Monday, May 2, 2016

Michie Stadium

This week we add Michie Stadium to the blog's NYC and the Area series of local tourist attractions.  I resolved to write this guide last year after my friend and work colleague George attended an Army Football game and came back bitching ferociously about all the traffic.  He swore he'd never go back, which is not, I don't think, the experience that the Academy and its graduates want visitors to have.  
The Corps of Cadets at the end of 2015's game against Wake Forest.
Yes, it’s true that game day traffic is a significant challenge.  However, you can mitigate that challenge by getting to the Academy early.

Michie Stadium is the main football stadium for the United States Military Academy at West Point and home to Army Football and Army Men's & Women's Lacrosse.  Located at the historic “west point” of the Hudson River, Fortress West Point was established during the Revolutionary War to guard the northern parts of the river—and therefore Albany and Upstate New York—from the invading British Navy and Army.  The Academy is accessible today via New York Route 9W off the Palisades Parkway and/or the Bear Mountain Bridge.  You can also take the train up from New York City to Croton and then catch a cab to Thayer Gate, from which shuttle buses will carry you to the stadium on game days.  The Academy really ought to run a ferry across the river to South Dock on game days as well, but for whatever reason, they don’t do that.  A ferry service would certainly simplify game day train travel from the City, however.
West Point graduate Tim Kopra took this photo from the
International Space Station.  I added the labels.
West Point was originally established as a mountainside fortress—complete with coastal artillery batteries and upland infantry strong points—and though this makes the place imminently defensible, the area’s natural geography substantially limits mobility on and off post.  This wasn’t an issue for the Academy’s first hundred fifty years, but the modern era took the post's train station, leaving in its place a winding two-lane road network that can be confusing to the uninitiated.  Added to this is the fact that West Point was built into the side of a mountain, and I’m honestly not surprised that game day parking has become such a nightmare for casual fans.  The Academy exists fully in three dimensions, with Michie Stadium located well above the cadet areas and much of the non-season ticket holder parking.  This gives the place its extraordinary views, but it also means that you should probably wear comfortable shoes when you visit—especially on football Saturdays.  West Point is well worth the trip for a football or lacrosse game, but you can expect to do quite a bit of walking in and around the Academy's grounds.
With no traffic, the Academy is a bit more than an hour’s drive north of New York City.  If you’re driving up, I strongly suggest taking the Tappan Zee Bridge across the river to the Palisades Parkway, hit the Bear Mountain traffic circle, and then follow 9W up to either Thayer or Stony Lonesome Gate, depending on where your parking passes have you assigned.  Make sure you bring a picture ID for everyone in the car who’s old enough to have one.  100% ID checks are part of standard post security procedures, which causes most of the game day traffic delays.  If you have a General Parking Pass, get to Thayer Gate early (i.e. before 9:30 am) and park wherever you can.  If you’re early enough, you can usually find a spot along Thayer Drive, which offers overlooks of the Hudson River that are truly breathtaking.
Via Google Maps.  Again, I added the labels.
Bring some food and some money.  A lot of times, my kids and I will throw yogurts, pop tarts, and bananas into a bag and make a kind of cold breakfast of it, but plenty of folks bring grills or small propane stoves and tailgate in style.  Or you can walk up the hill towards the Cadet Area and hit Grant Hall, a kind of reinforced coffee shop adjacent to the academic buildings that I enjoy quite a bit.  
It’s possible to visit West Point on game days, park in the stadium parking areas, go straight to the stadium, and miss the actual Academy almost in its entirety.  If this is your first Army Football game, please do not do that.  It’s a bit of an added walk, but the hike up Thayer Road to Grant Hall is scenic, and you’ll get to see the Cadet Area and some of the cadets in their natural habitat.
That’s well worth your time.  
From there, you can then head further up, cross the Plain on the Apron, take in the Superintendent’s house, and hike up the hill to the stadium itself.  All told, this is a bit more than a mile one-way, but I guarantee that you will never forget the trip.
