It was the most fans Gillette Stadium had seen in a while, according to some of the security and staff working America’s Game on Saturday afternoon. The most excitement and team spirit too, from both sides. But what impressed and delighted the stadium staff the most was the respect shown by all. Which is maybe, probably more of a commentary on New England Patriots fans.
It was a typical Army-Navy game day — cloudy but not too cold, cadets and fans out in full force, special guests like Rob Gronkowski and Dave Portnoy in the Foxborough house. If you’ve never been to America’s Game, I highly recommend — walking up to the stadium feels like Christmas.
The mood after the game, however, was the most somber I’ve seen in years — as if the events of the last three minutes were still sinking in. Army was subdued, having been in the passenger seat for much of the second half. And Navy’s sideline was filled with tear-streaked seniors.
Army’s locker room was a different story but as the Black Knights raised the coveted Commander-In-Chief Trophy, head coach Jeff Monken must have still been thinking about those last six inches.
“Man, one of our coaches said on the headset, welcome to the Army-Navy game,” exclaimed Monken post-game. “He’s right. It’s always like that. We had a 14-point lead, and one second to go, they’re standing there knocking on the door with a chance to tie the game up. Unreal... That’s what’s great about the game. Their players played hard, played their hearts out. Ours did, too. Fortunately, we came up with a play there at the end and got away with the victory.”
If you saw the game, you know miscues played a big role — on Navy’s second drive, senior quarterback Xavier Arline threw an interception to Army defensive back Max DiDomenico for a 30-yard swing. Then Navy inserted quarterback Tai Lavatai three drives later to help the Midshipmen mount a second-half comeback, but with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Florida native fumbled the ball into Army inside linebacker Kalib Fortner’s hands. The sophomore linebacker proceeded to run 44 yards to the house, giving the Black Knights a 17-3 lead with 4:49 to play.
“Can’t turn the ball over twice in a game like this and expect to win — if there’s a defensive score in a game like this, I don’t know if the other team’s ever won that game,” admitted Navy head coach Brian Newberry.
Navy fought hard to come back. Lavatai found senior wide receiver Jayden Umbarger for a 14-yard touchdown with just under five minutes left but the gutsy 2-point conversion was unsuccessful. And moments later for the final act, Army executed a goal-line stand heard round the world. The Black Knights stuffed a quarterback sneak with just three seconds left and Navy could only watch as Army quarterback Bryson Daily took an intentional safety to end the game. Six inches, three seconds, and the rest is Army-Navy game history.
Lavatai finished 16-26 with a career-high 179 yards — the most passing yards by a Navy player in an Army-Navy game since Ricky Dobbs completed 6 of 11 passes for 186 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception on Dec. 11, 2010. Lavatai also carried the ball 19 times for a team-high 74 yards. Daily ran for 84 yards and threw Army’s first touchdown pass against Navy since 2015.
Navy’s senior quarterback shouldered a lot of the responsibility for the Mids on Saturday, but he also accepted a lot of the blame for the loss.
“I think just the way that it played out and the way that the second half went for us, it showed the team that we are and the resilience that we have,” said Lavatai. “I fumbled it, they scored but we came right back and scored after that and never gave up. And we had an opportunity to tie it back up again with that last-second but I gotta be better. I had to do better and unfortunately didn’t get it done.”
Things in college football may be changing, some for the better, others not so much. But the senior summed up exactly why the Army-Navy game is forever.
“I think for me, doing it for five years now, including NAPS, just the memories you make with all the guys around you,” Lavatai said. “You get around a group of guys, kind of different each year and you learn to love each person like they’re your own brother and it’s something that builds you into a better man... and definitely going into our field after this and joining the fleet in whatever aspect — (middle linebacker Will Harbour) is going to be a pilot and I’m in service warfare right now. I think these bonds and these lessons that we learn will definitely carry us in leading these sailors and marines in the future.”
So, while Army got the gold star this weekend, Newberry and the Midshipmen know that not everything that glitters is measured in literal wins and losses.
“Losing’s not acceptable for us. It never will be so don’t take what I’m about to say the wrong way, but ultimately there’s more important things than that scoreboard out there,” Newberry said. “I know some people don’t like to hear that but that’s the truth. I love these kids, I love this team, I’m proud of them for a lot of things that they did and a lot of it doesn’t translate to our record or the scoreboard. But the journey they’ve been on, the process, the experiences they’ve had — they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives. And the relationships that have been formed doing the things they do together — some good things, some hard things and some tough things. These guys will be best friends for the rest of their lives, and they’ve got a lot to be proud of and keep their head up for.”
Next year, America’s Game will be played at FedExField in Washington, D.C. and will continue to be a non-conference game despite Army joining Navy in the American Athletic Conference for the 2024 season.