So much more than football: Jeff Monken, Army, Navy remind us again what our country is

Army football joins the Corps of Cadets singing the West Point alma mater following win over Navy

Army football players, coaches join the Corps of Cadets singing the West Point alma mater following win over Navy Saturday.
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Army football players, coaches join the Corps of Cadets singing the West Point alma mater following win over Navy Saturday.

Minutes after his Army Black Knights beat Navy for the third consecutive year, Jeff Monken climbed from the field to the railing of lower stands.

The pitch-perfect coach who has been perfect for Army football and the United States Military Academy stood at the bottom of the Corps of Cadets. Monken, amid a sea of gray wool overcoats and service caps older and as revered as this 119-year-old Army-Navy game, punched the cold Pennsylvania air with his right fist.

He was saluting the bonkers cadets who were saluting him, for beating Navy 17-10 on Saturday night here at Lincoln Financial Field.

“Three-peat! Three-peat! Three-peat!” the Corps roared, thrusting hands of three, black-gloved fingers at Monken.

On the field after it ended, an equally delirious scene. Players hugging and yelling with each other. Hugging West Point classmates, parents, anyone with arms.

Amid this, I walked up to Monken after he climbed back down onto the field. I extended my hand and thanked him for what he’s done for Army football, for the Academy and its Long Gray Line.

The coach nodded and smiled. Then he said: “Thank you for being here.”

Then the man who has reinvented Army football, taking it to consecutive 10-win seasons and a national ranking, sang the alma mater with his players, staff and the Corps.

Army was singing second. Again. The winner of the annual America’s Game gets that honor. Minutes earlier, all players, coaches, staff, cadets and fans stood at attention as Navy sang its alma mater. Navy then did the same for Army’s.

It’s the best 4 minutes in sports.

Really, this is the best day in sports.

This was my sixth Army-Navy game, four as a cadet as a member of West Point’s Class of 1993. And I feel the same way and more each time: honored. And proud as hell.

Where else do you get a chaplain on the field before the game giving a prayer over the public-address system to the players for both teams, 67,000 people in a sold-out stadium and tens of millions watching across our country on television--and saying this?:

“In this game every player on the field is willing to die for every person watching.”

A chill went up my spine when he said that. Inside the stadium, complete silence.

They don’t do that at the Iron Bowl or the Apple Cup.

People across the country who are used to watching the SEC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 on Saturdays carp on about the low quality of play, about how neither team completes a pass, about Navy having 62 total yards into the fourth quarter of this game.

Army-Navy is about far more than yards, points and the game itself.

It’s SO much more than football.

It’s sharing lunch with those on Philadelphia’s cold streets.

It’s about the alma maters. The history. The president conducting the pregame coin toss, then walking across the field to go from sitting with one side to sitting with the other.

Does Ohio State-Michigan have a march-on of cadets and midshipmen three hours before kickoff?

Does USC-UCLA have this game before the game?

Most of all, this is about the men and women who as teenagers are volunteering to enter harm’s way and become officers in our post-9-11 military.

This is Army-Navy:

These kids are just risking themselves for our country. At age 17 or 18 they are deciding to sacrificing “normal college” life and parties and personal freedoms to get up at 0600 hours each day for four years to shine shoes. To stand in inspection formation, go to breakfast, go to five classes, go to another inspection formation, go to lunch, have more classes in calculus and physics and engineering, then deliver upper classmen’s laundry, then go to practice—for football or for drill—then study past 2300.

You know, to be ready to do it all again the next day.

Monken knows this. The former coach at Georgia Southern has no direct military background. But he gets it.

Gregg Bell/The News Tribune

“He invests in people,” Monken’s longtime assistant coach Brent Davis told The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach is her excellent profile of the head coach.

“If the people are the most important thing in the program, then they come before everything else,” Monken said to Auerbach. “You either make them a priority, or you don’t. Doesn’t matter if it’s practice. Doesn’t matter if it’s a recruiting trip. You just drop what you’re doing and you go, and you’re there for those people. That’s what it means to be family.

“If my parents or my brother or sister or whoever needed me, I would go. I would drop everything that was going and I would be there. It wouldn’t matter. Family comes first. That’s the same in our program, whether it’s player or coach. The people come first.”

Monken also told Auerbach: “Society doesn’t teach us to put others first, to serve others; society tells us to serve ourselves.”

Society also tells us football is SO important, so ingrained in the fabric of our country.

Army-Navy reminds us what’s truly important, what is also ingrained in the fabric of our country.

It’s there, the brotherhood, the duty, the honor and integrity, the selfless service. It’s not always easy to see in our divided, divisive country today. But it’s there.

Army-Navy, America’s Game, showed us that yet again on Saturday night.

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.