by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

"It doesn’t take long to figure out that West Point is a special place. Statues attest to the extraordinary people who lived, studied, and trained there. Historic landmarks recall powerful events that are rooted in is red-brown New York soil. Cannons are everywhere, as are memorials and special tributes to heroic men who fought in not-forgotten wars. It’s an elegant setting for a football program that is also steeped in tradition. Fans still flock to venerable Michie Stadium to experience an atmosphere and pageantry only West Point can supply

“West Point is all about chills, goosebumps and sentimentality. When you enter one of the Academy’s four gates, be prepared for a battle of the senses that is sure to be fought on several emotional levels. Army is power and strength, patriotism and pride, sad memories and hope–presented in a pastoral masterpiece.”
From “Every Saturday in Autumn, College Football’s Greatest traditions” --presented by the Sporting News.

“I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission...I want a West Point football player.” --General George C. Marshall

Nope, we’re not talking about UNLV football at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. In fact, we were literally a world away from our home base when it was road trip time for us again last week. This time, it was making a unique trek up the picturesque Hudson River Valley to West Point for last Saturday’s Vanderbilt-Army game at historic Michie Stadium.

Personally, it was a second chance to visit the Point for an Army game, although I didn’t take advantage of my first opportunity, way back in October of 1985 when working in New York City. A work colleague (and Boston College alum) had tickets to that Saturday’s BC-Army game, but I already had made other plans to take the train down to Philadelphia and spend the weekend with friends down there, as well as watch the Eagles play the Cardinals that Sunday (a game won by the Birds, 30-7, a result which in retrospect might have been the beginning of the end for the Cardinals in St. Louis). Almost a quarter-century had passed since my last chance to see the Black Knights at West Point, and this time I wasn’t about to miss out.

Coordinating these in-season “ninja trips” is not as daunting as it used to be thanks to the advent of the laptop computer, which allows me to do much of my work while on the road. Still, before leaving last week, I made sure to get done some of the tedious preparation work for the next weekend’s publications before I left Las Vegas. That would include completing a preliminary version of The Gold Sheet EXTRA Technician’s Corner, early prep work on the upcoming week’s college and pro football slate, and completing the usual website updates in a timelier-than-usual fashion. Much of Wednesday would be spent in airports traveling across the country, and losing three hours in time from Las Vegas to the east coast put a little bit more of a time crunch into the week.

My trek back to West Point was a meandering one, to be sure. An early Wednesday morning AirTran flight took me from McCarran Airport to Atlanta, where I would connect with another AirTran flight up to Washington Reagan National Airport. Along the way came one of those unique experiences one sometimes gets on air or train travel when sitting next to some interesting people you would never otherwise have a chance to meet. In my case, the Las Vegas-Atlanta leg put me in the same row with a couple of diehard college football fans, boosters from Virginia Tech and Michigan State, respectively. Making the journey more fascinating was that the chap from Virginia and I had some mutual acquaintances in the Commonwealth (indeed, a few of whom I would be seeing on my trip through the D.C. area). The near three-and-a-half hour flight to Hartsfield went about as fast as a flight could go as we engaged in almost non-stop college football and sports chatter, made all the more fascinating by the different regional perspectives brought by each.

The trip to West Point would be a bit different, however, than most of my college football excursions from the past, because unlike our recent jaunt to Baton Rouge, and various others trips throughout the years, West Point is not the sort of place you can hang out for a day or two before the game. We wouldn’t be making our way up to the Point until Saturday morning. So, time was used to get work done while first staying in Northern Virginia, then Philadelphia, with friends and relatives before journeying up to the Vandy-Army game.

Along the way, however, we had time to experience something else entirely, especially on the Virginia portion of the trip, thanks to our host and TGS scout for the region, Daniel M. Gray, who in his non-sports life acts as an attorney and Beltway political operative. We went to watch a debate at the George Mason campus between the top candidates in the upcoming Virginia Attorney General race, Steve Shannon and Ken Cuccinelli, and got another dose of Virginia politics the next day when lunching with relatives involved in the Virginia political scene. As mentioned earlier, it was a long way from Las Vegas.

