Collin Mooney wants to make one thing clear about football players at Navy.
“You can like them. They’re likable guys,” he said. “They’re just in another branch of the service. You get out into the regular Army and the regular Navy and it’s a different atmosphere, because you really have to be able to work together.
“While the rivalry is still there, and on that day you hate each other, the other 364 days of the year you have to work together.”
“That day” is the one Saturday each fall that Army and Navy face each other in football in what some have called the “greatest rivalry in sports.” The 113th installment of the series that began in 1890 takes place Saturday in Philadelphia (2 p.m., CBS).
Mooney, a fullback on the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad, participated in it for three years, from 2006 through 2008, as a running back for Army. His experience was that it in fact was unlike any contest he played before or since.
“It’s so ingrained in you from the minute you walk into West Point as a cadet that it just builds every year,” he said. “From the time you walk in as a freshman it’s ‘Beat Navy. Beat Navy.’ By the time you’re a senior it’s come to a head and you’re like, ‘This is probably the biggest rivalry of my life.’ And it is.
“The rivalry has been going on for so long, it’s just huge.”
Lately it also has been pretty one-sided. Navy has won the last 10, a streak that covers Mooney’s three appearances, and has seized control of the all-time series with 56 victories to Army’s 49. There were seven ties.
The importance of the game for the academies and all the pageantry that surrounds it, however, remain constant.
“It’s like a whole week of events you have going on at West Point,” Mooney said. “They flew us to Philadelphia to do a press conference a couple days before the game. So it was just crazy. I wish I would have had a minute to actually take it all in or look around for a minute. But there was a lot going on so I didn’t really get a chance.”
Given all that, and the fact that, from Mooney’s perspective, the results were forgettable (Army lost by an average of 27 points the three times he played), his specific memories of the Army-Navy game are muted. There are no highlight-reel touchdowns. His longest run was 10 yards.
Still, his memory of the first play in which he was on the field as part of the offense is a vivid reminder of the emotions connected to the contest.
“I was super hyped-up, probably way more than I needed to be,” he said. “But I ran right at the linebacker, and I remember just going head-over-heels, and he came right with me. It was a great feeling.
“That was probably the only play I remember just because I was so excited to play in that game.”
That was in 2007, his junior season, when the game was played in Baltimore rather than at Philadelphia, its traditional site.
The following year he was Army’s featured ball carrier, having recorded the 13th 1,000-yard rushing season in program history. Along the way he became the first cadet to rush for 170 yards or more in three consecutive games, which he did in October, and the 11th Army player ever with 200 or more rushing attempts in a season.
Navy held him to 54 yards on 17 carries. It was his second-lowest rushing total of the season.
This fall, his first in professional football after having completed his three-year military service requirement, he has recorded and watched every Army football game despite the fact that the Black Knights have won just two of 11.
He certainly will not miss the game against Navy, which is 7-4. When he settles in to watch, he will know well the challenge that awaits the players — on both teams.
“There’s all sorts of events going on, you have all sorts of people there,” Mooney said. “The president was there when I played my senior year. Just dealing with all of that and the environment that surrounds it, dealing with all of that plus the emotion, is a lot to take in.
“You really have to dig down deep and not worry about those things as much as playing football.”