Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: USMA

Army vs Ball State – Cadets crush the Cardinals…

It’s an early start on Saturday morning for Dad and I, after the Syracuse game the night before we manage a few hours of shuteye at the Marriott Residence Inn before piling into the car at 6am for the three hour jaunt down to West Point. With an early noon kickoff looming, we have to hit the road early enough to spend a few hours exploring the fabled grounds of the United States Military Academy campus. The sunrise drive is exhausting, as a thick blanket of fog covers the highway and scattered showers pelt the windshield. A quick look at the ominous grey skies is confirmed by my Weather Channel app, and it portends a lousy forecast for the afternoon. With no cloud break in sight we’ll be in for a soggy adventure.

The same errant storms had swept through the midwest last night, grounding planes and stranding my friend Bryce in Chicago. With plans to attend his 15 year reunion at West Point, this weekend was a homecoming for him, and with a handful of his fellow ring bearing classmates coming into town for the game, it would have offered a rare inside tour of the USMA campus from a group of graduates. Ponchos dutifully packed, we’d have to brave the campus alone while Bryce texted suggestions remotely, a captive in O’Hare airport.

Approaching the gates at West Point, it’s quickly evident that this isn’t your normal college football environment. A guard in BDU’s waves us through the checkpoint terminal after an obligatory glance at the Jetta, and we wind through the rocky, wooded hillside approaching campus. Humvees and massive military transport trucks line the roads at key intersections, funneling vehicles into the game day areas while the MP’s direct traffic, their fluorescent yellow vests contrasting with the dark camo uniforms beneath. Bob’s parking pass, which he generously bestowed the night before, grants us access in the “C” lot, and we pull into an easy parking space within eyesight of Michie Stadium, a welcome change from my usual far flung free parking antics.

Boarding a shuttle bus that the Academy runs for visitors on gamedays, it winds further down the hill into the main campus, before dropping us at the drill field – a flat green expanse flanked by bleachers where cadets will spend hundreds of hours in formation during their four year stint here. From there we wander the campus, at least those portions of it that are open to the public, as cadets are posted throughout the area providing strict yet courteous directions on where the general public is permitted to go. Even for a coarse civilian slob draped in a giant green poncho like me, they answer each question with a curt, respectful “sir” at the end.

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Statues and traditions abound at West Point, none of which I’ll do even remote justice to here, but suffice to say a “who’s who” of the most influential American leaders since the American Revolution have passed through these storied walls, many of them enshrined in bronze and spread throughout campus. Arguably, no other “college” in the world has had such far reaching impact on the landscape of the modern world as the leaders that have graduated from West Point – aka “the long gray line”. We pass by a figure of George Patton standing watchfully in front of the USMA library, an inside joke from what I understand, since George was a notoriously lax student during his time here. I find Eisenhower and Douglas McArthur posted around the drill field, as well as a giant statue of George Washington mounted on his horse pointing out over the Hudson River beyond.

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The dining hall is a spectacle itself, an incredible stone hall befitting a Harry Potter film set, as oak paneling covers the walls while flags and insignia hang from the rafters. They feed five thousand cadets and staff three squares a day in these walls, all within a one hour time frame – which is quite a logistical feat. The tables arranged neatly in each of the wings, they are all numbered for each Company, as each Cadet eats with their assigned group.

From there we make our way to Trophy Point, a perch on the edge of campus overlooking a strategic bend in the Hudson River. As one of the only natural choke points in the Hudson, a critical lifeline during the Revolutionary War, West Point occupies incredibly valuable real estate from a military perspective. Whomever was able to secure this ground, could control the Hudson, hence the historical significance of the Continental Army building the first fort here and defending it so vigorously. Today, Trophy Point serves as a collection ground of cannons from every significant military conflict since the Revolutionary War and offers a splendid view up the Hudson River valley.

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As kickoff looms, we wind back up the hill towards Michie Stadium, stopping for a visit at the Chapel – a soaring stone tribute to classic Gothic church architecture. Built in 1910 of the same gray and black granite featured throughout campus, the Chapel is the architectural icon of West Point. Featuring a classic cross shaped floor plan, the impressive interior space is matched only by the view it’s stone terrace affords over the Hudson River Valley. Light filters through the ornate stained glass work, and central in the glass mosaic are the words “Duty. Honor. Country.” the motto for the USMA. It’s the centerpiece for what is, quite simply, one of the most breathtaking and tradition rich campuses in the country.

