Throwing candy at Naval Academy midshipmen: Has a sticky habit returned?
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Today's midshipmen were toddlers when Naval Academy officials began asking fans to stop throwing candy at the brigade as it marched to home football games.
It was October 1998, and many young fans threw candy playfully so midshipmen could catch.
"Then again you get these little cretins who throw it 150 mph," then-city police Sgt. Paul Gibbs told The Capital.
Well, the enthusiasts may have returned this season, because complaints resurfaced about the practice — don't call it a tradition — of throwing Snickers, Starbursts, Tootsie Rolls, even hamburgers at the brigade.
"I saw hamburgers lying in the street," said Bill O'Leary, who has lived across from the stadium since the 1990s. For years, he has called for an end to the throwing. "They throw plastic water bottles at them, too."
O'Leary serves on the Annapolis Environmental Commission, a board of eight green-minded residents appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the aldermen.
In September, the board voted to send a letter to Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Walter "Ted" Carter Jr. and the nonprofit that runs Navy sports, the Naval Academy Athletic Association.
"We're asking for ideas and solutions on how to maybe fix some of this," said Paul Murphy, the board chairman. "We're not against (Navy football) or the academy."
The letter, O'Leary said, will be sent this week.
"I want this issue to get back on their radar," said O'Leary, a Navy fan whose brother and sister-in-law were sailors. "Most of the candy, they don't catch. It falls to the ground. They just trample it into the street."
Stadium crews clean the litter Sunday mornings.
So how did we get here, hurling Hershey's at mids?
Before home football games, the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen marches from the academy and across Rowe Boulevard to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Outside the stadium, fans gather along Taylor Avenue to toss candy. Sometimes this practice degenerates into the pelting of mids, wrote a midshipman's father to The Capital in 1998.
Then-academy spokesman Cmdr. Mike Brady requested fans refrain from throwing candy "due to potential injuries."
Nearly a decade later, in October 2006, the academy superintendent at the time, Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, called for an end to the practice in a letter published by The Capital.
"Candy throwing is simply demeaning to midshipmen," he wrote. "It does nothing to help us win football games."
Surely the Navy faithful would obey orders, right?
Three years later it was back.
"I couldn't believe the mess on Taylor Avenue this morning," Susan Mann wrote to The Capital in October 2009.
Again, Naval Academy officials urged, please stop.
Around then, fans began to suggest the custom began in reverse: midshipmen throwing candy to fans. But a child was struck; the mids stopped.
Next, children began throwing candy at the brigade to encourage mids to resume. That explanation, however, couldn't be confirmed.
A full-blown food fight ensued before the 2009 game against Wake Forest University, according to a report in The Capital. Fans threw cheeseburgers, bottles of water, even cans of beer. Security guards called for a cease-fire and patrolled the route during subsequent games that season.
Next, the Naval Academy two years ago reminded fans through its Facebook page:
"Throwing things at the midshipmen as they march on is NOT a Naval Academy tradition. It shows a lack of respect for the uniform of our armed services and adds an extra expense to the City of Annapolis to clean up."
A month later, in October 2013, the Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation posted a Facebook message asking fans to stand down.
"It is not a military tradition and it is viewed as disrespectful to the uniform of the midshipmen and our armed services." (Ever tried to scrub milk chocolate from service dress blues?)
Then, the rebuffs.
"As a kid, I grew up watching the Brigade of Midshipmen marching from the academy to the games at the stadium. My first memories were that we would toss candy to them so they could have some treats during the game. It wasn't 'throwing candy at them' to be disrespectful. Then sometimes they would have candy to thank us and toss it back," said a post from the Facebook page of Andrea Farrell Niedzwiecki.
Another post from the Facebook page of Ross Hammerer, a 2010 academy graduate:
"For over a decade now, my family has been attending games at NMCMS (Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium). They have always supported the brigade and have always shown their thanks for midshipmen's service by giving them candy. Not once has someone heard a member of the community complain about cleaning up candy.
"Sometimes 'because it's tradition' is a perfectly acceptable answer as to why we do something. And guess what: This is a tradition."
Reached by phone, Hammerer said he enjoyed catching candy as a midshipman.
"It by no means meant disrespect. I never felt that way," he said. "Walking from the Yard to the stadium, it was something to look forward to."
So it all gets sticky.
Some folks see a gesture of thanks. Others see pranksters taking potshots.
Today, the Naval Academy won't go so far as to condemn the practice.
"The brigade and the Naval Academy should not be in the position to discourage citizens, particularly children, from seeking out interaction with the midshipmen as they march on to the field," said Cmdr. John Schofield, the academy spokesman.
"We can't control what the citizens of Annapolis want to give the midshipmen, but I think the midshipmen certainly don't mind being appreciated the way they are."
Further, the last home game fell on Halloween.
"I think there is a pretty direct cause-and-effect relationship there," Schofield said.
So bad habit or beloved tradition?
We shall see. This season's final home game is Saturday.
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