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Army-Navy the best rivalry in college football…and it’s not particularly close

Army Cadets storm the field after the Army-Navy NCAA college football game in Baltimore, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. Army won 21-17. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Over the course of nearly two full decades of working with a microphone in front of my face, I’ve said some dumb, regrettable things.

While I’m sure of that fact, I’ve forgotten most of them, but one of those has stuck with me.

In the late 1990s, I worked on a show on which we had a weekly interview with author, columnist and sports commentator John Feinstein.

A few years earlier, Feinstein had published a book called A Civil War. The author spent the 1995 football season with the Navy Midshipmen and the Army Black Knights, in classes, on the sideline and even in their free time.

Leading up to that year’s Army-Navy game, I told Feinstein that I didn’t get the appeal of the game, using “rationale” like it’s not great football, I don’t want to watch wishbone offenses, neither team is nationally relevant and their players never go pro.

I was in my late-20s and 9/11 had not yet occurred.

Oh, and I was ignorant.

Saturday, I attended the annual Army-Navy game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Getting to the venue several hours before kickoff, I took in all I could. I saw the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, four-star General Mark Milley, make the rounds in radio interviews and converse with a 93-year-old World War II veteran. I stood on the field while the Brigade of Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Corps of Cadets from United States Military Academy at West Point march onto the field with precision and pride.

I watched and listened to students from both sides exchange barbs filled with passion, but lined with respect.

And I watched the game, which by the way, is good football. It’s pure, it’s fundamental. It’s based on running and defense, and was a refreshing change of pace after watching a season of Pac-12 football where the final scores resembled something you’d see on a basketball scoreboard.

I was on the Army sideline in the game’s closing moments. The Black Knights had taken a 21-17 lead on quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw’s rugged 9-yard touchdown run with six minutes remaining. After Navy went three-and-out on its next possession and Bradshaw notched a first down with about 90 seconds remaining, it became clear that Army was going to hold on and snap a 14-game losing streak to their bitter rival.

Cadets poured on to the field — seemingly every single one of the over 4,000 that attend West Point — in celebration of the event. I’ve witnessed the aftermath of college championship games, but I’ve never seen the joy that I saw on the faces of Army players, supporters, students and alumni. While soaking it all in, I was standing next to a family. I have no idea what their connection to the institution or the military was, and I didn’t ask. But a girl, I’d estimate she was about 15 or 16, stood there with tears streaming down her face.

A lot of my thoughts on the Army-Navy football game have evolved over the years. I now realize how important the tradition is. I’ve witnessed the mutual respect on both sides. I further appreciate the sacrifice every one of those players makes following their football career to serve and protect our country while people like me sit back and enjoy the freedom they provide.

Every fall during college football season, we in sports media discuss rivalry. Which rivalry is the best?

After seeing it with my own two eyes for the first time, the answer is clear.

At a breakfast Friday morning, Carl Liebert, who played basketball at the Naval Academy and was a teammate of David Robinson, and is now the chief operating officer of USAA, talked about the nature of the rivalry.

“For three hours on a Saturday in December, we’re rivals,” he said. “For the other 364 days and 21 hours out of the year, we’re on the same team.”

We could all learn a lot from that thinking, couldn’t we?

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