EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A play so out of character in the buttoned-up, disciplined world of Service Academy football actually revealed just that: character. You could see it in the eyes of Navy senior linebacker Diego Fagot.
"They [Army] think their culture is better than ours," said Fagot, a senior tackling machine from South Florida who was playing his last game. "You can clearly see how they scored on the opening drive and they thought it was going to go their way throughout the whole entire game. We're not going to lay down for them."
At the end of all the patriotism and pomp and military might displayed in this rivalry, it's still that: a bitter rivalry. It doesn't have the hate associated with the teams in the Iron Bowl or The Game, but it's nevertheless an absolute desire to out-hit the other guy on this annual December Saturday.
"Our toughness has come into question," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "I have been doing this a long time. The guys on our team are some of the toughest in the world. That's wrong for people to question their toughness."
And so the Midshipmen didn't lay down at the end of what was a dreadful 3-8 season, at the end of what looked like a fifth loss in six seasons to Army. Instead, Navy almost shut down Army completely after its opening drive. Trailing 13-7 at halftime, Navy never let Army sniff the end zone again. And then came that character.
In his only carry of the game, 190-pound Navy slotback Chance Warren set up the go-ahead third-quarter touchdown by trucking 6-foot-7, 265-pound Army linebacker Andre Carter II, who is headed at some point to the NFL. Bijan Nichols kicked an insurance field goal with 6 minutes left.
In between came that test of wills. Those who go through the service academy experience say it is basically four years of training to prioritize decisions. On the battlefield, those decisions may save lives. On a brisky windy afternoon before the largest crowd ever to see a college game at MetLife Stadium, that training saved Navy.
Even in the aftermath of the fog of this war, the details are fuzzy. Facing fourth-and-1 from their own 34, the Midshipmen lined up to punt early in the fourth quarter. Fagot spotted a Black Knights formation that would have almost certainly led to a blocked kick and called out a different protection.
Freshman long snapper Ethan Nguyen -- all 195 pounds of him -- heard something else.
"When I checked it, I guess the snapper didn't hear me correctly," Fagot said. "We did have a fake in the game plan. We were talking about it already. I guess he assumed I called a fake and he just snapped it to me. It was just a reaction play, actually."
The reaction included Fagot being surprised by the snap, yet still catching the ball, breaking a tackle and stumbling forward for the first down. The play was so elegantly botched that it looked for all the world like a fake. It wasn't.
In fact, there's have an acronym for such mistakes in the military, FUBAR (F---ed Up Beyond All Recognition).
The military also teaches you to improvise. Fagot's alertness eventually allowed for Nichols' field goal.
"As a linebacker, you kind of already have tunnel vision," Fagot said. "I wasn't expecting it. When I caught it, I just started running straight."
"Sometimes it is good to be lucky," Niumatalolo said. "… I didn't know we were going to do it, either."
Navy ended its season 4-8, but in reality, this was its bowl game. MetLife had the atmosphere of a College Football Playoff game.
Ignoring the uniforms on the field and looking up in the massive stadium, it could have been the Iron Bowl. At least it seemed that way for this first timer.
Traffic to the stadium was backed up before 10 a.m. ET for the 3 p.m. kick. Fans were energized to simply see each other after last year's game, impacted by COVID-19, was played without fans at Army's Michie Stadium.
Four-star generals were running around on the sidelines like middle-school cheerleaders. Officers with more medals than their uniforms could carry were shooting T-shirt canons at their troops. Synced exactly to the moment Navy took the field, Super Hornet fighters flew over the stadium. Similar for Army, which was greeted by a squadron of low-flying Apache helicopters.
The Commander-In-Chief's Trophy that Army, Navy and Air Force compete so hard to win ended up being split for the first time since 1993 as no team beat the other two. As per the rules, last year's winner (Army) retained the hardware.
"It's great, huh?" said Gen. Mark Milley of the pregame atmosphere. Milley just so happens to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
To answer his question: Yes, it was great.
Twenty years ago, Milley was serving in Hawaii as chief of operations for the 25th Infantry Division when he got the call that the Twin Towers had been hit.
"We alerted the division and the entire nation went on alert for an attack," Milley recalled. "We didn't know necessarily what was happening at the moment, but we knew it was quite serious."
The anniversary of that 9/11 game won by Army and containing so many souls who would fight -- and some that would die -- in the War on Terror was the theme of this game. During one timeout, a Chevy pickup driven by a first responder that horrible day was rolled out on the field. Word has it that even though it was covered with the detritus of the buildings, it still started and was able to be driven away -- a different kind of survivor to this day.
The somber mood could not be ignored. Shortly after Navy gathered in its lockerroom, the wife of Navy Seal commander Brian Bourgeois, Megan, spoke to the team. Her husband was killed this week during a training accident in Virginia.
This game was about him, too.
For Phil and Steph Schroeder, there were no losers. The proud parents from suburban St. Louis have one daughter in the Navy, currently serving on a ship in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the other is a "firstie" at Army.
The couple may have been the only fans among the 82,000 with custom-made clothing, half in Army colors, half in Navy colors.
"That's a beauty of it," Phil texted during the game. "No worries on who wins or loses."
Rear Adm. Bill Byrne appeared on the CBS Sports HQ set with his letter sweater. Byrne was the first Navy quarterback to throw for at least 1,400 yards in three consecutive seasons (1984-86).
But he never beat Army, hence the lack of a star that goes on that letter sweater for each win over the Black Knights.
"Some of my Navy football brothers have four of them. I have zero of them," Byrne said. "I will fully admit, I went to play football. That's not why I stayed. Ultimately, somehow, I stayed for 35 years on active duty."
Ten hours after 9/11 hit, Byrne found himself as executive officer on a ship tasked with sailing to New York to protect the city. Shortly thereafter, that ship went to the Persian Gulf and stayed for seven months. That first post-9/11 game was watched on board from the Mideast.
"What other game will we find every player on the field, every member of both student bodies, who have raised their right hand?" Byrne asked. "Everyone here has said, 'I will die [for my country].'"
That was the undertone of this game as it is every year. Army and Navy graduates will fight side by side. But in this game, they fight each other to the ground.
"It's a football game," Byrne said. "It's 60 minutes of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. There is great love and extreme brotherhood and true fellowship -- except for those three hours."
That's why Fagot reacted the way he did. He's been taught to prioritize his decision-making, think on his feet and outhit Army when the time comes.
"I just told them I know they are going to make great officers," Niumatalolo said, "but more important, they are going to make great husbands and fathers. That has always been my mantra. When things get tough, don't run out on your family. Keep fighting for your family."