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We finish our climb up the hill, and file into Michie Stadium as the pre game cadet march on winds down, the neat, gray square formations of future soldiers disband as they take their seats in the East Bleachers. The game kicks off under a deluge, and the slick ball quickly makes things sloppy. On only the second play from scrimmage, Ball State wide receiver Jahwan Edwards coughs up the ball into the hands of the Army defense. The Black Knights promptly march the short 29 yards down the field for an early touchdown. Despite the weather, Army plays a well executed game, managing the inclement weather by controlling the tempo and chewing up an impressive 425 yards of rushing. With each Black Knights touchdown, half a dozen cannon blasts explode from the woods across Lusk Reservoir, the booming report echoing off the water while a trail of blue gray smoke floats out of the splendid fall colors lining the pond.

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At halftime, I meet up with my friend Kurt, who arrives sopping in a flimsy plastic poncho and flooded, sleek black loafers.  A 1994 USMA graduate, he’s in town for his 20th reunion.  While Kurt joined the civilian ranks after his required military service, the leadership skills imparted at West Point have served him (and thousands of others) well, as he has moved on to an extremely successful career in the corporate world.  For his classmates that made a career in the military, however, after twenty years of service they are approaching “full bird” colonel status, a reference to the silver eagles that are pinned to a colonel’s uniform – a considerable milestone for an Army officer.

Later, after the third quarter, the cadets host a mascot race on the field, where various cadets dressed in costume compete against one another, presumably for some kind of inter company bragging rights. The “race” ends in a complete melee, as more senior cadets rush down from the stands to trip, tackle, body slam or otherwise impede the racers – all to the delight of the roaring crowd. But Army running back Larry Dixon takes things a bit more seriously, as the senior running back carries the ball 28 times on the day, rumbling for 188 yards and grinding the Ball State defense into a constant retreat. To the delight of the alumni in attendance, Army prevails with a convincing 33-24 that was a far more dominant performance than the final score would belie.

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In the end, despite the miserable weather and the missed connection with Bryce, I was still floored by the West Point experience. While the Black Knights may never contend on the national level again, as a pure college football destination West Point ranks among the best. There is simply a unique appeal to atmosphere along the banks of the Hudson River, which, coupled with the history, tradition and seriousness of the school mission, make it a must see for any serious fan of the college game. I for one, can’t wait for a return trip with a few folks that can give me a first hand tour of exactly how special a place the United States Military Academy really is.

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Thank you again to Bob for generously providing his season tickets and parking pass for the game, and hopefully next time we can both meet up in West Point when the weather is a little nicer!

Thank you to my friend Kurt for braving the weather and meeting up at halftime!  I appreciate all the tips in advance of my visit, and a few more brief history lessons while chatting away in the rain.  Always great to catch up!

Thanks again to my father for another year of joining me on this unique adventure, and for keeping a positive spirit despite the lousy weather.

Thank you to my friend Bryce for all the recommendations, and I can’t wait to head back here some time in the near future with you to get the full insider perspective…

Full clickthrough gallery below:

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Philly Cheesesteak Showdown…

It’s the iconic sandwich the City of Brotherly Love is known for, and although glaringly cliché’ I wanted to eat a handful of these delightfully greasy gut bombs during my weekend in town.  While most visitors are immediately drawn to the vaporous neon glow of Geno’s and Pat’s, I wanted to find something beyond the usual tourist traps.  I’d been to of those places before, and while it may be blasphemous to any native Philadelphian, I found them completely underwhelming and substandard.  I’d love to hear a counter argument in favor of any dining establishment that espouses the use of “cheese wiz” on anything they serve.  So during my quick weekend in Philadelphia, I endeavored to find the real deal.

Three places emerged to the top of my research: Dalessandro’s, Jim’s and Tony Lukes. While each of these may be well known to Philly natives, they are not as familiar to outsiders.  In order to give an accurate comparison to the three contenders, I ordered the same sandwich at each – a simple cheesesteak sandwich with American cheese and grilled onions.  Why that combo?  Because I like it, that’s why.  And, it’s simple, and these are simple, working class sandwiches after all.

Tony Lukes – My first stop on Saturday morning. Hustling through the industrial wasteland part of town, I skirted past the beckoning entrance of Ricks Cabaret & Lounge – an adult entertainment club touting “divorce parties” and pulled into the red and white checkered confines of Tony Lukes.  A few yellow lights and some flashes of stainless steel trim round out the décor of the simple sandwich stand.

