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Army-Navy Game Holds Special Meaning After Black Knight Tragedy

  • Army football sophomore cornerback Brandon Jackson, 20, died Sept. 11, 2016, in a car accident -- just hours after he started in a winning game. (Photo by Mark Carruthers/West Point)
    Army football sophomore cornerback Brandon Jackson, 20, died Sept. 11, 2016, in a car accident -- just hours after he started in a winning game. (Photo by Mark Carruthers/West Point)
  • Army football sophomore cornerback James Gibson, No. 2, holds the jersey of fallen teammate Brandon Jackson. (Photo courtesy James Gibson via Instagram)
    Army football sophomore cornerback James Gibson, No. 2, holds the jersey of fallen teammate Brandon Jackson. (Photo courtesy James Gibson via Instagram)

Army's football team wants to stand at attention and "sing second" Saturday for the first time in 15 years -- and in dedication to a fallen teammate.

One of the most honored traditions of the storied Army-Navy game is the singing of the U.S. Military Academy's and the U.S. Naval Academy's school anthems after the game's conclusion.

Players and students stand at attention for both in a stirring display of patriotism. The loser's alma mater is sung first, followed by the winner's. Members of the winning team then sprint to their side of the field and leap into the arms of fans. For 14 straight years, Navy has sung second.

This year, the game brings special meaning to the West Point community after sophomore cornerback Brandon Jackson, 20, died Sept. 11 in a car accident -- just hours after he started in a winning game. The Army football team has dedicated its pursuit to ending the losing streak against Navy so members can "sing second" and hold the jersey of their fallen teammate.

Sophomore cornerback James Gibson posted a photo on Instagram earlier this week of the Army football team singing the alma mater and holding the jersey of sophomore cornerback Brandon Jackson. Underneath the photo he wrote: "We singin second just like this Saturday #Forever28."

The photo was taken after Army beat the University of Texas at El Paso just six days after Jackson was killed. Jackson died when his car crashed into a guardrail in a single-car accident in Croton, New York. Jackson was declared dead at the scene.

Army senior defensive captain Andrew King wrote about losing Jackson in a tribute for the The Player's Tribune on Tuesday. He wrote how the Army football brotherhood is forced to expect to lose brothers on the battlefield after they graduate, but not when they're still at West Point.

"We bleed together on the football field before we bleed together on the battlefield," King wrote. "But I never thought I would lose one of my brothers while we were still at school together -- while we were still teammates. West Point prepares you for many things, but not for something like that."

King wrote how the Army players have used football as a catharsis from the pain of losing Jackson. The day the players found out about Jackson's death, the team's leadership council voted unanimously to practice the next day in Jackson's honor. The team has dedicated the season to Jackson's memory.

"Brandon would have appreciated it. He was such a hard worker -- always trying to get better," King wrote.

Jackson wore the number 28. For the rest of the season after his death, team members have taken to the field behind Gibson, who wears number 2, and slotback Christian Drake, who wears number 8.

Jackson's presence remains strong in the locker room. The team's training staff has set up a locker for Jackson before every game as if he's still playing.

"We're playing for a cornerback who was one of the truest competitors on the team," King wrote. "Brandon was a sophomore -- a yearling in cadet lingo. I am a senior, a firstie. I'm also a captain, but there was no doubt that Brandon was one of the leaders of our defense, and of our entire team."

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The team has rallied behind Jackson's memory, entering the final week of the season with a winning record for the first time since 2010. Army has already secured a bowl bid to the Heart of Dallas Bowl against the University of North Texas on Dec. 27.

The Army football team enters the game against Navy with plenty of confidence. Army's team is young as Coach Jeff Monken started more freshmen than usual last year in his first year as head coach. Those freshmen who started their first Army-Navy games last year are now sophomores and know what to expect.

Former Army quarterback Trent Steelman started all four years before he graduated from West Point in 2013. He said it was hard to remember it was still only a football game when he started his first Army-Navy game as a freshman.

"It was a surreal moment," Steelman said of playing in his first Army-Navy game. "It took some time to calm myself down to realize it was still a football game. From the time you get to West Point, all you hear is 'Beat Navy!' It's an incredible amount of pressure for someone who has never been in that situation before. But then after a while, you figure out it's just a football game."

Steelman's experience showed, as his senior year was the closest Army has come to beating Navy in this 14-year stretch. Army lost 17-13 that year, and it looked like they would take the lead in the final minutes. However, a late fumble by Army's fullback inside Navy's 15-yard line derailed what looked to be Army's winning drive.

Heading into this year's game, Steelman expects it to be an even matchup between Navy and a more experienced Army Black Knight team. Navy lost its starting quarterback and tailback last week against Temple University in the American Athletic Conference championship game, further evening the stakes.

Army's team can also play loose without the pressure the Navy team is facing to extend the streak, Steelman said.

"For the Army team, there really is no pressure; you're expected to lose. What's 14 versus 15? If there's any pressure, it's all on Navy so I would say that Army can just go out there and play."

Steelman is a member of the Army football brotherhood, and he sent out a message of support after learning about Jackson's death.

He said it's awe inspiring to see the global support of the West Point community for the Army-Navy football game.

Following the loss of Jackson, Army players and alumni have said how special it has been to see the support from all the service academy communities. The entire Navy coaching staff traveled to New York City for Jackson's funeral in September.

But Saturday is still about beating Navy for this year's Army team, and the Black Knights are not afraid to face the favored Midshipmen.

King wrote that Jackson would often tell his teammates: "Scared money don't make no money." The saying has nothing to do with actual money. Jackson's message to his teammates was to not back down from any challenge or opportunity, King wrote.

This year's Army team is a year older and has tasted success. Still, with heavy hearts from Jackson's loss, this year's team is inspired to hold up Jackson's jersey and "sing second" for the first time in a decade and a half.

-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.

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