What one notices in travels to the northeast, especially in comparison to the deep south, is how college football isn’t quite as big a deal in the region. Around the D.C. area, news of the Redskins absolutely dominates the airwaves. Maryland football, played within sight of the U.S. Capitol building, gets minor coverage in the Washington Post and Times, although it receives a bit more attention in nearby Baltimore and in the Baltimore Sun newspaper. Ditto for Navy football in nearby Annapolis. Virginia and Virginia Tech battle for the D.C. area audience, although neither is in the immediate vicinity; the local Washington media outlets are not overly concerned with either. In recent years, VPI has at least made serious attempts to make inroads into the D.C. market, expanding its radio network and on the verge of making an annual trip to FedEx Field (home of the Redskins) for an intersectional game. Make no mistake, however, D.C. is Redskins, not college football, country.

Thursday was a busy sports night, with baseball playoffs along with college football action featuring Nebraska and Missouri, while doing my usual sports talk radio spots in San Diego and with Ron Barr’s Sports Byline USA. Friday morning was much the same, doing weekly radio spots with Dave Woloshin and Brett Nordsworthy in Memphis as well as Jimmy Ott’s show in Baton Rouge. Although being in the Eastern Time Zone it meant that I was on the air at 10:25 and 11 AM, respectively, for the shows rather than the usual 7:25 and 8 AM in Las Vegas.

Escaping Northern Virginia for the trip up the East Coast to West Point requires some strategizing, however; D.C. Beltway traffic is awful at best, and the ride north on I-95 through Baltimore, over the mighty Susquehanna north of Havre de Grace, into Delaware, then Philadelphia, can be an arduous and expensive (watch the tolls!) trek on a Friday afternoon. So, instead of fighting the teeth of the Beltway traffic north and east of Washington, we swung south on I-495 (on the Virginia side of the Beltway) down to the recently remodeled Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which crosses the Potomac south of D.C., and hooked up with US 50/301 after crossing into Maryland, avoiding the I-95 leg until much later on the drive in Delaware. Although US 50/301 has some traffic of its own, it moves better on a Friday than I-95, so we took it through Annapolis, over the Severn River, and headed for the impressive Chesapeake Bay Bridge (not to be confused with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, down in Norfolk), which is a nice I-95 corridor alternative to another twin span, the Delaware Memorial Bridge in Wilmington. The Bay Bridge, however, is less-trafficked and connects from near Annapolis into the rather remote Kent Island and the rest of the Maryland eastern shore. After a quick late lunch stop in Stevensville at a Kentucky Fried Chicken (I couldn’t even remember my last visit to a KFC) we moved briskly up the eastern shore and into Delaware, where before long it was time to do my weekly bit on Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton’s radio show on 1090 AM San Diego. After briefly losing the cell phone signal just across the Maryland/Delaware border, I conducted what was likely the first-ever 1090 interview traveling in a car in a remote section of central Delaware..a long way from San Diego, to be sure.

Our Friday night stop was in Philadelphia, where we had dinner with friends and watched baseball playoffs and La Tech-Nevada college football action before leaving at about 10 PM to get up into northern New Jersey, making our Saturday morning ride into West Point a bit easier. With the Vandy-Army kickoff slated for 12 noon on Saturday, we didn’t have a lot of time to waste on Saturday morning, so getting closer to the Point seemed a good idea. We hopped on the blue route, caught the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Conshohocken, then made a beeline east to the New Jersey Turnpike (also I-95), from where it is not a long drive at all before getting into the New York metro area. Wishing to avoid possible I-95 slowdowns and extra tolls, we swung around west of Newark on I-287 before hooking up with I-80 further north, on our way to our accommodations for the evening.

Our lodging for the night was a Holiday Inn in Totowa, complete with several New Jersey trimmings. Attached to this particular Holiday Inn is an all-night club called Rocco’s (I kid you not), which resembled something from the Saturday Night Fever days; we halfway expected John Travolta and Donna Pescow to walk through the doors. Of course, it was no time to hit the disco, as we had to get up early enough to get to the Point, not to mention more TGS work I had to get done that evening on the laptop. The next morning we were a bit rushed to make it to West Point and decided to just grab a quick breakfast at the hotel’s buffet (which was indeed a l-o-o-n-n-g-g way from what I’m used to in Las Vegas), while noticing a large wedding party also chowing down in preparation for their own big day and reception later that afternoon in the big dining room. The characters in the wedding party were so typical “Joy-zee” that they almost seemed from central casting, and for a moment I thought that we might be in the background of an episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. But unless Danielle Staub (right) was going to make a surprise appearance, we weren’t going to stick around long. Soon we were on our way, back on I-80, passing through Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s old stomping grounds of Paterson (a surprisingly pleasant-looking place), before hooking up with Highway 17 for the short ride north up to the New York border, where we would hit I-287 before joining the New York State Thruway (I-87) just north of the border.