Tony Lukes2Whatever anticipation I held for the sandwich to come, however, was quickly extinguished by the gruff counterman who could barely be bothered to take my simple order.  Conveniently, Tony Lukes also refuses to provide water for customers, so I had to order an overpriced soda.  As if the dirtbag service and water miserliness wasn’t enough, Tony Lukes doesn’t have any heating in the dining area (in December) or provide public restroom facilities of any kind.  What a complete dump.

Fear not, however, because the sandwiches at Tony Lukes are thoroughly craptastic as well!  The french roll is chewy, and instead of being mixed into the steak, the meager cheese allotment is tossed uncaringly onto the top cold.  Even the steak itself is lazily sliced (not finely chopped) into lifeless, grey, gristly slabs of rubber that left my jaw feeling like I just went a few rounds with Rocky.  I made sure to take a good look around before leaving Tony Lukes, because I’ll never see this place again.

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 Jim’s – I visited Jim’s late on Saturday night after spending the entire day fighting off the blustering cold mist in Lincoln Financial Field during the Army Navy game.  Chilled to the bone, and thoroughly exhausted, I probably could have eaten the ass end of flattened roadkill – an option that still sounded better than a second sandwich from Tony Lukes.

Jims 2Fortunately, Jims fared much better.  Here, you watch the cook through a glass window, deftly whacking away at a pile of steak on the steaming cook top.  He chops the steak up finely, lays a few slices of American cheese into the bun, and tops the sandwich with a few caramelized onions.  Though I would have liked to see the cheese mixed into and melted across the steak, overall this was a solid sandwich.

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If I can think of one drawback to Jim’s, it’s the agonizing lines and wait time for a sandwich.  Located in center city Philadelphia, a bustling part of town on a Saturday night, throngs of hungry revelers lined up around the block for upwards of a 30 minute wait for a sandwich.  I don’t know if the wait times are always that bad, but it’s something to consider.

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Dalessandro’s – My final cheesesteak trial, I optioned for a breakfast at Dalessandro’s on Sunday morning before catching my flight out of Philly.  Making the fifteen minute drive to Northwest Philadelphia, the tiny corner shop is located a few miles outside the downtown Philadelphia area.  I line up promptly at 11AM, sliding into one of their counter stools soon after they opened the doors for business.  Not long after arriving, the place is jammed with takeout orders, clearly a popular neighborhood spot.

Dalessandros2Of the three, Dalessandro’s was finest offering of the classic Philly Cheesesteak.  The steak was finely chopped and browned, with the cheese completely folded in and melted across the steak.  A handful of onions garnished across the top, and the roll had a nice crunch on the outside but chewy inside.  It was well executed simplicity.  The perfect start to Sunday morning.  

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Dalessandro’s Website:

In the end, Dalessandro’s was a clear cut winner based on my criteria. Jim’s, however, would be a perfectly serviceable option if I found myself in the downtown area with a hankering.  But in case you missed it, I’d sooner eat three year old sofa pizza before returning to Tony Lukes again…

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Army vs Navy – Middies sing second…

Saturday morning is an overcast, gloomy day, typical of the Northeast in early December.  Rain looms overhead in the grey sky, and I motor through the post industrial wasteland surrounding Philadelphia International Airport.  Stepping fresh off a red eye flight from the west coast, I groggily speed past an immense Sunoco Oil refinery and the rusting iron mountains of the Camden Scrapyards.  After spending the preceding week in sunny Southern California, the welcome into Philly is hardly picturesque.  Coupled with the dismal weather and a 13 game season long grind, this makes for a miserable end to the season.

I’m in town for the Army vs Navy game, the annual contest between the nations’ premiere military academies.  While in the early part of the 20th century, this contest may have defined the national championship, today the two teams struggle to maintain competitiveness amidst their outsized college football brethren.  Dating back to 1890, the two squads have squared off 113 times throughout the years, making this one of the oldest rivalries in the sport, and, without bloated NFL contracts beckoning, arguably the most heated.  While Navy holds the edge 57-49 all-time, they have owned the contest for the past decade, reeling off 10 straight lopsided wins over their foes from the Hudson River Valley.  In standing with tradition, the Army Navy game is the final regular season game in college football, and typically played at a banal neutral site.  In this case, Philadelphia.

I park on the corner of Lawrence and Pattison, finding a free spot in the sprawling industrial park that surrounds Lincoln Financial Field – home of the Philadelphia Eagles.  As you’ve heard my familiar refrain before, NFL Stadiums are soulless beasts.  Far removed from the city, and plopped coldly into the asphalt ridden, toxic waste part of town on a reclaimed swamp – the area surrounding the stadium is lifeless.  A cultural desert.  Neutral site games at NFL Stadiums are a pox on the colorful world of College Football, and Philly proves no exception.

