Both sides line up with everything at stake. Heads clash, and neither side is willing to yield any precious yardage.
Fourth and inches at the goal line? Or the budget debate in Congress?
Normally, football players and coaches have enough to occupy their time during the season. They don’t have time to keep up with politics and current events.
Things are a little different at Duke, however.
“Believe it or not, Duke does offer a Republican party class,” offensive lineman Dave Harding said. “It’s actually taught by a former football player, Marty Morris. It’s very interesting.”
Especially this semester, when Congress’ failure to pass a budget has led to the first government shutdown in 17 years.
In addition to giving Poly Sci classes something to talk about, the shutdown had an impact on Duke’s bye week preparation. The Blue Devils return to the field against Navy on Saturday, and for a short time last week, it looked like the Cadets might not be making the trip to Durham.
Service academies shut down all travel for their athletic teams last week, putting the game at risk and leaving the Blue Devils preparing for Navy’s option attack while they weren’t entirely sure they’d be facing it.
“Of course, we’re thinking about that,” defensive end Kenny Anunnike said. “You’re like, ‘Whoa! What are we going to do?’ Because everybody’s asking us about it—family, friends, everybody.”
Players not enrolled in Harding’s Republican class had to catch up on what was going on in the capital. “I looked at it when we first heard about it,” running back Josh Snead said. “I looked at it the next day. We have a government shutdown. What’s going to happen? We were all just waiting to see if we were going to play Navy.”
The strangest rumor to come out of the mid-week confusion was that Duke would host Fresno State if Navy didn’t make the trip. The Bulldogs had a bye week and had a game cancelled earlier in the season, making them a good fit.
“There were rumors of us playing Fresno State,” Anunike said. “Are we going to have to prepare for two different teams? That would be tough. (Fresno) played this weekend. When I flipped by, I kind of stopped and paused. Maybe I should watch a few plays?”
Coach David Cutcliffe, who had to prepare for a season opener against an NC Central team that had just fired its coach, faced his second unusual game-prep situation of the season. He tried to keep a steady hand and reassure his players.
“Coach Cut helped out with that,” Anunike said. “He kept reassuring us, ‘You guys WILL be playing Navy. Don’t worry, and if it changes, I’ll be the first to let you know.”
“From the start, they said there was no doubt we were going to play this game,” tight end Braxton Deaver said. “We all prepared exactly like we were going to play them. There was no hesitation. We didn’t skip a beat on preparing.”
The coaching staff and veteran players were able to keep the team from worrying about things that were beyond its control, and no one seems to have any control over the situation in Washington.
“You’ve got to just prepare,” DB Ross Cockrell said. “If they weren’t going to play, then they weren’t going play. That was out of our control. The only thing we could control was our preparation for the game, and that’s what we focused on.”
“We didn’t focus on it,” defensive end Justin Foxx said. “We can’t really do anything about it, so we just got ready for Navy, and if we had to play somebody else, we’d just have to get ready for them this week.”
It helped that Duke had the week off to see how the situation played out.
“We kind of got some time off to get our minds off of things for a little bit,” Foxx said. “It helped us to not think about it.”
“The bye week, we mainly wanted to focus on ourselves,” Snead said. “That’s something the coaches work to instill in us. Throughout the bye week, it’s not about our opponent, it’s about us.”
While the government wasn’t able to straighten things out on their end, the academies found a way to make the trip to their games on Saturday, and Navy will be taking the field Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade.
“They obviously played last weekend,” Deaver said. “So that allowed us to get ready for this game on Saturday.”
That allowed the Blue Devils to focus on field position, instead of political positions.
“I’m leaving all that to Washington. Let them take care of that,” Anunike said. “I don’t know what’s going on up there. It’s crazy. I’ve never experienced a government shutdown in my life, and I think that’s the one thing you don’t want to be shut down. They’ll sort it out soon, I’m sure.”
“It’s obviously just gridlock in DC,” Harding said. “The Tea Party and the far right are unwilling to budge, and so it makes any kind of compromise difficult. I just didn’t realize it would have such a direct impact to football.”
In the end, the shutdown resulted in a few nervous moments during the bye week, but it will be long removed from everyone’s minds by the time the Navy game kicks off.
“We knew that college football was too big to be shut down,” Deaver said.
Still, the Blue Devils might want to make sure to pay a little more attention in their Republican class from now on. “We have to keep up on current events,” Harding said, “to make sure we’ll have a team to play on Saturday.”