A near loss, with plenty gained

Saturday, September 7, 2019 - 5:56pm

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Natalie Stephens/Daily

Donning a plush blanket and a happy-go-lucky demeanor, Kevin and Paula Cooper sat atop Section 10 of Michigan Stadium late Saturday morning. They were there early to catch a glimpse of their son, David, who’s one of Army’s backup kickers. Paula served in the military from 1992-1997. Kevin has served the last 27 years.

“I’m just happy to be here,” Paula said, as the conversation wound down. “Did I mention that?”

It was still hours before two fourth-down stops rattled the steel beams supporting sections 8-12. Hours before inches separated her son’s team from a monumental upset win and hours before the defeat that ensued. Hours before Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson rescued a lackluster Michigan performance, forcing a fumble in overtime to somehow salvage a 24-21 win. 

There will be droves of analysis on what that means, how it came to be, where things go now. Soon thereafter, it will be discarded into the vast archives, receding under the tidal wave of whatever happens next.

Some spent the afternoon lamenting Michigan's decision to schedule Army in the first place. Playing against a triple-option the second week of the season, the thinking went, only invited pitfalls. The logic is sound.

But there were reminders littered throughout every crevice of Michigan Stadium of the larger factors at play. College football itself is a uniquely American enterprise, warts and all. Within that ecosystem, military academies are the living embodiment of that patriotism. If you dug deep enough Saturday, walked to enough sections, stumbled upon enough clues, it wasn’t hard to unearth a microcosm of what this sport, at its best, can mean to those who celebrate it.

“They’re going to be teammates and most of them are going to go straight into a combat zone. So what they’re building here will stand in a good stint for the next 40 years. He and I have been classmates for 40 years — ‘78,” said Chuck Dimeco, a former Army football player, before the game, gesturing to the man seated by his side. “That, I think, is different than what you get at a regular university. These guys have a reason for being there other than being on the field.

“It’s a loyalty to the institution, to the Army, to the communities, to the people who sacrificed. It just brings back memories that 99 percent of the population will never have.”

One man, watching the fourth quarter from the concourse, said he attended a 1,700-person Army tailgate before the game. “I might not know everyone (there),” he said, “but I know somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody.”

As he spoke, a friend nudged his shoulder, trying to get his attention. The two exchange pleasantries before he walked off to the restroom.

“Bill’s still in the army, but I hadn’t talked to him in 20 years,” gesturing to his friend, now walking away. “I reached out to him like five years ago. It’s like he’s my roommate again — calls me everyday, we hang out. He moved to Madison. He’s an army colonel, and he’s up in Madison stationed out there. … So we all come here not only for the game — 50 percent of the game and the 50 percent is the camaraderie and the bond that we reconnect when we get here.”

That understanding is part of the “Long Gray Line” — a phrase those at West Point use to bind Army graduates past, present and future.

For some, that manifests itself through family lineage. Darrell Scales sat next to his wife, Katie, and one of their daughters. Both Darrell and Katie were Army alums, and had driven up from Atlanta for the game.

“For our girls, they just want to be a part of the gray line,” Katie said. “ ‘That Long Gray Line,’ they call it.”

As Army’s stranglehold on the game tightened, their excitement grew. The roars became louder. High-fives more intense. Sure, it was one thing to see the tailgates, reunite with friends, share in a bond. It would’ve been another for that traveling contingent to walk out of Michigan Stadium with a win for the ages.

Michigan fans resorted to nervous tendencies outside section 11 — one nursing a Diet Coke, another clutching his vape — while Army fans kept their cool. Eric Lee, a father of an Army student, slotted his hands in his pockets, watching the field goal at the end of regulation drift ever-so-slightly right and fall ever-so-slightly short.

“You know what the student body is at West Point,” he chided after the miss, “right?”

When the game ended — an abrupt halt to Army’s upset bid — Michigan players joined with Army players, gathered around those dressed in uniform on the sideline. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had asked Army coach Jeff Monken before the game if they had a postgame ritual the Wolverines should partake in. Monken explained they sing the alma mater, and he’d be honored if Michigan joined. 

So there they were, conjoined under a bright blue sky. The crowd stood up. The alma mater blared. The whisper of “U-S-A” soon cascaded into a full-stadium chant. The players all stood there, bound by a sport that is stitched together by its eccentricities. 

“I’m proud of our guys,” Monken said shortly after. “I’m proud of how they represented West Point today. I’m proud of how they represented the United States Army. I hope that everybody that had a chance to watch — not everybody bought a ticket, them included, people on TV, I’m sure they were watching — we made them proud of our United States Army and the determination of the American soldier. Because that’s what those guys are.”