West Point’s “13th Man” team recalls support mission for Army-Navy Game
By Mike Strasser
Before Army spirit videos went viral there was a time when support from West Point was delivered on foot and on paper.
In 1987, then Superintendent Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer and Army Football Coach Jim Young wanted to bolster community spirit prior to the Army-Navy Football game and called on the “13th Man” to show its support for the Black Knights. At the time, Frank Giordano was the deputy head in the Department of Mathematics and recalls how the Corps of Cadets had always stood solidly behind the Black Knights as the “12th Man.” Now it was time for a community-wide effort.
“Lt. Gen. Palmer asked the community to create a “13th Man,” Giordano said. “He asked for ideas on how the community could support Army teams, and in particular, the Army-Navy football game.”
Each week a rally was conducted at the former Officer’s Club and the community gathered to hear about the upcoming game and show their support to Coach Young and the team. Giordano said it was a particularly creative officer in his department suggested another way to motivate the team.
Lt. Gen. Rhett Hernandez, U.S. Army Cyber Command commanding general, was an instructor in the department and conceptualized the first Spirit Gram Run to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pa. The faculty collected spirit messages from the West Point community and personally delivered these words of encouragement to the team before the big game.
The cadets were already representing the “12th Man” with a Corps of Cadets ball run, and the faculty followed a similar route.
“While the cadets carried the ball, I thought we could carry the mail and started looking for volunteers to run,” Hernandez said. “We had great support from the department, especially with Frank (Giordano) as the deputy who wanted to run. Frank’s leadership really allowed this to happen.”
Hernandez said it was based on a 24-hour relay he had once done as a lieutenant and thought it would be less challenging but more fun. The faculty trained together, bought 13th Man t-shirts and rallied the community to support the effort.
“The first year, we mustered 13 runners from the Math Department,” Giordano said. “Each of us ran two legs for a total of about 12 miles each. Then we all ran the last mile so each of us ran 13 miles. I believe the route we ran was about 169 miles, and we did everything we could to symbolize the 13th Man.”
Hernandez remembers being amazed at the bags of spirit grams they collected from the schools and community.
“Their letters to players were really special,” the Class of 1976 graduate said. “Tory Crawford, the quarterback, was my daughter’s and most kids’ idol. You can imagine how much mail we had for him. I suspect there are players who still have a letter today.”
A van was loaded with satchels of spirit grams and posters, but a select few were placed inside a cardboard baton which faculty members would pass to each other during the run.
“There was a noon pep rally at the Officer’s Club. After the rally (the Superintendent) handed the first runner the baton and he took off,” Giordano said.
The timing was such that the runners would reach Veterans Stadium at a time when the Army team was on the field for practice. Giordano said the coach would gather the team while faculty members read a few of the messages, some of them from major commands around the world.
“We made sure each player received at least three personal messages and decorated the locker room with the posters we received,” Giordano said.
Above is a copy of the original Spirt Gram form as published in the Pointer View. Faculty in the Department of Mathematics began running spirit messages to the Army-Navy Game in 1987.
The event gained traction and Giordano said after the first year they had enough volunteers to run pairs, plus the community was producing messages and posters in mass quantities.
Paul Heiney, a senior math instructor at USMAPS, participated in 1988 as a first-year instructor.
“It was a lot of work but it was well-worth it,” he said. “We had fun and we felt good about providing something positive to the team as part of that 13th Man, as we were called.”
Heiney participated twice in the run and said while there were a lot of logistics to sort out before the run, the actual run was conducted smoothly.
“The hardest thing I remember is running through rural Pennsylvania or New Jersey at two in the morning, when there’s no lights so you’re trying not to fall or step into anything,” Heiney said. “There was nothing to see, it was dark and it was cold. At that time of night you just have to keep motivation going whatever way you can. Fortunately we had a great camaraderie with the people in the Math Department.”
Hernandez can recall the dark country roads and major highways with only the van’s lights from behind to guide the runners, but also “the new life you get when you enter Philly after being up for more than 24 hours.”
“The entire team ran the last few miles together down Main Street to the stadium,” Hernandez said.
Giordano ran five consecutive years supporting the Spirit Gram Run until he became the officer representative for the football team. After that, he rode to the Army-Navy Game with the team.
“One of the players (Cadet Dan Davis) asked me if I took the job so I could ‘take the bus’ to Philly instead of running,” Giordano said.Giordano isn’t sure how long it lasted but was sure it was still an annual Army-Navy Game tradition when he retired in 1995.
“It was a fun activity, certainly involved the community in the spirit that was quite elevated in those days and for many of us, is a great memory,” Giordano said.
Knowing that cadets are still conducting spirit runs to the Army-Navy Game is gratifying to Heiney who said it is a significant contribution to the history of the Army-Navy Game.
“Well I think it’s pretty cool that cadets are still involved as the 12th Man, just as we once did as the 13th Man,” Heiney said. “The fact that they still carry the ball down there, it’s a great reflection of their spirit. The Army is all about tradition and this is a good one to keep, and support the team no matter the results. I hope they keep doing it.”
Hernandez is still nostalgic about the 13th Man effort.
“This was a tremendous event for the community, the players and the coaches,” Hernandez said. “The bonds you form and the joy these memories provide are priceless. Whenever I see someone who ran that year, we talk about it. Every year about this time I remember our 13th Man run.”
Army-Navy Game: Official Site