One of the reasons why college football remains so compelling can be traced back to the formation and cultivation of rivalries between schools. Fueled by decades of hard-fought competition on the gridiron, these bragging-rights battles can divide states, friends and even families.
But one rivalry stands alone on the college football landscape.
On Saturday, Dec. 13, for the 115th time, the United States Military Academy will face the United States Naval Academy in a football game – and a rivalry – that remains a unique slice of American life.
“To me, it really is the most unique rivalry out there,” said Col. Gregory Gadson, a 26-year veteran and Purple Heart recipient who recently retired his post as Garrison Commander at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. “You think of Michigan-Ohio State, USC-UCLA – those fans are rivals for 365 days a year. We are only rivals for a few hours on Saturday. For the rest of the time, we are not rivals. We are brothers and sisters in arms.”
This year’s contest will take place at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium and as part of the pageantry that befits the annual contest between the Black Knights and Midshipmen, ESPN’s College GameDay will broadcast live from the site of the game for the first time since the show began traveling across the country in 1993.
“We are really excited,” GameDay host Chris Fowler said. “We are filled with admiration with what these players represent. It’s unique and timeless, and you have the amazing energy in the stadium. We don’t know what to expect (for GameDay). It’s a real scenic backdrop that will look different than the typical GameDay show on a campus. We know it will be a good crowd of cadets and midshipmen.”
Coca-Cola is a longtime supporter of GameDay, and with the Coke Zero-branded Section Zero, some of the best fans at schools across the country have been given a prime opportunity to show their support for their teams.
“Coke’s been a great partner,” Fowler said. “Section Zero is fun because you never know who is going to show up with some of the craziest people out there. That really adds to the mix.”
For the Army-Navy game, Section Zero will get a new twist. Instead of fans from one team, both the Black Knights and Midshipmen will be equally represented in the special section, complete with logos of both schools, the American flag and other appropriate touches that celebrate this special rivalry.
“We want to honor the young men and women who are part of both academies,” said Allyson Young, Coke's director of sports and entertainment marketing. “There are fun things we can do to let them stand out and bring the spirit of Section Zero alive. People will be going crazy in a fun way, but we’ll also honor the traditions of a military matchup.”
Coca-Cola’s longstanding partnership with the USO will be on display as well, as part of the Section Zero festivities and with a USO hospitality tailgate that will feature special dignitaries from both the Army and Navy, and noteworthy alums like Hall of Fame quarterback and Navy alum Roger Staubach and Gadson, who along with his highly decorated military career also starred in the movie Battleship.
“It's a neat and special opportunity,” Gadson said. “It’s really a time to share memories. I’m honored to be included and hang out with some of the special guests. We have a bond, not a hate.”
On the field, Navy, which enters the game with a 6-5 record, has the upper hand in the series, having captured 12 straight contests to boost its all-time mark to 58-49-7 over Army (4-7). But once kickoff begins, you can throw the records out of the window as the chants of “Go Army! Beat Navy!” and “Go Navy! Beat Army!” echo throughout the stadium.
And while many of the alums say the rivalry fades once they graduate, well, that’s not exactly true.
“It’s a pretty important game for me because I played there as well,” said Gadson, a former defensive lineman for the Black Knights. “And three out of my four years, we won.”