West Point has had an intercollegiate football team since 1890, and while it may seem hard to believe now, during the 1930s and 40s, the Academy was as much the spiritual home of college football as was Notre Dame.  There was a time when hordes of New York City fans would catch the train north for football Saturdays, when New Yorkers avidly followed their team on the radio, and NYC beat writers first christened the team “The Black Knights of the Hudson”.  Alas, Bear Bryant and the era of “major college football” put an end to Army’s ability to compete with the very best national programs, but the Army Team still has a place of honor in modern college football.  For those who care about true student-athletics, I would argue that Army’s rivalry with fellow historic powerhouse Fordham is a compelling example of what collegiate athletics really ought to be.  Of course, the Army-Navy Game is also historic, but it’s never played at Michie Stadium, so it falls outside the scope of this particular write-up.
Michie Stadium has its own security, complete with 100% bag check and wand-style metal detectors.  This can be super-annoying if you’re running late, but it’s not too bad if you’ve taken my advice and gotten to the game a little early.  Black Knights Alley opens at 11:00 am on the road between the stadium and Lusk Reservoir, which is good because you’ll be ready for a beer after hiking up that hill.  Various food and merchandise vendors set up near the Alley’s entrance, but if you push through, you can usually find the Benny Havens Jazz Band set up on the Alley’s south side.  Last year my buddy Chris and I sat out there drinking Landshark beer and listening to the band for almost an entire hour before the home opener, and it was one of my personal highlights for 2015.  
Warning: beers are $9 in Black Knights Alley.  
I keep telling myself I’m going to bring a flask, but I’ve not yet remembered to actually do it.  And then, too, any flask had better be aluminum or plastic in order to get by those metal detectors I mentioned.
The Benny Havens Band usually knocks off about 11:40, and you’ll want to head into the stadium pretty soon thereafter because the Parachute Team jumps the flag and game ball in from a helicopter starting at 11:45.  Depending on how the game goes, this may well be the day's highlight.  Army Football is often about a lot of things besides the actual football, and indeed, I’ve had fun at lots of games where Army didn’t win--or even get particularly close.  Part of this is no doubt because West Point feels very much like my hometown these days, but it’s also because the West Point game day experience is itself very compelling.  
A jumper into Michie before 2014's Fordham game.
Don’t go up there and be cynical.  Buy in and enjoy yourself.
Army tends to be undersized compared to other collegiate programs, and for this reason, they run the triple-option offense and the 3-4 defense.  They also don’t throw a lot, which tends to make the game good for purists but a little more difficult for casual fans.  I’ve often said that Army’s offense is a good one for learning the basics of football because they do very little that’s exotic, but they run their offense with a huge amount of misdirection.  That's good if you want to learn why things work in football.  It’s frustrating in the extreme when the offense isn’t working, though, and that’s probably not ever going to change.  
Duty, Honor, Country.  Those three hallowed words give hope and courage not because they guarantee victory or an easy life.  They inspire because they bring satisfaction and moral certainty even in the face of death and failure.  A soldier can go to the grave with honor if he or she has done her duty to her country, regardless of all other factors.
Truth is, being an Army Football fan is a test of character.  Fourteen straight losses to Navy and a super-majority of losing seasons over the course of the last two decades…  If you’re up there for a single game, enjoy it for what it is but also recognize the courage it takes to root for that team for a lifetime.  I’ve often said that New York would love to root for a winner in Army Football, but West Pointers themselves are steadfast in ways that most people simply cannot fathom.  The proof is everywhere, but nowhere is that proof more obvious than in the stands at Michie on football Saturdays.  The joy of an Army victory is sublime precisely because every victory is a win against the odds.
Me and my buddy Chris at 2015's summer scrimmage.
Lining up for the Company Mascot Race.
I’m going into my second season as an Army Season Ticket Holder.  I’m not sure what that says about me, but I have every intention of being there when this team finally turns it around.
One last note, on leaving West Point.  The walk down the hill is easy, especially compared to the hike you made to get up.  From there, it’s usually not too difficult to get out through Thayer Gate after games.  Take 9W south to the Bear Mountain traffic circle, go across Bear Mountain Bridge, and follow the road around until you get to Route 9.  Take 9 to 9A to the Taconic Parkway, and from there you can be home in no time.  The alternative is to take the Palisades Parkway south to the Tappan Zee, but that’s both more expensive and much more apt to be crowded with traffic.
That's all I've got.  Enjoy the game.
Go Army!  Beat Navy!!!

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