Navy's Andy Person: The embodiment of Army-Navy football
It was 17 years ago when Andy Person stomped off the turf at Veterans Stadium, unsuccessful in his last attempt at toppling Army. It was the final game in an illustrious career. He was, and still is, Navy's all-time leader in sacks (22) and tackles for a loss (44). But he never beat Army.
Now 39, Andy was the first of four Person boys, all products of Episcopal Academy via Havertown, to attend and play football at the Naval Academy. Chris' career in Annapolis, lasting from 1994-98, overlapped with Andy's for two years. Both were defensive ends. Dan, another end, came next, attending Navy from 1999-2003. He was followed by Joe, a Midshipmen offensive lineman from 2003-06.
They are the only quartet of brothers ever to all don the blue and gold. Each suited up against Army in college football's most unique rivalry, the 113th edition of which kicks off Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Beyond that, they are not so different from any other group of competitive siblings. They kid, they chide, they laugh at one another's expense.
Just not about Andy's losses to Army.
"It is such a sensitive topic that nobody bothers to even mess around," Andy said. "We joke around about a lot of things, but that isn't one of them."
Andy's brothers followed in his footsteps for a reason. He was the eldest brother and a hell of a football player, the best of them by their own collective admission. But on that one Saturday in December, in that one moment, Andy's spirit was visibly broken.
"I remember crying in the stands," said Chris, now 38.
Army had steamed down the field on a 99-yard touchdown drive, clinching victory in the final minute, 14-13. It was the fourth consecutive heartbreaker of Andy's Army-Navy career. The previous scores - 25-24 in 1992, 16-14 in 1993, 22-20 in 1994 - were almost too close to be real. Andy had lost the four biggest games of his career by a combined six points.
Storming off the field, he couldn't hide his devastation. Disgusted, he launched his helmet through the air toward the bench. His brothers couldn't take their eyes off him.
"We asked him after if he ever got that helmet back," said Dan, 32, who still serves as a Navy helicopter pilot. "He didn't know what we were talking about. I think he was so angry, he didn't remember throwing it."
It rarely has been mentioned since.
Luckily for the Persons, things improved for the Midshipmen program. Chris beat Army at Giants Stadium in 1997. Dan went 3-1 against the Black Knights and Joe's Navy squads never lost. In fact, headed into Saturday's game, Navy had won the last 10 meetings and has a chance to bring the Commander-in-Chief's trophy - awarded to each season's winner of the series among Army, Navy, and Air Force - back to Annapolis after a two-year hiatus.
Joe will be in attendance on Saturday, no doubt draped in blue and gold. He is 29 now, and works in commercial banking after recently leaving the military. Dan and his three kids will watch the game with Andy in New York, where Andy lives with his five kids while working at Mercy College. Chris is studying to be a chiropractor in Iowa, but he won't miss a play.
Army-Navy is, and always will be, circled on the Person family calendars. Both locker rooms are told throughout the week how every active-duty service member around the world will be tuned in. They're told that the game is a celebration of their country - a tribute to those like them who have sacrificed so much for the sake of others. They hear it and they think they understand it. But it isn't until years later, while serving their country, that it sinks in.
For Andy, his epiphany came on an aircraft carrier, in the middle of the ocean halfway around the world, surrounded by servicemen. Dan, still in the service, sees it firsthand every year.
"It is true, everyone does watch that game. It will be on the Armed Forces Network and broadcast on all the ships and everywhere else that guys are deployed," he said. "They may not know your name, but they're watching and if you get a sack or someone breaks a big run or a catch, everyone is cheering."
"When you get out and serve," Chris said, "you realize that you're providing the armed forces a means to get away for a moment and forget about what they're doing.
"I don't think it resonates until you're that person, watching from afar."
In the players' defense, worrying too much about who is watching could prove dangerous. The action on the field will be fierce. While most rivalries burn with hatred, this one is born of respect. Respect for one another and the rival academy, sure. But most of all, it's the pride in their own academy that makes this game a bit more special than the rest.
Whether it's Navy, Army or Air Force, service-academy football players - many times undersized or overlooked - play with a chip on their shoulder. Every week they compete against traditional college football programs.
Then once a year, in early December, they line up across from players who they know have made the same sacrifices and gone through the same hardships that they have. A mirror image of themselves.
"You feel like you're playing against your brother," Andy said. "They're probably the same type of people - someone you'd be great friends with on any other day."
"Afterward, you sincerely shake hands with those guys from Army," Joe said. "And you respect what it is that they do. So you battle on the field, but right afterward you're comrades and best friends. You understand that when you graduate, you're going to be serving your country just like they are."
That sacrifice is what separates everyone on the field during an Army-Navy game from everyone off it. The Person brothers, and the men that have followed them at Navy, have done more for their country than most families ever will. Their Naval lineage and commitment makes them the embodiment of Midshipmen football.
"The Person brothers symbolize what this school is all about," said Ken Niumatalolo, Navy's current coach who, at one time, coached all four of the Navy Persons.
"They were unbelievable football players. They had great careers here and went on to serve our country. Some of them have gotten out, some are still in. Some have moved on and have their own families. That is what this place is all about. You take great people that come from a great family and take them to a different level."
It has been 17 years since Andy's nightmare at the Vet. If that isn't enough time, how long will it be before his brothers can broach the subject of what happened to that helmet? He says he doesn't know, but in the meantime, Andy humbly takes solace in the memories of his brothers' triumphs.
"I have the luxury of the three of them, and they had plenty of Army wins," he said. "So I was able to live the wins through them and that made all the difference."
Andy will watch this year's contest from the comfortable confines of his home. He remembers the reads, and as a Midshipman zeroes in on a tackle, he will do the same, still yearning for that win.
Although he will never have that elusive victory, Andy laid the foundation for the bridge that sent a line of Persons to Annapolis. Without that, perhaps none of them would have beaten Army.
Laughing, Andy said, "I like to think I loosened the jar a little bit."