FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England long-snapper Joe Cardona has the rare weekend off coming up — perfect timing for the Navy graduate to take in the Army-Navy game at the Patriots’ home stadium.
“I’ve been very fortunate to play in a lot of big games here in New England. But, realistically, all of them pale in comparison to those Army-Navy games,” Cardona said on Wednesday after popping up before practice to wish the current team good luck. “It’s always a special opportunity for me to get to see these guys, get to see Navy play. But even more so, getting to share my home field with them and get to share New England with them because this is an area that’s ready for this game, that’s for sure.”
Army and Navy will meet for the 124th time on Dec. 9 at Gillette Stadium, the home of the six-time Super Bowl champions — and two specific Patriots in particular. Cardona is a Navy graduate and still an active member of the Naval Reserves, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been a supporter of the Naval Academy after growing up on the Annapolis campus while his father, Steve, spent 34 years there as an assistant coach.
“Well, he was raised wrong,” Army coach Jeff Monken said with a laugh. “Unfortunately, his dad got a job at Navy and he worked there a long time. And coach grew up there. Had his dad got a job at Army, I’m sure he’d be on the right side of the rivalry.”
Monken, who spent five years as a Navy assistant, said he met Belichick when the Patriots coach stopped by in the offseason after one of the team’s Super Bowl wins because he wanted to watch tape of the Army running game. A library on campus of books on football strategy and history is named after Steve Belichick.
“The Belichick name, it’s affiliated with the Navy program. And when you hear ‘Belichick’ and ‘Gillette Stadium,’ you think of winning,” Navy defensive lineman Jacob Busic said. “There’s banners out there, the Super Bowl banners, the history that the Belichick family has with the Naval Academy and to be able to play in this stadium … there’s no better place to play this football game.”
Bill Belichick, whose current team is 2-9, declined to comment on the Army-Navy game, saying his team first had to worry about Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers. The Patriots then have a Thursday night matchup in Pittsburgh that at least gives them the weekend off to attend the college game.
Cardona told the players at Wednesday's news conference that he was proud of them and reminded them that sailors and Marines stationed all around the world will be watching the game — rooting for Navy, but more importantly expecting the team to play hard. Busic said Cardona is himself a reminder that Navy athletes can reach “the big stage.”
“That kind of play style, that mentality, carried him this far, and he made it here to the NFL,” Busic said. “He’s been in the Reserves. He’s been serving in the offseason. And just he’s pretty much the model for that.”
The news conference 10 days before the Dec. 9 game in a fancy function room under the new Gillette Stadium lighthouse attracted not just the players and coaches and athletic directors but also Army Superintendent Steven Gilland, a three-star general, and Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey.
Patriots President Jonathan Kraft said he attended a charity event this week and the buzz about the game has surpassed any event held at the stadium — including three nights of Taylor Swift concerts last spring.
“This is all anybody wanted to talk to me about,” he said. “And I can tell you that the ticket demand for this is greater than any AFC Championship game that we’ve hosted here, greater than Taylor Swift, greater than anything else we’ve ever seen.”