead and saw more cop cars surrounding about four or five buses all going the same speed.
It was an escort for the Midshipmen, and suddenly I wasn't mad anymore. But I wasn't about to ride behind this thing all the way into Baltimore, so I pulled over, took a 20 minute power nap, got gas, grabbed something to eat and then continued my trek at normal highway speeds.
I was able to park within walking distance of the Inner Harbor in a little lot. I pulled up to pull a ticket out for the day, and then I noticed the sign that listed the prices. One stuck out to me: 2+ HOURS = $26.00
I think it's because I'm not from the city that I'm always shocked by public parking prices, but twenty six dollars sounds a bit ridiculous. By the time I read the sign, an old lady in her sedan had pulled up behind me so it was time to bite the bullet and just park.
I didn't know exactly where the GameDay set was. I knew it was in the Inner Harbor, but if you have ever been there, you know it's a pretty big place. I saw a group of Cadets and decided that they knew where they were going and I was just going to follow them.
They did. And the closer I got to the set the louder it got. I could hear the chants, the bands and the cheers.
Right behind the set was reserved for a section of Mids and Cadets in uniforms, so I went around the front and set myself up on the side, with a good view of the student crowd and Corso and the gang up top.
I was running a bit late, but I made it there just as Kirk Herbstreit was making his way back to the set after the rest of the crew talked with Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
From there I was able to watch the set and take in the crowd too. It was a really awesome experience. Whenever one of the guys on the set would refer to either team, a chant, cheers or a song would follow it. A really cool moment was when the Army band started playing, "The Army Goes Rolling Along" and all of the Cadets in the crowd joined in to sing. Of course, sometime after that, the Navy band came back with their "Anchors Aweigh" and the Midshipmen joined in to sing.
As the show went on the chants and cheers came and went, but then all of a sudden I heard, "ROGER! ROGER! ROGER!"
I started looking around and then all of sudden, walking right in front of me was Roger Freaking Staubach, the greatest football player in the history of the Naval Academy.
"In 61 years of college football, I have never seen a player as good as Roger Staubach." - Lee Corso
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) December 13, 2014
Staubach joined the guys on the set to talk about the history of the rivalry and then later re-joined to make picks. To no surprise, Roger and everyone - besides Herbie - picked the 15-point favored Mids to win. When the guys all announced their picks, one Cadet shouted "HERBIE IS THE ONLY REAL AMERICAN!"
Another awesome part about attending GameDay is that the set up crew makes sure that there are TV's everywhere and that the sound is on point, so myself and the crowd could not only see ourselves on TV, but we could hear everything that the guys were saying. With that, I was able to catch Gene Wojciechowski's powerful feature story on Tom Cutinella.
While the story played on the big screen, Tom's teammates and family gathered on stage:
Of course, GameDay didn't go without rival fans heckling one another. One sign there showed a picture of Army QB Angel Santiago crying with letters that read "BIG GIRLS DO CRY. BEAT ARMY." There were other random signs too, like one that read, "HEY JAMEIS, THE BEST CRABS ARE IN ANNAPOLIS" and another with a picture of Taylor Swift that read "SHIP IT OFF."
Out of all of the signs I saw, this one - from a Cadet - was my favorite:
The heckling was on display again when the Army cheerleaders exited the set and had to walk in front of a crowd of Mids:
As soon as Corso put on the Billy Goat head the show was over and the Mids and Cadets scattered. A number of fans stuck around though to try and talk to, get an autograph from or get a picture with one of the ESPN guys. To no surprise, Herbie was the one everyone wanted to see, and suddenly a large group of girls made their way past me and to the side of the set where Herbie would be exiting. Once Herbie came out into the crowd, Army and Navy fans alike surrounded him.
Whenever I go to cover games, whether it'd be high school, college or professional sports, I have a strict rule about not asking athletes or anyone I'm covering for pictures or autographs or anything like that.
But on this day, I wasn't wearing a press credential. I wasn't working. I was a fan.
So when I saw Lee Corso, I shook his hand and this happened:
Me: "Hey Coach, nice to meet you!"
LC: "Hey there, what's your name?"
LC: "Well Mitch it was nice to meet you too."
Me: "Thanks Coach, can I get a picture with you real quick?"
LC: "Yea! Right now!"
LC: "Have a good one!"
I've been watching Lee Corso on Saturday's since I was a kid, so that was the highlight of my day.
After the GameDay experience came to a close I had about three and a half hours to kill before the game started.
I wasn't going to the game and had just planned on watching the game at a bar nearby. But before heading there, I got some Christmas Shopping done at some of the shops at the Inner Harbor, had some lunch and started scoping the area out for some bars.
There was one right across the street from where I parked. An Irish bar called Tir Na Nog, and when I walked in - with Navy gear on - this was hanging over the bar:
I was in the right place.
Fans came and went, most of them Army, but it was an enjoyable experience. The bar had good drinks and decent food and the fans were vocal. When Army blocked the punt in the first quarter, the bartenders and some of the fans cheered. Then as Navy made their comeback, I and a few other Midshipmen fans clapped and yelled as well.
The bar wasn't packed though, there was always an empty bar stool for someone to find. I think this was mostly because most of the fans that made the trip to Baltimore were actually going to the game instead of doing what I did. After Navy won their 13th straight against Army I left the bar and headed towards my car for my trek back home.
The thing that I took away from the GameDay set, the bar, the experience and the day as a whole was that Army-Navy isn't your typical rivalry.
This isn't Yankees-Red Sox or Michigan-Ohio State.
Yes, once a year, these guys get on the same field and battle it out and the bragging rights - like any other rivalry - mean something. Beat Army and Beat Navy aren't just words for the Mids and Cadets; they're lifestyles. If your class loses the game, that sticks with you forever.
But when the game is over, the players shake hands and their goal becomes one again.
To protect their country.
It's why the fans, while heckling one another in fun, kept it clean during the GameDay set. There were no fights, no bad language that I heard, or anything approaching the type of atmosphere that you might see at a Steelers-Ravens game.
The fans, the Midshipmen and Cadets all understand that this is a great tradition and a great rivalry. But they also understand that it's just a game and when the final whistle blows, we're all on the same team.