One of the long-standing traditions of the United States Military Academy at West Point took place on Thanksgiving Day afternoons with the Goats versus the Engineers.
The Goat team was selected from those cadets with the lowest academic standards. The Engineers came from those cadets with the best academic records.
This was a rousing, exceptionally colorful and stimulating tradition that came just before the annual Army-Navy football classic – one of the longest standing rivalries in U.S. college football. In 1927, just prior to Thanksgiving, the West Point varsity held a top-secret practice on one of the parade grounds. High above this parade ground towered the great gothic chapel. And on the top of that chapel sat the cadet chaplain, then a civilian Protestant.
This chaplain, who was also a West Point assistant football coach, had played on the first University of Virginia team that ever beat Yale. He had been persuaded to coach the heavily unfavored cadet Engineer team.
He knew full well that his Engineer team’s practices would be scouted – that is, spied upon – by Goat coach operatives. So he arranged by academy bus to move those practices to different locations every day.
This cadet chaplain coach also went up to the top of the chapel, where he used the field glasses he had brought back from his combat ambulance service in World War I.
Through these field glasses, he obtained a close-up of Army’s varsity conducting practice inside of a field that had been cordoned off, fenced up and heavily guarded by a score of military police officers.
From the top of the chapel, this chaplain had a perfect field-glass view – in which he could take note of all those top-secret plays.
He knew that no Navy scout or alumnus would ever bother to attend anything like West Point’s Thanksgiving Day Goat-Engineer rivalry.
So, he wrote down all those secret plays, which the Engineers delightedly ran over time and again at all those secret locations.
On Thanksgiving, the Engineers used none of those top-secret plays in the first half, but they played so confidently against the Goats that at half time, it was a scoreless tie.
During the half time, there was the ceremony in which West Point’s head football coach, the legendary Biff Jones, made like the president and processed across the field to sit on the Engineer bench.
When the second half began, the chaplain-coach ordered the use of those secret plays.
In the corner of his eye on that bench, the chaplain glimpsed at Head Coach Jones – whom he saw staring in horror as those secret plays enabled the Engineers to overwhelm the Goats by a score of 39-0.
Head Coach Jones endured this torment without saying a word of protest. He hoped and presumed (quite desperately) that Navy had sent no scouts to cover the Goats-Engineers contest.
And Jones was right. The Naval Academy had no scouts present to cover this classic. And Army’s varsity, using those top-secret plays, defeated arch-rival Navy by a score of 14-9.
Decades later, when Mr. and Mrs. Biff Jones were vacationing in Arizona, this former cadet chaplain, who had been elected Arizona’s Episcopal bishop, invited the Joneses to have dinner.
And during that dinner, he decided to confess his top-of-the-chapel purloining of those top-secret plays.
Biff Jones howled with laughter and shouted:
“For 35 years, I’ve been wondering how in hell you ever got those plays!”
And that former West Point chaplain – who was my father – grinned greatly and replied:
“I did NOT get them in hell! They came in an inspiration that was heavenly!”
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