The Navy Goat vs. the Army Mule: Mascot Origin Stories

August 31, 2023Jenna Biter
Army vs. Navy mascot

What are you looking at? The US Naval Academy mascots stand by during the 113th Army vs. Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Dec. 8, 2012. Department of Defense photo by Marvin Lynchard.

With every college football rivalry comes a rich history of high jinks and gamesmanship. The United States service academies are no exception. For many years, the famous rivalry between the West Point and Annapolis — who have been locked in a fierce gridiron feud since before the turn of the 20th century — involved Ocean’s level snatch-and-grabs of the opponent’s live mascot.

However, after a felony-level heist in 1991, the rivals signed a nonaggression pact that ended the shenanigans once and for all. For that reason, when the next “America’s Game” kicks off on Dec. 9, 2023, the Navy’s goats and the Army’s mules should be standing on the sidelines. So who are these hoofed talismans of good luck? And what made them such valuable targets for kidnapping?

Related: B.F. Skinner and the Unflappable Pigeon Pilots of WWII

Army vs. Navy mascot
Army vs. Navy mascot

US Naval Academy mascot, Bill the Goat, stands on the sidelines with midshipmen at Lincoln Financial Field during the Army-Navy football game on Dec. 14, 2019. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sarah Villegas.

US Military Academy cadets pose for a photo with their hoofed mascots before the Army-Navy football game on Dec. 14, 2013, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp.

Bill the Goat

Historically, the Navy carried livestock aboard ships as sources of food. But sometimes, in cases where low morale had become a more urgent problem than hunger, a goat was spared the butcher’s knife and given a new life as a pet.

As the legend goes, one such lucky goat died at sea in the late 1800s. Because the caprine animal was so beloved by the ship’s crew, two officers were charged with preserving the hide for a mount. At the next port call, before stopping by the taxidermist, the pair dropped into the Army-Navy football game with the goat hide in tow. Apparently, one of the officers, overcome by esprit de corps, threw the goat hide over his dress uniform and galloped around the field at halftime to the fanatical whoops and applause of the midshipmen in the crowd. The halftime show was so inspiring that it gave the Navy players just the oomph they needed to win the game.

Whether or not the legend is true, the historical record shows that a live goat did in fact make an unprecedented appearance at the fourth ever Army-Navy game, which took place in 1893. The goat, named El Cid, belonged to the USS New York, and it seems the good luck that had saved him from being turned into taco meat rubbed off on the Navy players, who beat the Army’s mascot-less team 6–4. 

Then in 1900, after a five-year matchup break followed by a West Point victory, the Navy Midshipmen finally brought home another victory. It was after that game that Annapolis’ hollow-horned cheerleader would earn his enduring nickname “Bill the Goat.” The Naval Academy’s current goat-in-residence goes by the name Bill XXXVII.

Army Mules

In 1899, to mark the fifth game in the Army-Navy rivalry — and also to counter the magical effects of the Naval Academy’s lucky goat — West Point adopted its own animal mascot: a mule. Sporting a gray blanket and draped in Army-colored streamers from head to tail, the mule was right at home on the Army’s sidelines. More importantly, he brought the cadets victory.

The mule was an obvious choice for West Point’s mascot. The horse-donkey hybrid had been a core feature of the US Army’s arsenal since the Revolutionary War, hauling everything from guns and ammunition to food and medical supplies. To top things off, the original commander-in-chief, George Washington, was actually the first colonist to ever breed the surefooted pack hauler in the New World.

For nearly 40 years following the mule’s initial debut at an Army-Navy football game, West Point cadets randomly selected mules from nearby stables to dress up in gray and black and parade around the stadium during matches. Then, in 1936, the Military Academy finally annointed Mr. Jackson, a former Army pack mule, as its first official mascot.

Today, the Army’s official mules are cared for by the Mule Riders. Only one cadet from each incoming class is selected to join the ranks, which limits the number of Mule Riders to four at any given time. As for the animals themselves, the current Mule Corps includes Ranger III, Stryker, and Paladin.

Jenna Biter
Jenna Biter

Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.

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