By Jason Lamertina
In front of the mirror
(Editor’s Note: Born in Altoona, Charles Lamertina has been in charge of major college football since 2015. Last season, he worked on the Army-Navy game and reflected on the experience for the Mirror.)
To say that the profession of football manager has taken me to places I would not otherwise go in life, or to meet people I would not otherwise meet, would be a gross underestimate.
Geographically, it took me from Hawaii to the Bahamas; while Eric Dickerson, President George HW Bush and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have all tossed my coin with the same eagerness that this game entails.
Playoffs, bowl games, conference championships, great calls and missed calls have all been fun, but remain secondary to the experiences that have come with them.
It’s likely that otherwise I wouldn’t have seen the solemn setting of Pearl Harbor or looking at a redwood if it weren’t for the football game to be played nearby.
Since that moment in 1996, when I walked into a clinic in suburban Washington DC to learn how to play soccer in high school, the game has never been the same for me.
I thought I knew football. I played it every chance I could in the alleys off 8th Street and in the fields of Altoona growing up.
I had played organized football in college, but I have found that knowing the rules of football is a game in itself.
It is a “game in the game” and helping to choreograph his playing while ensuring fairness without injecting yourself into the result is an art in itself.
For years, I’d driven tens of thousands of miles to football fields all over the East Coast (from Princeton to Brockport to Kutztown to James Madison), before a Division I supervisor gave me a shot at big college football in 2015.
The American Athletic Conference is where I receive my official assignments and at the end of last year the assignment for the 122nd Army Naval Competition landed on my computer screen.
The game would be played in New York, as we remembered the 20th year after 9/11. It has become the pinnacle of everything.
Army-Navy is the game every football official wants to be assigned. The day before, my family and I arrived at Meadiowlands in northern New Jersey, where the hotel was overrun with dignitaries and military veterans of all kinds who still beamed with pride and told their stories or hugged for photos.
Just walking into the Hilton felt special.
The atmosphere was already rich with old buddies, team colors and lots of hand clapping. There were wounded warriors and prosthetic limbs, but also laughter and the unwavering sense of camaraderie that filled the atrium.
It was buzzing and the elevators were always filled with people asking who you were rooting for and what year you graduated.
I told them all that I just loved the game.
On match day, we left nearly four hours before kick-off, but our police escort had yet to make its way through the tailgating crowds that had packed the parking lots before 11 a.m.
All sorts of banners hung in the air. Military attire, colors, drums, the blare of music, and grilling smoke floating around all gave a blend of this special sense of pride as we walked through the MetLife Stadium.
While in the locker room, a call at the door for the “white hat” brought a man who handed me the special coin of the day. When I read the package it came in I saw: “Made with steel from the World Trade Center.”
It continues to send the same shiver down my spine that I felt in that pre-game moment. Each crew member read it and passed it on to the next with the same speechless expression as we remembered why today’s game was played at New York Football’s home stadium.
On the field, the dignitaries walked toward the flood, but they were all stellar individuals.
There was the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner, Army’s Pete Dawkins, who at age 83 seemed excited enough to put on a helmet and play; he was so excited.
There was Colonel James McDonough III, commander of the US Naval Academy; and there was Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, Superintendent of West Point, who was so excited that he flung his 60-year-old frame into the air to “breast shower” any army player who dared come within six feet of him when they take the field.
When the players entered the field, the accompanying viaduct was never so special.
The F/A-18s celebrated on the naval uniforms now fired over their heads in real time as they usher in the naval players.
Then came “The Heavy” as General Williams called them. The Chinook helicopters that appeared menacingly on the edge of the stadium and slowly made their way up to the top made you feel like you were standing on the ground in real life “Duty.”
They were a great and awe-inspiring sight.
Our toss was memorable. Meeting Secretary Austin was a real privilege and a great honor for my crew and the American conference.
I knew I wanted to thank everyone who ever donned a military uniform, as well as those who planned to do so in the future.
The students of these two leading academies never sit down during the game, and I wanted to recognize them.
Pride was on display that day and it was dizzying heights. It was easy to call yourself an American and remember the pride that made this country so incredibly great.
I thanked them all for their service.
They watched from all over the world, I’m sure, and I wanted them to know it was their honor for us to celebrate that day. We did that with a simple game of football.
Oh yeah, and then a football game was about to be played.
It’s called America’s Game.