Max Sandlin always drew tremendous inspiration from his grandfather, whom he viewed as a hero.
Michael Earl Sandlin was a decorated Marine Corps aviator, flying the F-14 Tomcat during the Vietnam War. He retired with the rank of colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star and the Air Medal among many other commendations.
The elder Sandlin was extremely proud of serving in the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 311. Max Sandlin remembers his grandfather always wearing a classic aviator's jacket bearing the VMA-311 Tomcats logo.
"One of my favorite photos of my grandfather is from Vietnam when he's aboard his jet with the Tomcats logo," Sandlin said.
Having grown up hearing all about his grandfather's exploits, Sandlin sought to become an aviator himself, which is why he jumped at the opportunity to attend the Naval Academy as a recruited football player.
Last month, Sandlin's dream came true as he received Marine Corps pilot as a service assignment.
"My grandfather is the reason I'm here today, the reason I selected Marine Air. I want to follow in his footsteps," said Sandlin, who hopes to fly the F-35 Lightning II.
This Saturday, Sandlin will proudly wear the VMA-311 Tomcats patch on the sleeve of his jersey during the Army-Navy game. He waited to do so until his senior season, after achieving the goal of earning a pilot commission.
"It's really cool to be able to honor my grandfather and his squadron," Sandlin said. "It's the patch I've wanted to wear ever since I came here."
One of the great traditions of the Army-Navy game involves the patches players on both sides wear on their jerseys. No one knows exactly when or how the practice started, but the patches have been part of the fabric of "America's Game" for more than three decades now.
Navy and Marine Corps service members constantly send patches to the Navy football equipment department. In the weeks leading up to the big game, Greg Morgenthaler, Navy's associate athletic director for equipment operations, lays hundreds of patches out on a table for players to choose from.
Many Navy players, including Sandlin, have a specific patch they want to wear for personal reasons. Last season, Sandlin wore a patch from the USS John McCain, the destroyer on which his sister Sierra serves.
There was never a question that he would wear his grandfather's patch this season. Michael Sandlin attended every one of his grandson's football games at Chandler High in Arizona. He died in 2017 and never got to see Max play for Navy.
Max Sandlin, who wears a memorial bracelet honoring his grandfather every day, has no doubt he would love seeing the VMA-311 patch when No. 56 for Navy takes the field.
"I'm sure he's up there looking down and losing it," Sandlin said.
Marine Corps nod
Navy defensive tackle Clay Cromwell will recognize his father for the second straight season. Doug Cromwell served in the Marine Corps for 34 years before retiring in 2013 with the rank of colonel. He was stationed at bases throughout the United States and overseas while serving in a wide range of units.
Last year, Clay Cromwell wore the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance patch. Doug Cromwell served as a company commander of that battalion.
This year, Clay Cromwell selected the badge his father wore while with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from January 1986 to January 1989, completing two deployments to the Pacific Ocean.
"I had a selection of four and that's the one Clay chose," said Doug, who is now chief of operations for the Oxford, Mississippi school district. "I've got a couple more lined up for him for next year."
Clay Cromwell, whose ability to take on double teams and hold the point of attack is a big reason why Navy ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense, said he is proud to honor his father's "service and sacrifice."
"It's wonderful that I am able to do this for him and I think he's touched that I wear his unit patches in the Army-Navy game," the 6-foot-3, 292-pound junior said.
Not surprisingly, Cromwell hopes to serve as a Marine Corps infantry officer, like his father. He was happy to learn about the patch tradition for the Army-Navy game.
"I think it's very unique to be able to wear an individualized patch like this," he said. "It's even more special when you are able to make it personal and honor someone in particular."
Offensive lineman Brent Self will also honor his father by wearing the USS Puget Sound patch. That destroyer tender was one of three ships on which the late Michael Self served. He died five years ago at the age of 49 of a heart attack.
"My dad never really got to see me play high-level football, so it means a lot to have this patch on my shoulder for this big game," said Brent Self, Navy's backup center.
Honoring late father
Michael Self enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served six years as an electronics technician based out of Norfolk, Virginia. His oldest son, Justin, also played football at Navy and graduated from the academy in 2021.
Justin Self wore his father's patch from the USS Dahlgren as a senior in the Army-Navy game. Justin was a plebe at the Naval Academy, while Brent was a sophomore at Byron Nelson High in Keller, Texas when their father died.
"It makes my heart swell with pride that Justin and Brent both honored their father in this way," Ginger Self said of her sons. "My husband never got to see either of them play football for Navy, so it's extra special that he is part of that game with them through the patch."
Remembering Brendan Looney
Outside linebacker John Marshall will become the 12th different player to wear the SEAL Team Three patch in honor of Brendan Looney. That annual tradition started in 2010 after the former Navy football and lacrosse player died in combat.
Lt. Looney, an Owings native and DeMatha Catholic product, was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan during a special operations mission. Navy assistant sports information director Stacie Michaud, who knew Looney, personally selects a player she believes embodies his characteristics.
Marshall, an outside linebacker and defensive captain, is a graduate of Gonzaga College High.
"I was honored when I was asked to wear Brendan's patch. I know all about Brendan Loone and the sacrifice he made," Marshall said. "I hope I have the courage to do what Brendan did in combat if called upon."
Kevin Looney, who established the Brendan Looney Foundation in honor of his son, is grateful that a Navy football player always wears the SEAL Team 3 patch in the big game against Army.
"I absolutely love that Brendan is not forgotten. As the parent of a fallen child, you always hope that no one forgets," Kevin said. "Both the Navy lacrosse and football programs have done a great job of keeping Brendan's legacy alive."
Nicholas Straw, Navy's other senior outside linebacker, will be wearing a SpaceX Crew-5 patch provided by astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann. The former Navy women's soccer player and 1999 academy graduate, is currently aboard the International Space Station.
Col. Aunapu Mann was launched into outer space in early October aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. She will reportedly deliver a video message from the International Space Station during the Army-Navy game.
Starting offensive tackle Sam Glover is wearing the VFA-86 Sidewinders patch to honor Tyler Alger, a member of his sponsor family. Tyler, who graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in 2016 and then attended Navy flight school, is currently deployed aboard the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush. He is a pilot flying the F-18 Super Hornet out of Naval Air Station Lemoore in California.
Richard Alger was a Navy football season ticket holder for 40 years and his son still has those same seats in Section 25 on the visitor's side of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"We are all very excited to watch Sam play in the Army-Navy game while wearing Tyler's squadron patch," said Sean Alger, an Annapolis resident whose father was a 1965 Naval Academy graduate.
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