With little else to do, I hustle over to the stadium and scalp a $75 face value ticket for thirty bucks from a West Point alum whose friend failed to show.  Thousands of Army cadets mill around the parking area outside the stadium in their caped grey coats.  Yellow and Grey flags, known as “Guidons”, demarcate the different companies.  The numbered Guidons flap in the blustering mist, while pop songs bump noisily out of tower loudspeakers.  The cadets chat with each other restlessly, a few exchange hugs with family members over the steel cattle guards cordoning them off.  For the freshman, this may be the first time they’ve seen family since induction.

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Although there are still three hours until kickoff, I press into the burgeoning queue to enter the stadium.  The infamous “march on”, where the academy cadets make their ceremonious entry onto the field starts over three hours before kickoff.  I haven’t lined up to enter this early since #2 Alabama vs. #1LSU last year in Tuscaloosa, and I don’t have nearly the same “provisions” with me this time around.   The lines to enter are log jammed, backed up by the cumbersome enhanced security procedures.  Metal detectors line the entrance gates, and I empty my pockets into a plastic bin before a brusque additional pat down that gropes my sides.  It’s a sad glimpse into our future of paranoia and fear.  Only a matter of time before these obtrusive procedures are found at every sporting event in the country, all in the name of illusory “public safety”.

A massive artillery piece greets me on the concourse, the 16’ barrel thrust menacingly into the sky.  It’s a M777 155mm Howitzter, or “Triple Seven” according to the 1st Lieutenant standing next to it in camo BDU’s.  It fires a 6” diameter round about the size of your average household vacuum cleaner.    With an effective range of over 15 miles, and a digital fire control system, it’s a far cry from the WW2 era artillery pieces found on the History Channel.  Unfortunately, according to the Lt. who chuckles at my query, they won’t be lighting the gun off as part of Army’s ceremonial entrance.  I assure him that nobody would really miss parts of west New Jersey anyway…

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In fact, in the parlance of our modern, ADD riddled, sporting audiences that constantly thirst for garish jumbotrons and disneyfied in stadium “entertainment”, the Army Navy contest could really spice up the entrances a bit.  It would certainly bolster recruiting.  In lieu of the reverent and traditional “march on”, they could take a page from the NFL or, better yet, NBA.  The Army squad could roll in firing the cannons of a tank armada, artillery pieces mounted on the concourses blazing away while the players rappel in from Apache helicopters circling above.  Navy could sail a Destroyer up the Delaware River, (hell, maybe even an old Battleship) and start touching off the 16” deck guns while a Harrier jet hovers in to deliver the game ball.  Instead of a boring card stunt, fans could be issued chem light glow sticks and flash bang grenades, all of them waving proudly to the latest inane pop song.   It would make the Miami Hurricanes smoke entrance look like a Pop Warner game.

Fortunately, however, some semblance of taste and tradition prevail at the Army Navy contest, and the “march on” commences under a dull grey sky.

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Navy marches on first.  Midshipmen file out of the tunnel in a tight march, garbed in their white capped hats and dress black uniforms.  They form up across the field, filling nearly the entirety of the playing surface in tight square formations before being dismissed to their seats.  Army marches in second, decked out in their monochromatic grey caped coats and caps.  A voice over the loudspeakers announces each company number as they enter, along with the name of the respective company commander, half of whom seem to hail from Texas for whatever reason.  After assuming their seats, the Army corps belt out a “We are Army” chant in unison.  Navy responds, catcalling them with high pitched “whoops”.

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With the entrance ceremonies over, there are still over two hours to kill until kickoff.  Pregame videos air over the jumbotron, various comedy skits prepared by each of the academies taking jabs at the other.  The best is a parodied “Gangam Style” music video by the USMA, with a perfectly cast, chubby Asian cadet dancing across some of the historic landmarks of the West Point campus.

Twenty minutes before kickoff, the “prisoner exchange” takes place.  Student ambassadors serving a semester at the opposing academy are returned to their rightful ranks, ceremoniously marched across the field to rejoin their corps.  With a looming fog overhead, the parachute teams set to deliver the game ball are called off, but a card stunt turns the entire stadium into a panorama of Red, White and Blue.  I shoehorn into an open seat on the Navy side, Section 117 on the lower deck, surrounded by Naval Academy alums and parents.

