This was Dec. 2, 1995, at crumbling old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Army’s football team had just defeated Navy, 14-13, and they’d needed to drive 99 ½ yards late in the fourth quarter to do it. At the final gun, the Black Knights seniors realized they’d just done the greatest thing an Army football class could do: go through four years of the rivalry 4-0.
And those four games had been decided by a total — a total — of six points.
“The one thing you always hear about this game before you play it is, it’s just like playing yourselves,” Jim Cantelupe says. “A lot of guys pick one academy over the other, a lot of guys have similar skill-sets, and a lot of guys have similar perspectives if you’re going to choose to go to a service academy.”
These days Cantelupe splits his time between Chelsea and Chicago as one of the founders of Summit Trail Advisors, which manages the money of many athletes and entertainers. Twenty-three years ago, he was the defensive captain for Army, and as he went through the splendid rituals of postgame — singing each other’s alma maters, hugging teammates and opponents, basking in genuine glory — he knew he needed to do one last thing.
He needed to find Andy Thompson.
They weren’t friends; they’d only known each other 12 days, since a media luncheon. Thompson was Navy’s defensive captain. And in the moments after the last college football game Cantelupe ever played, as he rejoiced at the 4-0 he would carry into eternity … he found himself oddly aching for an opponent he barely knew.
Because that foe would always be 0-4.
Cantelupe couldn’t find Thompson on the field, so, still clad in his black and gold uniform, he approached the guard at the Navy locker-room door and asked: “Can I go in there?” The guard shrugged him in. The next person he saw was a distraught priest, one of the Navy chaplains; for Army-Navy it’s personal for all personnel.
“Father,” Cantelupe says, “I was hoping to see Andy Thompson.”
The cleric pointed Cantelupe to Thompson’s locker, and when Thompson saw Cantelupe he jumped to his feet and started to sob. Cantelupe hugged him back. “I know,” he says. “I know.” And Thompson says: “Damn, I wanted to kick your [butt] today. Just once I wanted to know what it felt like to beat you guys. Now I’ll never know.”
In that moment, a bond was born. They began emailing each other regularly. Cantelupe traveled to Annapolis the week after his own graduation ceremony to be at Thompson’s.
“Imagine his thinking to do that in what should have been his happiest moment as a college football player,” Thompson says, the wonder sill evident in his voice. “That has to tell you exactly what this game is about.”
It’s not impossible to believe an Auburn player and an Alabama player can become friends later in life. Same with an Ohio State Buckeye and a Michigan Wolverine. But this wasn’t just a friendship. When it comes to Army and Navy, it rarely is.
“We were — we are — brothers,” Cantelupe says. “It’s hard to explain it any other way. You spend your whole year with everyone telling you the only thing that should matter in your life is beating each other — and then you find out how much you care for those guys.”
Thompson, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, now and works for a small manufacturing company after retiring from the Marine Corps in 2015, did get a chance to taste Army-Navy splendor when he was an assistant coach for two years during his military career, both Navy wins.
“And you know what?” he asked. “I was probably the only one in the locker room who was thinking of Army’s seniors, because they’d gone 0-4.”
He has gotten revenge on his old pal plenty through the years, because every Army-Navy game the two men make sure to place a wager. Straight up, no points. For a lot of years that was a problem for Cantelupe — from 1999 until 2015, Navy won 14 straight times and 16 out of 17.
“It felt like 30 in a row,” Cantelupe says.
“Typical Jim,” Thompson says. “He still owes me about 20 steaks from those bets. I bet he didn’t tell you that part.”
Saturday, the old friends and older rivals will be in touch, as they usually are. Cantelupe will be at Lincoln Financial Field, Thompson will be watching from home. They will have their annual bet, and they will once more bask in the color and pageantry as bowl-bound Army goes for a third straight win over 3-9 Navy. You might think it’s a cliché to say you can throw out the records in this one, but this is where it began.
“I bring clients to the game and they tell me it’s the most incredible sporting event they’ve ever attended,” Cantelupe says. “I wish everyone could know what it’s like to actually play in one.”
“America wins,” Thompson says. “Every year.”
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