- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 4, 2004

They will huddle around any television set or radio they can find. At 10:40 p.m. today Iraq time, thousands of eager viewers and listeners will take a break from their jobs and root for their favorite football teams.

They are members of the U.S. military, and their job is fighting a war against terrorism in the Middle East. Those soldiers are a big part of what makes the Army-Navy game, which takes place today at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.

“If you can help take somebody’s mind off something and they have a chance to relax for a bit and listen to a game, then that’s great,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said. “You want to make sure you do your best.”

This is the 105th installment of the Army-Navy game. It is steeped in tradition. Five Heisman Trophy winners and countless war heroes have played in this game. The pageantry is second to none, with virtually every current member of the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy in attendance.

Their future boss, President Bush, will be there, too. Navy (8-2) can win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy outright for the second consecutive year by defeating the Black Knights (2-8).

Navy senior Tyson Stahl nearly decided on Air Force as his college choice four years ago. At the time, the Falcons had a much better football program than the Midshipmen. But his older brother, Hoot, was a senior at the Naval Academy at the time.

“He said, ‘That’s fine, but you’ll never get to play in an Army-Navy game,’” Stahl said. “Nothing beats Army-Navy. Nothing.”

Navy has dominated the past two games, winning by a combined 92-18. But those games are an aberration compared to some of the contests these schools have waged. Army leads the series 49-48, with seven ties.

“We’re going to get their best shot, regardless of their record,” Navy senior linebacker Lane Jackson said. “And they’re going to get ours. This game brings out the best in both teams. To be a part of this is just awesome.”

There was more hitting during practice in Annapolis this week. As per team tradition, scout team members placed a black stripe down the middle of their helmets to better simulate the look of the Black Knights. Even back on Thanksgiving morning, a scrap broke out between the first-team defense and those emulating Army’s offense.

“The intensity was up, and we had a little scuffling. I’m actually one of the mediators,” senior linebacker and known antagonist Bobby McClarin said. “It’s better to scuffle than to be laid back at practice over Thanksgiving.”

Johnson didn’t mind the tussle, because he knew emotions were at a season high. He wants his players to be cognizant of the emotion and the hype surrounding this game.

“They need to understand how important the game is to everyone, and I think they do,” Johnson said. “You have to channel your emotions, but I can’t imagine anyone going into this game without being emotional. It’s what both teams talk about all year. It’s a big game. I think if you try to downplay it, you are just wasting your time.”

Navy has one game to play afterward: a Dec.30 date against New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco. Army does not. At the annual press luncheon to promote the game Nov.23, first-year coach Bobby Ross suggested today’s game might mean more to his players because the Mids have a bowl game to play.

The Navy players found out which postseason game they were going to the day before. It wasn’t a show of disrespect for the Emerald Bowl, but the Mids made their priorities quite clear that day.

“Bowl game? What bowl game? You mean the Army-Navy game?” senior fullback Kyle Eckel said. “That’s the only game I’m thinking about.”

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