A lot of people who have been to New York City and no further north or directly west probably have no idea of how scenic the area becomes once north of the Bronx or, on the Jersey side, once beyond that northern industrial corridor (or, if you prefer, wasteland). On the New York side, the area alongside the Hudson River soon becomes extremely picturesque. And a ride up the Taconic State Parkway soon has travelers into hilly and mountain-like settings that no one could dream would be an hour or so away from Penn Station. Likewise, the New Jersey side becomes decidedly scenic not too far north of Paramus, into the pricey area of Saddle River, Richard Nixon’s former hometown, and up to the border. Green, lush hillsides and trees dot the landscape, made all the more colorful by the leaves changing colors. Bright reds and oranges and yellows were popping up amidst all of the green, again causing wonderment that all of this natural beauty could be so close to the various refineries and industrial waste dumps in northern New Jersey.

Traffic, however, began to jam up as we approached the border, and with no specific events going on in the vicinity other than Army football, it was apparent that something else was attracting visitors upstate. Of course, it was the fall foliage, and the opportunity to see all of the colors is enough to attract thousands of visitors each autumn who want to do nothing other than enjoy the scenery. Admittedly, it was spectacular, especially for someone who is used to seeing the various shades of desert brown in southern Nevada, but it made getting to the Point, itself just 17 miles from the border, a bit harder. Traffic moved slowly on the Thruway, from Sloatsburg up to Harriman (named for the railroad/political family of Roland and Averell), until reaching Bear Mountain Park, where Highway 6 would take us to the Point.

Indeed, there aren’t many ways in and out of the Point, and the fact that ID’s and car registrations must be checked before entering the base make for a slightly different college football experience than the big party in Baton Rouge, or parking on the desolate moonscape adjacent to Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. Military police with assault rifles direct traffic once inside the gates of the base; again, a long way from Sam Boyd Stadium. Soon, however, Michie Stadium appears, and it is a breathaking sight. Various parking lots squeeze in automobiles up the hill from the stadium, which sits on the western side of the Academy, with a large lake adjacent to the east grandstand. The actual Academy buildings and chapel sit just to the east of the small lake, where the plain and the rest of the campus also sit, adjacent to the Hudson.

The setting could simply not be any more spectacular, and we made sure to sit in the upper deck of Michie, facing east to get a truly spectacular view of the Academy and the rest of the valley. We could see to the other side of the tranquil Hudson, just a few miles away, and make out an arched highway bridge on the Taconic State Parkway, otherwise it was pure natural beauty all around. Not the sort of college football backdrop we’re used to seeing.

What’s also interesting is how Army football, though a far distance removed from the overwhelming Giants and Jets coverage in the Big Apple, still generates a decent share of interest from the New York area. The Black Knights’ flagship radio station is the mega-powerful 770 WABC, and Army football still seems to mean more in New York proper than Rutgers (that’s New Jersey, anyway!) and Syracuse, which has a strong following in the New York area as well.

While it is hard not to be distracted by the surroundings at West Point, the show in and around the stadium features plenty of good, clean fun. The Academy has gone out of its way to make Saturdays a fan-friendly experience. Black Knights Alley, behind the east grandstand, provides a lot of entertainment for the three hours before kickoff. The Army Football Tailgate Show emanates from Black Knights Alley, the football team makes a walk through on its way to Michie Stadium, several interactive military displays are on hand (that's one for-sure difference from other college tailgate and pregame experiences), there’s music, plenty of food and drink items, games for the kids, and autograph sessions with halftime honorees and other Army sports team members. It’s a carnival-type atmosphere without the “carnies” anywhere around.

There are plenty of tailgaters in and around Michie, too, and they’re not all drinking Coca-Cola, either. But what one immediately notices is that West Point tailgaters are behaving themselves. Perhaps the thought of military police with their semi-automatic weapons strolling the premises has something to do with it. But no one was drunk or acting stupid, something we’ve become used to seeing at places like USC or various other college football venues where the fan behavior becomes a bit embarrassing. None of that at West Point.

