Photo: Cole Christiansen
We all watch the Army-Navy Game with respect for players on the field, not to mention the Cadets and Midshipmen in the stands. They’re committed to a volunteer military that accounts for only 0.4 percent of our nation's population.
And if you’ve attended the game -- as I have three times as a reporter -- your respect rises to another level upon soaking in the sights, sounds and feel of the environment. This year I'll be watching my fourth game, but with tickets from the stands with two high school friends from Big Rapids, Mi. -- one a 1978 West Point graduate, Ret. Col. Rick Steinke, and another a former Ferris State track athlete, Rex Schuberg.
At my first game, President Obama attended in 2011 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. As is the presidential custom, he watched one half from Navy’s side and the other from Army’s side. The crowd roared as the Commander-in-Chief made the midfield walk to the other side with Cadets and Midshipmen forming a tunnel as his path.
It's a sight you have to see in the stadium to fully appreciate.
My twitter page, @shanny4055, features a photo of President Kennedy at the 1962 Army-Navy Game for the pre-game coin toss. He planned to attend the 1963 game until the world changed with his assassination in Dallas 45 years ago this week.
If the awe is palpable for reporters and fans, imagine what the players feel.
Roger Staubach, the Pro and College Football Hall of Famer that won two Super Bowls and the 1963 Heisman Trophy as Navy's quarterback, says he's never been more nervous before a kickoff than his first Army-Navy Game as a sophomore in 1962.
Army junior linebacker Cole Christiansen admits he underestimated the Army-Navy Game as a recruit out of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Suffolk,Va. He knows better now that he’s preparing for his third showdown and second as a starter when Army (9-2) and Navy (3-7) play on Dec. 8 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
“You realize how big the scope actually is,” Christiansen told me. “When I first committed, people said to me, ‘Oh my gosh -- the Army-Navy Game. How exciting is that?’ I said I was ‘really excited, but it’s a football game.’ But then you get to the game and you realize how many people are in the stadium, how loud it is and how many people are watching on TV. You’ve been getting letters and phone calls from people in Afghanistan. You think, ‘Holy crap – the whole world is watching this game!’ You don’t realize it until you’re actually a part of it.”
Christiansen plays one of the bigger parts in the 119th Army-Navy Game. In addition to starting every game the past two seasons, he is the first junior since 2015 named a team captain along with two seniors, fullback Darnelll Woolfolk and center Bryce Holland.
He and senior inside linebacker James Nachtigal are 1-2 in tackles in the Black Knights’ 3-4 alignment. Nachtigal’s 73 tackles and Christiansen 65 demonstrates balance and teamwork within the linebacker corps and defensive unit. Nachtigal has 5.5 tackles for a loss with five sacks and a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Christiansen has 10.5 tackles for a loss with one sack and a forced fumble.
“We’ve got a really tight room,” Christiansen said. “Before the season started, we always get together as linebackers and say we want our room to be the best room in that hallway. We’ve gotten to know each other really well. We know each others’ playing style.”
Christiansen and Nachtigal play hand-in-hand behind defensive linemen with the task of tying up blockers to clear a path to the ball carrier. But senior outside linebackers Kenneth Brinson, a semifinalist for the Campbell Award presented to the nation’s top scholar-athlete with a 3.9 GPA in chemical engineering, and Chandler Ramirez are also part of the unit.
Nachtigal is playing in his 48th game with his 23rd start; Christiansen, 31st game, 25th start; Brinson 49th game, 44th start; and Ramirez, 28th game and 12th start.
“This is my third year playing with these guys and it is their fourth year together,” Christiansen said. “It’s really cool playing with people around you that know their job and you can trust them to do their job. Kenny is brilliant, so obviously you don’t have to worry he knows what to do. It’s comforting having those guys around you.”
As a direct admit in the Class of 2016, Christiansen now has a chance to be a part of a third straight milestone in the Army-Navy Game.
In 2016, the Black Knights won 21-17 to end a 14-year losing streak to the Midshipemen. Army’s 8-5 record was their first winning record since a 7-6 mark in 2010.
In 2017, Army won 14-13 to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with a sweep of Air Force and Navy for the first time since 1996.
In 2018, the Black Knights have already retained the CiC after beating Air Force, but they can win it outright for the second straight year. That would mark a first for the Black Knights in the history of the series that began in 1972.
Christiansen and his teammates are home for Thanksgiving before returning to gear up for a game they’ve been preparing for since last year’s edition ended. Another sign that he's a veteran is detected from his plans while at home.
"My first year I brought home all these nice clothes to go out and see everybody I ever knew and say, 'Hey, I'm back!" he said, lampooning himself. "Now that I'm a junior and I've been back a few times, I'll be in sweat pants and hanging out with my dog. I'm excited about that."
Then, upon returning to campus, the build up to the biggest rivalry in college sports begins.
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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."