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When the game kicks off, the two squads butt heads for the first quarter, exchanging a handful of punts.  The Army defense proves surprisingly resilient against the famed Navy triple option rushing attack.  In the second quarter, the game breaks loose a bit.  Army coughs up their first turnover, and Navy capitalizes with a methodical march down the field for a touchdown.  The Black Knights bounce back quickly, however, promptly moving the length of the field for a touchdown of their own.  After a couple more field goals to end the second quarter, the scoreboard stands knotted at 10 apeice.  Army fans revel in the rare glimmer of hope for the second quarter.

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At halftime, like the Presidential tradition, I switch sides.  Vice president Joe Biden, attending on behalf of Obama, does the same.  As he marches across the field from the Army side to the Navy confines, he’s greeted with a rousing chorus of boos as he crosses the field, giving a half hearted politicians wave.  The boos are no surprise given the almost exclusively military fan base in attendance.  Unlike the VP, however, I have to wind my way around the concourse to the other side.  The Secret Service might frown on me hustling across the 30 yard line…

On the way over to the Army side, I hit a concession stand for a basket of chicken fingers and a bottle of water.  The attendant deliberately screws off the cap off the bottle and tosses it aside, handing me the open bottle and my change.  She retains the cap.  Odd…

“Can I have the cap please?  I’d like to be able to reseal it…” I press, out of curiosity.

“I have to take the cap off the water.  Policy.” the attendant responds.

“Why?” I ask, befuddled at such an odd policy.

“Because with the cap off, the bottle won’t hold fluid.  And if it won’t hold fluid, you can’t throw it onto the field”

For a brief second I pause, dumbfounded.  Then I remember I’m in Philadelphia.  Lincoln Financial Field specifically, home of the Eagles and a Philly fan base that is unanimously regarded as the most crude and unruly in sports.  The same people who throw snowballs and batteries, intentionally puke on children, and even boo Santa Claus.  Suddenly, this bottle cap policy makes complete sense.

Settling into my new digs in section 105 on the Army side, the two academies take the field for the second half.  I chat up a few of the West Point alums around me, amazed at the brotherhood that exists across academy graduates.  With modest graduating class sizes of around 1300 and deep generational legacies, everyone seems to know each other.  Backs are slapped in reunion, and handshakes take place over the green plastic seatbacks with heavy West Point class rings adorning outstretched hands.  The acronym heavy dialogue is nearly impossible to understand, as if talking in code as they trade stories about various posts and deployments.  But the affinity between alums is real, palpable even.  These are bonds forged by over 200 years of instilled tradition and training, far beyond the scope of your silly, run of the mill, fraternity paddle hazing ritual.

As the Black Knights kick off for the second half, the entire section is alive, emboldened with hope.  For the first time in nearly a decade, the contest is a competitive one, the Navy streak possibly in doubt.  When Army kicker Eric Osteen thumps a field goal deep into the third quarter, the cadets take a 13-10 lead, and the crowd swells with glee.  But in the 4th frame, Osteen shanks another field goal attempt, and Navy quickly responds with a touchdown to assume a 17-13 lead with only four minutes remaining.  When Army takes over, they mount an impressive eleven play drive.  Rumbling for four yards here, seven yards there, the snakebit Army faithful brim with enthusiasm. Even a glint of confidence, perhaps.  With a first down at the Navy 14 yard line, a sliver of green separates them from reclaiming the Commander in Chief Trophy.

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But then, heartbreak ensues.  Running back Larry Dixon, in a moment that will haunt him forever, botches the handoff, fumbling the ball into the eager Navy defense.  After a few snaps to kill the clock, the Middies skate away with a 17-13 win.  Both teams exchange the traditional singing of the Alma Maters, but Navy sings second…

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In the end, I’m glad to have checked the Army Navy game off my bucket list.  Impressed by the passion on the field and deep camaraderie shared among fans, any college football junkie would revere this game.  Like most neutral site games, however, the venue lacks any defining personality and detracts from one of the most heated rivalries in all of sports.  Playing the game in college football vacuum like Philadelphia, in an NFL stadium, in a toxic waste part of town, dampens the spirit of the event.  Yes, I know it’s been played in Philly forever.  But that doesn’t make it suck any less.  The game should be played at the Academies.  Home and home.  Let the steep traditions of West Point and Annapolis surround the contest, and create an authentic game day atmosphere worthy of these two institutions.  While the two Academies will never regain their former glory atop the polls in College Football, the game belies a certain reverence to tradition, respect and honor that is rare in the sport these days.  The game deserves a venue worthy of that heritage.

Special thanks to my friend and USMA graduate Bryce, for his insider perspective on how best to experience this historic rivalry.

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