Another big difference from the pre-game revelry at West Point, compared to elsewhere, are some of the conversations taking place among the tailgaters. Talk often revolved around military-type subjects, whether it be deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan, military weapons talk, or plain old discussions of war. Walking around the tailgate area and chatting with the respectful folk is once again a lot different than our recent experience at LSU, which was one big party with coeds everywhere, or past experiences at a variety of other venues save Annapolis, where pre-game conversations take on a similar tone. To us, however, it was all rather refreshing, and a long way from the smug and self-important insufferables you’ll find at a place like the L.A. Coliseum before or after a Southern Cal game.

And there are reminders everywhere of some of the names that have passed through West Point. General and President Eisenhower. General Pershing. General MacArthur. No wonder Bob Knight felt so humbled by the place when he coached Army basketball four decades ago.

The corps of cadets, however, really add to the color and festivities. And from all appearances, the corps really appreciates the chance to let loose and holler at the football games, which are required attendance. The cadets yell and chant the entire game, adding a lot of atmosphere to the proceedings, although they are allowed to wander elsewhere in the stadium to sit with family and/or friends during the game. As long, that is, they return to the rest of the corps in the fourth quarter. Most of the cadets also seem to enjoy the opportunity to chat with fans during the game; it’s a rare chance at contact with the outside world during these few hours on a football Saturday. And when realizing the sacrifices the cadets are making to attend the Academy, you can understand why they enjoy these football games so much.

Even a look at the game program reminds you that West Point is a different place. Ads in the program feature a variety of military products, such as operational equipment and logistic solutions (we didn’t see one of those ads in the Hawaii-UNLV game program), military eyewear, military buttons, bomb dogs, sensing and surveillance, etc. Not one Hooters ad in the program, either.

It was also a special day at the Point, as the 1945 Heisman winner, the late Doc Blanchard, was having his number retired at halftime. Which begs the question why it has taken over 60 years for the Academy to recognize one of its all-time greats after retiring the numbers of Glenn Davis and Pete Dawkins, Army’s other Heisman winners, but better late than never, we suppose. Among the guests at Michie were General David Petraeus (right), attending the game along with festivities for his 35th West Point class reunion. Again, a little bit different than having Wayne Newton as the honored guest at a UNLV game.

The weather was also fall-perfect (about 60 degrees, some wind, and broken clouds), and though the game itself was no artistic masterpiece, it was compelling viewing nonetheless. Vanderbilt, still struggling with its offense, was its own worst enemy, having a long TD run by frosh RB Warren Norman called back by a holding penalty in the first quarter. Otherwise, the Commodore offense was doing little, as QB Larry Smith was continually off target. Meanwhile, the Army option of first-year HC Rich Ellerson was operating in its usual clock-eating fashion, finding ways to move the chains (albeit slowly) against an honest-to-goodness SEC defense with lots of lateral pursuit ability. The first half appeared as if it might end scoreless until Army PK Alex Carlton, aided by a strong wind, nailed a 51-yard FG late in the second quarter for a 3-0 halftime edge. Intermission festivities were provided by some area junior football teams who were outfitted in mini-versions of the Army uniforms. When one of the little teams managed a long TD, fans let out a roar, with many in our section joking that it might be the only TD we might see all afternoon.

Vandy came out like it meant business in the third quarter, driving deep into Black Knight territory before settling for a short 19-yard FG by Ryan Fowler to tie the game at 3. After the Army option could do nothing following the kickoff, the Dores again drove into Army territory, but on 4th and 1 from the Black Knight 39, Vandy HC Bobby Johnson, in what amounted to an indictment of his offense, opted to punt rather than go for a first down. Momentum swung shortly after the punt sailed in the endzone for a touchback, with Army QB Trent Steelman leading a patented option drive that carried into the 4th quarter. On a third and goal from the 2, Steelman refused to go down and carried a horde of Vandy tacklers into the endzone for a 10-3 Army lead.

