By Susan Katz Keating
As Army Football’s most disappointed fan, I vowed last year to ditch tomorrow’s annual faceoff against Navy – until a few months ago, when the squids had me sleep with the enemy and then shot me off an aircraft carrier.
Let me explain.
I don’t dislike football. But it doesn’t excite me the way, say, driving a tank or nearly crash landing into the Blackwater compound does (both of which I have done). I am obsessed, though, with the Army-Navy game. Maybe it’s because the teams embody sport in starkly military terms; or maybe it’s the cool uniforms. Who knows. I don’t over-analyze. I just accept my feelings, and roll with the flow.
In years past, the flow-roll took me to Army’s then-coach Rich Ellerson. It was 2012, and Army was having a great season. I called Coach. He told me the Black Knights owed their successes to core West Point values. He also said the team was stronger and that he was emphasizing explosiveness.
I like explosives.
I took it as a sign: the explosive Army team would incinerate Navy, and recapture the trophy it last held in 2002.
Still, I kept the faith.
In 2013, Army lost yet again. West Point fired Ellerson. My hopes revived, but only briefly. In 2014, when Army lost to Navy for the 13thconsecutive year, I knew I had to act. In 2015, I resolved, I would not even think about the game.
Then came the aircraft carrier and my encounter with the enemy.
In mid-June, the Navy invited me aboard the USS Harry S. Truman underway. I could not resist.
I reported to Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia to begin my embark.
While inside a staging room waiting to be flown to the Truman for a tailhook landing, I met my fellow “Distinguished Visitors” with whom I would spend the next couple days at sea.
One man said he was with Navy Football.
Reflexively I launched into the banter I long have used while trading insults with Navy fans. Such as:
“You guys can afford to focus on football, since Army has to concentrate on warfighting.”
My shipmate chuckled. He did not return the escalating insults. He seemed to appreciate my humor.
In between jokes, I realized he looked familiar.
I ducked quickly aside, and launched a search via Google Images.
There, to my horror, I confirmed my suspicion: I was making a mule (Army mascot!) of myself with Navy Football’s head coach, Ken Niumatalolo.
I was appalled at myself. I felt a wash of shame. Then I realized: This is my chance.
Maybe, just maybe, I thought, I could find some way to psych him out. I perhaps could elicit some key secret to slip to Army; or plant something insidious and weakening inside Coach Niumatololo’s head.
I lobbed a soft approach: “Why do you keep doing this to us?”
Coach tossed a soft return: “Sorry about that.”
Our small band proceeded to the safety briefing, donned our gear, and boarded the little propeller driven C-2 Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft. We went airborne, headed over the Atlantic.
I could not resist quoting Top Gun to my new buddy Barry: “Have any of you boys seen an aircraft carrier around here?”
Our pilot did in fact see one. He took a bead and descended. Seemingly miraculously, he caught the landing cable on the Truman.
We all emerged onto the flight deck, masking our enormous relief at being alive with lame wisecracks about how we now officially were hookers.
I pressed my contact with Coach. I also studied him. A few facts emerged.
Coach was cool. He was approachable. And he was a celebrity.
On each stage of our tour through the 20-story, 1,096-foot Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier, our group encountered random outbursts from the crew. The outbursts were… explosive.
No matter if we were in the engine room, on the bridge, or traipsing near-vertical ladders upon which one misstep would plunge us to permanent disability or death, someone would spot the coach. From left or right field would emerge a bolt of male energy directed toward tackling our celeb.
“Coach!” the tackler would shout. “It’s you!” followed by, “My son / nephew / cousin was recruited for Georgia / Alabama / Cal, but he wants to play for you, and…”
Coach consistently was gracious.
In the halls, Coach listened to stories of athletic prodigies. He never once deflated the speakers with practical advice such as, wait for the prodigy to graduate kindergarten.
At chow, Coach sat with me and Rear Admiral Bret Bachelder, who commanded the entire Carrier Strike Group. Coach sat politely while I told the admiral my concerns about the Chinese blue water navy and developments in the Spratleys. Then Coach hopped up from the table, donned the paper hat of a lowly server, and popped into the kitchen to surprise the mess crew. A round of joyful screams told us he’d been discovered.
In the F-18 hangar, Coach adopted his sideline flexed-knee stance, and observed a fire drill as attentively as if he were watching a play against Army. Elsewhere, he admired the gym. He marveled at the anchor room. He bought souvenirs in the ship’s store. With fanfare, he presented the Truman skipper with a Navy football helmet.
Throughout, Coach posed for endless selfies – and maintained a running dialogue with me, the Army fan.
Me: Seriously; why do you keep doing this to us?
Coach: Sorry about that.
Me: Serious question. Could you take our team and train them to beat you?
Coach: I hope not. I don’t want to.
Me: All jokes aside: What’s your secret?
Coach: It’s a secret.
Eventually we had to leave the shipboard home that had me sleeping with – make that, a couple staterooms down from – the enemy.
Like children at day care, our band lined up at arm’s length to traverse the blustery flight deck. We huddled forward so as not to be blown overboard. We marched into the COD.
We paid attention while the crew told us how to avoid injury while being hurtled with multiple G-force via catapult into the wild blue: “Strap yourselves in so tightly you cannot breathe; fold your arms; tuck your chin.”
My buddy Barry and I jokingly exchanged instructions on what to tell one another’s next of kin if the catapult mistakenly launched us into the Atlantic: “Say I drowned while saving you from a shark.”
Our COD took position on the catapult.
My heart pounded. Adrenalin surged. For a moment, I forgot the Army-Navy game and my failed attempts to psych out the enemy’s head coach.
On impulse, I held aloft my cell phone. I turned the camera aft. I snapped a blind shot of the cabin.
The resulting photo made me gasp.
There on my screen was Coach N.
I joke you not. He was leaning forward, his face a veneer of intensity. He looked… troubled. Possibly even worried. Make that, he looked scared out of his helmet.
I took it as a sign.
Perhaps I worked my psyop after all. Perhaps Coach N. has misgivings about Saturday’s game against Army.
I am holding onto that like a premonition.
Once again, I approach my game reciting the fevered mantra:
Go Army. Beat Navy.