ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The first clue that Monday night’s BYU vs. Navy game at empty Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium would be a little bit different — make that a lot different — came when only a few hearty souls stood outside the gates two hours before kickoff to welcome BYU’s team bus onto the grounds, instead of the usual hundreds that make the Cougars’ arrival into enemy territory a little less foreboding.
As the players got their first look at Jack Stephens Field, having foregone the traditional day-before walk-through because it was Sunday, there were no fans already inside the stadium to greet them, either. Same for Navy’s players.
Because the stadium is located on state-owned land, and not federal land as Army’s is, no fans were allowed, not even Navy’s students.
Eerie and surreal don’t begin to describe the scene on Labor Day night in front of a national television audience on ESPN to those accustomed to pregame tailgating, huge crowds that show up hours before kickoff and, of course, roars when the home team makes a big play or scores.
There was no pregame flyover of fighter jets, no Brigade of Midshipmen march onto the field, either, for Navy’s faithful. BYU quarterback Zach Wilson predicted a week ago it would look and feel like a scrimmage, and he wasn’t totally wrong.
The Cougars arrived all masked-up and wearing T-shirts with the words “We Are One” on the front and “Love One Another” on the back, the latter part of a Bible verse and a familiar hymn to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As part of their usual custom, BYU players carried flags onto the field. Defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga toted the U.S. flag, while linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi had the Navy flag, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge the Marine Corps flag and tight end Kyle Griffitts the Cougars’ team flag.
Other BYU players carried small U.S. flags onto the field.
The Cougars played in their all-white uniforms with royal trim, only the second time since they became a college football independent in 2011 that they have worn that particular jersey combination. They beat Utah State 42-14 last year in the same get-up in Logan.
To those in attendance (mostly in the press box), even the television timeouts were awkward, with no silly promotions or on-field contests such as field goal attempts or sack races to fill the time. A lot of the color and pomp that make college football what it is were missing on a night the Cougars and Midshipmen had the national viewing audience of sports fans mostly to themselves.
But at least it was real, live football, which didn’t seem possible about two months ago when cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus were spiking and opponents were dropping off BYU’s schedule like flies.
“It was crazy,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told The Athletic for a story published Monday on the subscription-only website. “I am thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got one game, and there are games out there.’ You just don’t know how it is going to happen. And throughout all of it, I am being realistic. We might not be able to play. No one might be able to play. I had some good friends who were telling me to dig in and do the best (I could). They told me, ‘Schedule the games, and if they get played, they get played. If they don’t, they don’t.’”
Sure enough, Monday’s game was played. Even if the atmosphere was unrecognizable.
“I am going to realize that it is football, baby,” Holmoe continued with The Athletic. “That is what we’re here for — and we’re allowed to play.”