MEXICO CITY — In front of thousands of cheering Mexican and American sports fans, the U.S. Naval Academy's Sprint football team made history here yesterday, playing its first international exhibition game.
The matchup with the Mexican Sedena Heroico Colegio Militar went far beyond being just a sporting event, according to U.S. officials, players and coaches.
"I ran out there today with the American flag," senior Danny Gilmore said. It was exciting, he added, to rush on the field with his teammates as one of the midshipmen holding a flag for the start of the game as colorful confetti rained down and spectators applauded.
Gilmore, whose position is strong safety, said he was happy with the enthusiasm of the fans, and proud to be a part of the goodwill mission that forged friendships with his Mexican counterparts.
"We weren't just representing the Navy or Annapolis. We were representing the United States, which was an awesome feeling," he said. "It was just a great game and a great day to celebrate."
Important Cross-Cultural Event
The event was held at the military academy's stadium and featured performances by the Mexican military band and a cumbia band, the playing of the national anthems, and a halftime show with cheerleaders and the Mexican team's mascot.
The stadium, which seats some 8,500 people, was filled with spectators from Mexico, including students, athletes, and families with children. American fans, including families of the players, were in attendance, rooting for the team from Annapolis.
Navy Adm. Bill Gortney, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, headed the U.S. delegation at the game. The Mexican leadership in attendance included the secretary of national defense, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, and the secretary of the navy, Adm. Vidal Francisco Soberon.
In the pregame ceremonies, parachutists, including one with an American flag streaming behind him, landed on the field. The flag was presented to Gortney.
The festivities to kick off the game included Gortney throwing a football to Mexico's quarterback and Cienfuegos tossing a ball to the American quarterback.
Great Experience for Midshipmen
The game was the biggest crowd the sprint team had played in front of, head coach Marine Corps Maj. Jeff Polson said.
"It was great. The energy, the noise, the clapping," Polson said. "We were going to call plays from the sidelines, but we couldn’t do that because of the noise."
The Sprint team, which has requirements that include a 172-pound weight limit for players, was part of an important cross-cultural mission, the coach said. The midshipmen stayed at the academy during their visit, dined with their counterparts, and were guests at a celebratory reception at the academy after the game.
"It was just cool for the boys and the team to experience it, and to play in a larger setting then they have ever played in," Polson said. "It was just a great experience for them."
Mexico Fought Hard
Despite the Mexican team members playing American football for only two years, they played a great game, Polson said.
"We knew they were fundamentally new to the game, but we knew they were hungry," the coach said. "They were aggressive and they were going to play very hard football, every play to whistle."
Even with the Americans leading with four touchdowns in the first quarter, the Mexican team never relented and fought hard the entire game, Polson said. The final score was 47-0.
"We did expect a very tough-fought game," Polson said, "But when it comes to the X's and O's, we didn't know that their team would actually be as aggressive and experienced as they actually were."
Right tackle Charles Eshenour said the midshipmen had two weeks to prepare for the game. The sophomore said he enjoyed playing in the event, and hearing the cheers coming from the stands.
"It was amazing. I thought we performed really well and everyone on the field out there today was working," he said.
The Mexican team played a great game, he said. "They came out hard and they were organized and knew what they were doing. They were good competition."
'You Made Me Proud'
At the conclusion of the game, spectators cheered for both teams. The Mexicans and Americans greeted each other with handshakes, hugs and words of appreciation.
Gortney thanked the players on both sides for a great game. The American and Mexican delegations exchanged signed memorabilia. Mexico, the admiral said, accepted an invitation from him for the Mexican team to play an exhibition game in the United States next year.
Gortney, in a huddle with the midshipmen, expressed his gratitude to the Navy players for a successful mission.
"You made me proud with the bonds that you made with them across there, your shipmates, your battle buddies. They got as much out of it as you all did," he said.