What I saw next I will never forget. With their fans looking on, The Fighting Irish joined the midshipmen and stood respectfully with them as the latter sang "Navy Blue and Gold," their alma mater.
An article in The Observer, a South Bend newspaper, described the scene:
The weather was beautiful, the team looked great, and the home crowd at Notre Dame Stadium had plenty to cheer about on Saturday. However, the most impressive event in that stadium was when 80,795 people did no cheering at all. No yelling, no talking, not even an odd sneeze. Dead silence. That's what the Navy band received at the end of the game while they played their alma mater.
From that moment on, I am forever a Notre Dame fan (though I will still root for Navy when the two teams meet). It was a moment of pure class, of unabashed patriotism, and of true sportsmanship; an all-too-rare combination.
The class part is not too surprising. Though I am not Catholic and have been to Indiana only once, I have long had a healthy respect for Notre Dame as a university with class. Educational standards and the value of tradition have always brought this school much well-deserved respect.
The patriotism part is a bit more complicated. As a Vietnam veteran, I lived through an era when respect for the military was wanting by too many Americans. It was a time when CBS actually considered taking the Army-Navy game off the air. It was a lonely time when no one thanked you for your service.
I suspect that some of the tears I shed in front of the TV were a bit self-indulgent because I saw something I would have given much to have seen in those dark days. But it was not bitterness I felt; it was gratitude—thanks that we are now doing it right.
The sportsmanship part is something that lately we are not getting right. I have all but given up on my beloved NFL because it just isn't much fun anymore, when I have to watch players dance and strut after every routine tackle and wave the football in their opponent's face after scoring a touchdown. I won't say sportsmanship is dead, but it is seriously wounded.
But when those Notre Dame players stood beside their Navy opponents it was a gesture that said more than thousands of words could ever convey. Class, patriotism, sportsmanship— all in one simple, but noble, gesture.
I have since learned from friends who were there that the nobility went well beyond that one moment. I was told that the Notre Dame fans did not boo the opposing players when they first ran onto the field—which is often the case these days. Instead, they cheered them. And at the end of the first quarter, the stadium announcer asked the fans to recognize Navy "on this day after Veteran's Day"—and they gave the midshipmen a long standing ovation.
The Irish band played "Anchors Aweigh" several times during the game, and one witness watched as total strangers walked up to the midshipmen and thanked them for their service. He described it as not "just one act of manners…it was all day long."
In post-game interviews, I watched spellbound as Notre Dame players spoke not of their own (awesome) achievements on the field, but talked instead of their opponents and how they faced far greater challenges in the future, not on the football field, but on the battlefield. Again, I cried.
Thank you, Charlie Weis, for a class act. Thank you, Notre Dame, for embracing patriotism. Thank you, Navy, for your service.
Retired Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the senior acquisitions editor for the Naval Institute Press.