Every once in a while, something happens in sports that reminds us all why we care about games even in times when it would seem games really don't matter very much.
A moment like that took place Saturday on one of college football's most hallowed fields. Only this time, the home team was the victim. The heroes were the visitors. Those were the kids from Navy — young men who will never play in the NFL but may very well fight in Iraq very soon — who somehow found a way to beat Notre Dame 46-44 in three overtimes in a football game as remarkable as anyone is likely to ever see.
Navy and Notre Dame play football against one another every fall. Quite literally, this is the most one-sided rivalry in football history. Prior to Saturday, Navy hadn't beaten Notre Dame for 43 years. The last time Navy won, John F. Kennedy was president, Vietnam was just a place in southeast Asia, and Roger Staubach was Navy's quaterback.
There are good reasons why Notre Dame dominates Navy. It has more football tradition than anyone, from George Gipp and Knute Rockne (win one for the Gipper) to the fight song and touchdown Jesus. It has its own TV network — NBC pays millions of dollars a year to televise all Notre Dame home games — and more money than it knows what to do with. There isn't a football player born who doesn't at least think about playing at Notre Dame. The Irish don't recruit players; they select them.
Not so Navy — especially now, when coach Paul Johnson has to answer questions in recruits' homes about how likely it is that someone's son might have to go to war if he plays football at Navy. Navy is four years of a hard life: It is academically stringent and militarily difficult, and no corners are cut for football players. If you graduate, your reward is five years in the Navy or the Marine Corps.
Most of Navy's players are smart, tough kids too small or too slow to be recruited by Notre Dame or other big-time schools. They are kids like Zerbin Singleton, who scored the first touchdown Saturday. He's an aerospace engineering major who wants to be an astronaut. As a kid, he watched a bounty hunter shoot and arrest his mother; was injured by a drunken driver in a car accident; and was told by coaches at Georgia Tech that, at 5 feet, 6 inches and 174 pounds, he was just too small to play college football. He transferred to Navy, and on Saturday, he helped beat Notre Dame.
Navy's team is full of kids like Singleton: Reggie Campbell, the 5-foot-6-inch offensive captain who scored the winning points Saturday; Brad Wimsatt, who hopes to follow his two brothers into the Marines as a pilot; Kaiponoa Kahayaku-Enhada, the quarterback who spent the entire afternoon urging the Notre Dame crowd to get louder because he so loved being part of a game like this one.
There simply is no way Navy can beat Notre Dame. There are too many obstacles — size, speed, strenth, money, referees — to overcome. On Saturday, an extraordinary group of young men proved that if you believe enough and care enough and absolutely refuse to ever give up, you can overcome just about anything.
If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is. That's why sports is worth caring about — because at its best, it can inspire us all.