My Memories of How My Friends and I Organized the First Running of the Football from Annapolis to the Army-Navy Game
I want to deviate from my normal postings on WowGod.org to tell you a little bit about a tradition that I had an important role in accidentally starting. That tradition is the running of a football from Tecumseh Court at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to the Army-Navy football game, which is traditionally held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In just 2 days, the 34th annual running of the ball will take place. This year the game is at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland — a short jaunt from the Naval Academy — so the midshipmen will make it a little more challenging by running the ball first to Washington, D.C., then back again.
Army-Navy Football Run in 2011 (l to r) Esther and Josiah (my daughter and son); me; Charlie (Rich’s son); Matt Sharpe; Rich Alexander; and Emil Petruncio. Matt, Rich, Emil, and I were part of the original 41.
I loved running while I was at the Academy as a midshipman, and I had a knack for thinking of innovative things that involved running. In the Spring of 1981, for example, the members of the class of 1982 in 13th Company challenged the other classes in the company to a relay race around the Yard (the grounds of the Naval Academy) to equal the miles of their class — in our case, 82 miles. As I recall, the class of 1981 won that race, to my disappointment. But we had a lot of fun doing it.
So coming into our first class year (senior year), the idea of running a football to Philadelphia sounded like something that would be a lot of fun to do, would show school spirit, and was what I considered within the realm of what was doable — as long as we got our Company Officer’s permission to miss a formation or two while we ran. I shared the idea with my friends, including Dave Samples and Matt Sharpe, and they became partners in this adventure, and I think Dave took the lead in broaching the idea with our Company Officer, Clay Noto, who was a Naval Academy graduate from the class of 1972, and at the time, a major in the United States Marine Corps.
Once we got permission, I began searching for paper maps so I could develop a potential route. I think I raided my dad’s glovebox for whatever maps he had, plus I probably managed a trip to AAA to get some extra maps. Back in 1981, the internet did not exist, so we relied on things in print.
After completing the map recon, one Friday night in October, Matt, Dave, and I climbed into Dave’s “bondo-mobile” (so named because he filled so many rust holes with Bondo, a fiberglass filler), and did a more proper route reconnaissance. Our goal was to not only make sure the route was safe enough for runners, but also to find exchange points where one runner would pass off the football to the next runner.
We were organizing this relay to be done by each person using his or her own car, and each person was responsible for getting to where they needed to go on time. Because we had no way to communicate during the run — this was before cellphones existed — we really depended on each one to do their part. If something did go wrong, we had to use payphones to call one of us leading the run, and we would try to sort things out as best we could.
We generally did not have a vehicle trailing the runner — though I think that in the end during the night-time stretches on lonely roads we did. And in the end, we did have a Naval Academy van assigned to us… I think that was one of the last-minute ideas when someone higher up the chain of command wondered if we would succeed.
We had t-shirts printed for the runners. I’m certain I don’t have mine anymore, but maybe some still exist. I believe the t-shirts were designed by James Taylor of the Class of 1984, and incorporated the Pink Panther in the design. I can’t remember why, but we in 13th Company associated ourselves with the Pink Panther — not the Peter Sellers’ version, but the cartoon version that was popular at the time.
The big day arrived, and we had a very low-key send off from Tecumseh Court. As I recall, there were only about seven of us gathered in the Court, along with a photographer from an Annapolis newspaper. The first runner was James Taylor. I think we gave him a short toss, and off he went.
We were an entirely volunteer force, and I was only able to get 41 company-mates (including Dave, Matt, and I) to volunteer. The route we ran that year was 161 miles long, so most runners ran solo, and some runners ran more than one leg. Since I was a stronger runner, I think I ran three legs totaling 12 miles. We did double up in most urban locations for safety sake. The run took right around 21 hours to complete. We finished the run around 4 hours before game time, giving us enough time to shower and get changed.
Before the game, we assembled the 41 runners into platoon formation, and we ran onto the field and presented the ball to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy. When he returned to his seat, he autographed the ball and got the autographs of the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) and SecNav (Secretary of the Navy). A few weeks later, that ball made it back to me, and I have kept it all these years. For the last 5 years, I have loaned the ball to the Naval Academy so that they could use it as part of their run. It is dry-rotted and the signatures have started to smudge a bit, but it is a piece of history.
I have had the privilege in 3 of those last 5 years of running the first leg from Tecumseh Court with the midshipmen of 13th Company (though I was sorely out of shape each of those years). The most special year for me was when I ran with my son and daughter, two of my Academy roommates (Matt Sharpe and Rich Alexander), Rich’s son, and one of our plebes who was there for the first run and is now a professor at the Naval Academy, Emil Petruncio.
While the run was a success that first year, all of the efforts to cheer our team to victory went for nought, because the game ended in a 3-3 time — and Navy had an excellent team that year while Army did not. There was no way it should have ended in a tie. That was our only non-win during my years at the Academy.
It was such a great experience doing the run, but we never expected that it would be done again. It wasn’t until my 5th year reunion that I bumped into someone from the Class of 1983 (I think it was Matt Feely) that I found out they had turned it into an annual event. According to the story relayed to me, the CNO bumped into the Superintendent in the Fall of 1982 and asked him whether they were going to do the run again. Apparently, the CNO answered, “You bet” — even though no one had been planning to do another run — and later the Superintendent spoke with the 13th Company Officer, and as they say, the rest is history.
An additional tidbit for making the history more complete. We learned shortly before we did the run that the Class of 1972 had run the football to Philadelphia sometime during their years at the Academy. I have always assumed that they did it their first class year — 1971 — but perhaps they did it as plebes (freshman).
I work in Washington not far from the Mall, so when they run the football this year through the Mall in DC, I might be able cheer them on during my lunch break. I hope that will work out!