SALEM, Ohio – Eric Brye is fervently hoping an Angora goat named “Bill XXXI” entrusted to his care doesn’t follow in the hooves of his predecessor, Bill XIII.
That earlier Bill died on the eve of his shining moment: the 1947 Army-Navy football game.
Brye, the son of Courtney and Elaine Brye of Columbiana County and currently a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., is a member of Team Bill, the handlers of the Navy’s four-legged mascot.
The Big Game. Brye and Bill are preparing for the Big Game, the 2002 Army-Navy game, this Saturday, Dec. 7, at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J.
Army holds a slight edge in the rivalry, which started in 1890, with 49 wins to Navy’s 46. Seven games have ended in a tie between the two military academies, which have met on the gridiron uninterrupted since 1930.
Team Bill. Brye, a 2001 graduate of United Local High School, is one of only six second-year midshipmen selected for the mascot handling honor. The applicants are narrowed down based on academics, leadership and a personal interview but, Brye jokes, what clinched his selection was probably his ability to back a livestock trailer.
He joins the elite 18-man team, which is responsible for overseeing the goat’s grooming, veterinary care and behavior while on mascot duty.
Most of the other males on Team Bill hail from the rugby team, Brye said, “so they can fight off the Army guys trying to take him.” The team includes female midshipmen, most of which are members of the women’s lacrosse team.
Farm foundation. Brye grew up handling goats, hogs and cattle as part of 4-H projects, and is no stranger to livestock – a familiarity not every midshipman brings to the academy. While the other plebes (first-year students) were sweating the rigors of “plebe summer” training (43 out of the roughly 1,200 dropped out during those six weeks), Brye said it was nothing compared to making hay and other typical summer chores on a farm.
Team Bill is responsible for taking Bill – actually two Bills, Bill XXXI and Bill XXXII, work together – to the veterinarian during the football season for weekly grooming sessions and health checks.
Members take the goats back to a farm about 30 miles from the academy where they’re temporarily housed during the season.
According to the academy, the two Angora goats were donated by Field McConnell of Glyndon, Minn., a 1971 academy graduate and retired marine lieutenant colonel.
Now a commercial pilot, McConnell also raises sheep, cattle and goats. The two were flown to Annapolis prior to the season opener against Temple.
Kidnappers foiled. About two weeks ago, however, Brye said the mascots were moved to a guarded, undisclosed location after an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt. “We’re pretty sure it was Army,” Brye said, even though there is a “gentleman’s agreement” between the two academies not to steal the other’s mascot.
“He’s safe now.”
The move makes a little more work for Team Bill, as members are now responsible for feeding the pair and cleaning out the pens daily at the hidden location. “It’s just like I’m still living at the farm,” Brye adds.
On game day, the Bills are given a final touch – blue and gold electrical tape wrapped around their huge, curved horns – and escorted by leash to the field, where dignitaries and youth alike are permitted to touch the goats and have their picture taken with Bill.
“We really have to hang on to him,” Brye admitted. The older Bill XXXI is a little more feisty, he added.
After the game, Team Bill takes its charges to tailgate events and other promotional activities.
Featured in ad. Brye is one of three handlers who will be featured in a promotional spot that will air on the television coverage of the Army-Navy game. The spot was taped in the academy’s dining hall, with Bill the Goat at a microphone leading the midshipmen in a rallying cheer to beat Army.
Not all fun and games. Life at the academy is certainly not all as “glamorous” as handling the team mascot. The midshipmen follow a strict schedule that includes regimented meal times, classes, lights out and physical activity.
Brye, who is majoring in aeronautical engineering, is carrying 21 credit hours this semester and is looking to take another 23 hours next semester.
Each student, Brye said, is required to participate in some physical sport or activity, be it varsity-level athletics, “club” team sports or intramurals.
An All-Ohio track and cross country athlete, Brye runs varsity track for the academy, competing in the 400 meter, 400 hurdles and “pretty much anything they make me run, I do.”
First-year plebes face strict rules (you can’t sit down outside and you have to memorize the “chow call,” or menus for all the meals at least three days in advance).
It may seem unreasonable at the time, Brye admits, but the memorization and ability to follow orders helps the individuals develop skills to work and think quickly in critical situations or under pressure.
Weekdays focus primarily on academics; Saturday mornings and summer sessions include military training.
Brye will graduate as a commissioned officer in 2005 and is still undecided whether to commit his military career with the Navy or the Marines.
His goal is to enter a two-year pilot training program upon graduation, after which he must complete an additional seven years in the service.
But until he’s flying F-18s, Brye will continue his Team Bill duties on the sidelines.
And keep an eye out for Army.