Photo: Retired U.S. Army Colonel Rick Steinke in Afghanistan with the Marshall Center.
No annual sports event is bigger to a West Point or Annapolis graduate than the Army-Navy Game with its unique pageantry and history that is played for the 115th time on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
For retired U.S. Army Colonel Rick Steinke, a Big Rapids High alumnus and West Point grad, 40 years have passed since his first Army-Navy Game as a wide-eyed plebe – freshman in Army vernacular.
But Steinke almost missed his first Army-Navy Game in 1974 at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Midway through fall semester doubts grew he could meet the demands designed to groom future Army officers at the U.S. Military Academy.
“I honestly didn’t know if I was going to make it,” said Steinke, the former Big Rapids quarterback and pitcher who tossed a no-hitter for the Cardinals as a senior in a North Central Conference road game against Clare.
That hardly made Steinke unique. In July 1974, he reported among 1,450 cadets for West Point’s boot camp, known as Beast Barracks. Midway through the first semester, 200 had already returned home; many more would add to the total by the end of the school year and graduation.
Steinke’s service to his country is a story of perseverance but also a universal example of a high school teacher and coach who made a difference beyond the job description. Denny Love, a Big Rapids teacher and coach from 1970 to 1983, visited with Steinke on a side trip up the Hudson River to West Point following a New York Giants football game.
“This was near my lowest point morale-wise at the academy,” Steinke said. “I had survived Beast barracks, but was now in full academic and disciplinary immersion at the academy, and pretty darn home sick. The fact that Denny and Sharry would take a detour from going to see Brad Van Pelt and an NFL game in New York was deeply appreciated, even more now as I look back upon it all these years later. His visit really bucked me up.”
Love didn’t realize the importance of his timing until much later. It was simply a stop a coach felt the tug to make while he, his wife, his old friend Rob Van Pelt and Rob’s wife Sandy were in New York. Rob is the older brother of Brad Van Pelt, who was in his second season with the Giants as a College Football Hall of Famer out of Michigan State and Owosso.
“I recall it was rainy night at West Point, but it was still a great experience to be in that environment,” Love said. “I had a lot of special players as a coach, and Rick was one of them. It was good to spend some time with him.”
Steinke will watch this year’s game from Germany – his 22nd Army-Navy Game while overseas. The former artillery officer is a civilian Associate Dean for the Department of Defense at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. His Marshall Center duties have included accompanying Army brass to Afghanistan. From September 2010 to March 2011 Steinke was deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Deputy Civil-Military Coordinator, responsible for facilitating U.S. military and U.S. government civilian cooperation in the country.
During Steinke’s West Point days, Army lost to Navy his first three seasons. Army finally won his senior year 17-14 in 1977 at JFK Stadium, the ancient Philadelphia edifice that is now the site of the parking lot surrounding Lincoln Financial Field. He and his fellow "firsties" (seniors) in the stands celebrated wildly.
“There is nothing quite like the Army-Navy Game in sports,” Steinke said. “This is as pure as college sports gets. The Cadets and Midshipmen are all studying, training and preparing to lead our Army and Navy in the defense of our country and allies. In the last 10 years, that has meant a lot of real sacrifices and in many cases the ultimate sacrifice.”