First Army-Navy Game in 1890

By davidfunk74
Nov. 29, 2015

On November 29, 1890, one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports was born. It was on this day that the first Army-Navy college football game took place at West Point, New York. This was the beginning of what many say is the greatest rivalry in American sports history.

The main person responsible for the start of the Army-Navy annual game was Dennis Mahan Michie. Michie, a West Point native who entered their university in 1888, learned the game of American football at Lawrenceville Prep. He had to have some help to convince United States Military Academy to issue a challenge to the Midshipmen at Navy. They agreed to his request on the condition that the game be played on their field at West Point.

In order to ensure that the game was played, Army helped to pay for Navy's traveling expenses as over 270 Cadets contributed 52 cents each which covered half of the money needed for the trip. The game itself didn't go like planned for Army though.

Navy had established a football program in 1879, but didn't have teams in 1880-81. Up to that point in their history, they had a career record of 15-12-2.

Meanwhile, Army began their program after the persuasion of Michie in 1890 with their first game against their future rival. Only two players on the Army team, Michie and Cadet Leonard Price, had played any football before. Army's inexperience would play a big role in the outcome of their first meeting with Navy in West Point.

At that time, the brutal flying wedge play that was known to cause serious physical damage and even deaths on the football field was a common play in the game. Such a play was a huge factor in this 1890 game as Army's Kirby Walker had been knocked out four times. The last time resulted in him being carried off the field to the hospital after not waking up from unconsciousness.

Fights did break out in the game, but the result wasn't a surprise to historians that were on hand.

During the game, Navy scored a touchdown on a fake punt in which Army clearly wasn't prepared for. In fact, Army protested the play to the officials not knowing the fake punt was a legal call for a team to make. Navy had come to West Point to beat the debuting Army football team 24-0. The game was one-sided, and Michie wasn't pleased with it at all.

The very next year, Army traveled to Maryland to play Navy with the result of the game being clearly different than their initial meeting. Army won 32-16 with help of a score from Michie in Annapolis, Maryland to even the series at one a piece. Navy would win the next two games in 1892 and 1893.

Unfortunately for Michie, he later died in the Spanish-American War in 1898 at the young age of 28 in the Battle of San Juan Hill. But he was the first head coach at Army and the major reason why the rivalry between the two schools on the football field began. Michie Stadium was named after him in his honor.

From 1894 to 1898, the two teams did not meet on the football field. This was because of an incident at the end of the 1893 game between a Rear Admiral and Brigadier General. A meeting in 1894 took place involved then-U.S. President Grover Cleveland. The Secretary of the Navy Hilary A. Herbert and Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont had agreed to restrict both programs from playing road games against other football schools. So this prevented the two schools from playing one another.

The series resumed in 1899 as the two teams played on a neutral site for the first time ever. Since Philadelphia was a good midway point and draw for fan attendance, they agreed to play that game at Franklin Field. Army won that game 17-5, and they would play the game at the same field in the next eight of nine contests(the 1905 game took place at Osborne Field in Princeton, New Jersey).

In 1909, Army canceled the remaining games on their schedule after the death of Cadet Eugene Byrne in a contest against Harvard on the flying wedge play. The number of deaths as a result of the flying wedge play forced President Teddy Roosevelt to get involved. The game resumed in 1910 and has been played every year with the exception of both academies being involved in World War I in 1917-18 and 1928-29 after disputes due to player eligibility.

Over the following years, the game between the two teams have been played at various venues across the country including the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in New York as well as Soldier Field in Chicago and Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. In recent years, they've the game in East Rutherford and in Baltimore, too. However, Philadelphia has hosted the game 81 times in their history with games at Franklin Field, Veterans Stadium, and now Lincoln Financial Field beginning in 2003. John F. Kennedy Stadium hosted the most games in the series.

In 1926, the game was held in Chicago at Soldier Field in honor of all American serviceman that fought in World War I. Over 100,000 fans watched the two teams battle to a memorable 21-21 tie. Army had only one loss on the year while Navy was unbeaten. Navy was awarded the National Championship.

In 1944-45, the two teams squared in the only match-ups in the series where both were ranked 1-2 in the polls. Army won both games against Navy, and won the National Championship during the 1944-45 seasons. Heisman Trophy winners emerged for the first time at West Point as Doc Blanchard won the award in 1945 and Glenn Davis took it home in 1946. Currently, 1945 would be the last time either program won a National Championship despite Pete Hawkins winning the Heisman Trophy in 1958.

Army had dominated the series until Navy pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college football history in 1950 knocking off the Cadets 14-2. Army has not been quite the same program since that time.

In the 1960s, Navy's Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy awards in 1960 and 1963, respectively. The 1963 game between was the first to use instant replay during games.

Staubach was the most notable of the Heisman Trophy winners between the two as he later starred for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL in 1970s winning two Super Bowls. He became the first player in history to win a Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl MVP in a career.

In 1983, the schools played at the Rose Bowl to accommodate the many serviceman and women that were living and/or retired on the West Coast. Navy won in a lopsided game 42-13.

Other legendary players that played in this historic rivalry include future President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower and General of the Army Omar Bradley(Eisenhower and Bradley were teammates for Army in 1912).

The rivalry itself has taken on more significance over the years as players on both sides seldom if ever go onto professional football careers. This is especially true during wartime because this is the last game they play before being deployed in which it's possible they never will return to the United States.

At the end of each game, the winner is given the Thomson Cup named after the person who donated it: Robert M. Thomson. Also, both alma mater songs are played at the end of the game. The winning and losing teams exchange facing each other's students as a show of respect and solidarity among the programs.

Navy has won 13 straight games between the two teams, and leads the all-time series 59-49-7.

I personally had the privilege of attending the 2008 game between the two schools at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Navy did dominate the game by winning 34-0. The pregame was what stood out as paratroopers jumped out of helicopters directly above the field. They dropped in on the 50-yard line much to the delight of the capacity crowd. I was 21 rows from the field and sat in the same section that then-President George W. Bush came out of before the game. The pregame alone is worth it if you can go.  I know I'll go to see their classic rivalry in person again in the near future.

It transcended the game of college football and there is no other rivalry in sports like it. Every game and sport has a beginning. The rivalry between Army and Navy began in 1890, and it has forever become one of America's popular sports rivalries.