At this point, however, the game became a corker, because it took only the next kickoff for the Dores to level matters as Norman, aided by a celebration penalty on Army that pushed the kickoff back 15 yards further, fielded the kick on his own 24 and broke clear from a gaggle of Army tacklers near midfield before streaking down the east sideline to tie the game at 10. Thus, after a torturous 45 minutes featuring only a pair of field goals, TDs were scored on back-to-back plays! Grabbing back momentum, Army drove to the Vandy 20, where Steelman was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 call from the Dore 20. Immediately thereafter, however, the Black Knights were back in business, as under heavy pressure Smith lofted a wounded duck into the hands of DB Donovan Travis, who returned the pick to the Vandy 7. While the corps of cadets whooped it up, however, the option could not get the ball into the endzone, settling for another Carlton FG, this one from 23 yards, to put the Black Knights up 13-10.

The game seemed destined to end at that score following Vandy’s subsequent 3-and-out (especially when an apparent 72-yard TD run by Norman was wiped out and reversed to a mere 2-yard gain after a video review showed his knee had touched the ground, which caused the Army players to momentarily stop on the play), but the Black Knight option could only answer with one first down of its own before punting the ball back to the Dores, who took over on their 20 with 3:38 to play. A long scoring drive seemed unlikely, especially considering Smith’s troubles all afternoon, but the soph QB completed a couple of miraculous 3rd down passes to Alex Washington and Brandon Barden on a busted play to get the ball deep into Black Knight territory. On third and goal from the 3, Smith had an apparent game-winning TD pass to Udom Umoh nullified by offensive pass interference, and the Dores backed themselves up further with another penalty (this one a false start) to force Fowler into hitting a 41-yard FG to tie the game. Which he did...barely, careening his kick off the left upright with 56 seconds to play to knot the game at 13.

Overtime beckoned, and the Dores immediately went to work on the ground with the frosh Norman, who already had a kick return TD as well as two potential long scoring runs wiped out by penalty and review, respectively. After fellow frosh Zac Stacy got the ball to the 12, Norman broke around left end for what appeared to be the go-ahead TD before getting stripped of the ball at the one, fumbling through the endzone and giving the ball to Army. The Black Knight option could not move the ball on three downs, but PK Carlton came on for a 42-yard FG to win the game. At the same end of the field and from approximately the same distance where Fowler had tied the game moments earlier, Carlton replicated Fowler’s game-tying kick, right down to careening it off the left upright, to give Army an unlikely 16-13 win. The corps of Cadets, which had already yelled itself hoarse, mobbed the field while the Commodores trudged off to their locker room, wondering what was to become of the rest of their season that now looked unlikely to feature a return bowl visit after falling to 2-4.

Dore fans, already livid before the game at the listless playcalling of offensive coordinator Ted Cain, had a fresh batch of ammunition to fire at The Tennesseean and Bobby Johnson’s call-in show. Meanwhile, Ellerson appears to be the best fit at West Point since Bob Sutton was in charge, and the Black Knights, now 3-3, kept their hopes alive for the 6 wins required to get them eligible for the Eagle Bank Bowl in Washington’s RFK Stadium December 29. Which, if it happens, should qualify Ellerson for some Coach of the Year votes.

The good, clean fun of Army football continued after the game, with the postgame press conference aired on the big video board at Michie, and various players staying on the field to sign autographs for the fans. Meanwhile, the corps made its way back to the campus, many joined by family and friends who had traveled to the Point to enjoy the game day as well. Unlike Annapolis, however, where the Mids can leave the Academy and walk to a vibrant, charming town with plenty of food and drink options, West Point (save for the elegant Thayer Hotel) is basically isolated from civilization, and the cadets would have to make do with whatever entertainment options they could conjure up on base for the remainder of the day. Postgame for us included a stroll down to the Academy itself, but any thoughts of missing some of the postgame traffic were put to rest when returning to the other side of Michie and our car, with traffic still backed up for another hour or so. With so little access in and out of the base, there’s just no way traffic can move quickly after a football game that drew over 34,000 fans. But we didn’t mind, instead keeping the car parked and chatting with some Army fans about the festivities of the day.

As we drove back to Philadelphia to stay the night before heading back early the next morning, memories of the game differed from almost all others we can recall from the past. It wasn’t just a game we watched, it was a different, other-world sort of experience, far, far away from Las Vegas and the sports book we usually frequent on Saturdays. And we couldn’t help but think that while we were able to go back to Philly for a nice meal with friends that night and watching the Saturday evening football in relative comfort before trekking back to Las Vegas, the 4000 or so proper and respectful cadets at the game with us weren’t going to be able to think of anything other than the hard, hard grind of a West Point existence.

God bless them all!

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