ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — On a beautiful fall day, the parking lot at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was filled with fans and tailgate parties. A record crowd of 38,225 showed up Saturday for the football game between Navy and Air Force.
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk looked at the activity around him and smiled. After tumultuous week, he was right where he was supposed to be Saturday.
The Air Force-Navy game was in serious jeopardy on Tuesday, when the Department of Defense suspended athletic competition at the nation’s service academies because of the U.S. government shutdown. At that point, Gladchuk took action to convince the DOD that the game should be played because it was funded by non-appropriated money.
His effort paid off. Late Wednesday night, the DOD relented.
“First thing that comes to mind is gratitude to the Secretary of Defense and the Navy leadership for allowing it to happen,” Gladchuk said before kickoff. “It’s a vision that comes to fruition in this memorial that happens to be a stadium every time we play a home football game.”
The late morning kickoff meant some tailgaters featured bacon and eggs on the grill instead of burgers and hot dogs.
Mimosa in one hand, spatula in the other, retired Air Force officer Charlie Lang was delighted to be among friends following a stressful week.
“There was some concern, but I was hopeful it would happen because they’ve never canceled a Navy football game during a government shutdown,” Lang said.
Jerry Elliott drove from Fort Worth, Texas, to watch his first Navy football game. Elliott, 72, and 71-year-old Jeff Miles (Navy, Class of ’63) served together on the U.S.S. Nimitz from 1978-80.
“I was coming either way, but of course I’m glad they’re playing the game,” Elliott said.
Miles was certain it would happen.
“Navy athletics is privately funded,” Miles said. “The idea of them trying to cancel a game between two service academies is appalling.”
Gladchuk felt the same way.
Asked if he had any doubts that the game would go off as scheduled, Gladchuk replied, “Just about every day.”
That’s why he worked so hard to make it happen.
“The exercise was to remove emotion and just try to convey the facts: What the game means, not only to the Naval Academy but to the community, the region, the city of Annapolis,” Gladchuk said. “The economic impact that it makes is so critically important.
“If this was something that was a year from now and we could plan for it and there were no expectations, that would be one thing,” Gladchuk said. “But you have the concessionaires, the caterers, the people who bought tickets, 200 recruits, people who have come from all over the country. To pull the plug days before the event would have been a tough one to swallow.”
Pam Alderson, 53, was delighted to be at a tailgate, even one that began well before noon. Her plate was filled with egg casserole, French toast and cheese grits.
“Definitely a relief,” she said. “They were talking about rescheduling this thing for December, and that’s crazy talk because in December the only thing we think about is beating Army.”
What would she have done if the Air Force game was postponed, or worse, canceled?
“If we didn’t play I would have stayed home and written my congressman,” Alderson said. “We give a lot of money to this team.”
Chet Whitley, who drove up for North Carolina for the game, wondered whether Navy’s game at Duke next week would be impacted by the government shutdown. A home game is one thing, but traveling to Duke?
“Not sure how that’s going to work,” Whitley said.
Gladchuk was ready to make it work.
“There wouldn’t be any money that’s part of government funding. It would be exclusively non-appropriated,” he said. “We’re hopeful, and right now the Secretary of Defense has not told us we can’t go. So we’re just remaining open-minded. We’re preparing for it.”