Forget Iraq. This weekend, war is on the gridiron

SPECIAL forces jumping out of planes a mile high, tweaking nylon lines tethered to their high-tech parachutes with enough surgical precision to land on a coin at the 50-yard line. The thump of Apache helicopters swooping low, causing fans' stomachs to pump like woofers. F-16s screaming across the heavens. Precision drill teams. Enough military brass to invade Normandy.

Tune in to the 103rd playing of the Army-Navy game Saturday, and it would be easy to imagine that the cadets and midshipmen, resplendent in dress gray and navy blue, view this game as a matter of life and death.

You'd be wrong. It's much more important than that.

To the players, their classmates, and thousands of people still in uniform and not, the game is the Peloponnesian War in cleats and plastic helmets, World War II fought with draw plays and dives off tackle - a gridiron display of the most fundamental elements of human character.

"This game is an ideal," says Todd Berry, the coach of Army, sitting in an office overlooking Michie Stadium, a football venue chiseled into the Hudson hills. "Motivation is not an issue." The game is part of a statement that says, "This program, this place, is aspiring to do great things. All the time, in every place."

In normal times, the gridiron contest showcases how these players and their classmates, the future elite of America's officer corps, hone battlefield qualities of courage, endurance, determination, and leadership.

These are not normal times. As the US prepares for possible war in Iraq, one of the fiercest rivalries in American sports becomes a game not just for football fans, but the nation. Even the Dec. 7 play date - the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor - emphasizes that there is something more important than what takes place between goal posts.

First, a reality check. Neither team is a serious contender for a national championship. Team records this season are not even mediocre: Both are 1 and 10. Football players with visions of the NFL in their future usually don't go to the military academies - especially, it seems, this year.

Yet no one familiar with Army-Navy calls this just another game. As one writer put it, that would be "the semantic equivalent of calling D-Day a skirmish."

A victory Saturday is more than a second win, more than another loss. It's a season-maker or -breaker. Beat Army, and Navy has a successful year. Beat Navy, and the Cadets stand triumphant over the world.

"You cannot have a successful season if you don't beat Navy," says Maj. Mark McMillion, class of '91 and currently a field artillery officer at West Point.

Win, lose, or die

It's hard to estimate how much the rivalry permeates the culture of this campus, a former Revolutionary War fort whose guns still stand sentinel over the Hudson. Each summer, every incoming class of cadets is indoctrinated with the most important codes of the Army: honor, discipline - and "Beat Navy." New recruits are forced to count out loud the number of days remaining until the game.

In fact, shouting "Beat Navy" (or, for new midshipmen at Annapolis, chanting "Beat Army") is a sure - or perhaps the only - way for a lowly 4th classman to garner a look of acceptance from an upperclassman.

On game week here, cadets wear their BDUs - battle-dress uniforms - all day as they pace around campus, past bronze statues of Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur. It's a symbol of the coming weekend war with Navy.

Despite all the intensity, pranks are still a legendary part of the lead-up to the game too. (They are not only allowed, but encouraged at the academies.)

Just ask Navy Lt. Matthew Swiergosz, a psychology teacher at West Point. The Friday before the game two years ago, "About 100 plebes [Army freshmen] invaded my classroom." He was bound to his chair with duct tape, then paraded down the hall. "I knew they wanted me to feel like a Hawaiian king, borne by his subjects," quips the popular teacher. One problem: "The duct tape kept me from raising my hands in salutation to my subjects."

Yet the interest in the game extends well beyond the two military campuses - to people in uniform past and present. Take Arizona Sen. John McCain, Annapolis class of '58. After the Navy pilot was shot down over Vietnam in 1967, he was held as a prisoner of war for 5-1/2 years. The first thing he asked new POWs joining him in captivity was: "Who won last year's Army-Navy game?"

But this year, with war in the air, the game may be resonating beyond the usual devotees. The nation seems to be more attuned to everything military: Fatigues are hot fashions in high school again, "JAG" gets good ratings on TV, and war movies are filling seats at theaters.

The rivalry does feel "purer this year," says Raven Bukowski, a senior and captain of Army's spirit team. Her goal after graduation is military intelligence. "We know we [Army-Navy] are on the same team," she says. "We share a mutual appreciation for the sacrifice and dedication of the services' combined operations in which we fight and win wars."

Cadet Danielle Weaver, a sophomore majoring in Comparative Politics, agrees. There's a "different air to the game if we go to war," she says, sitting in Grant Hall (the student union that, yes, is named after Ulysses). The game "is our little war for the year. We want to get the job done. More importantly, we're more unified."

This year's game takes place at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, home of the New York Giants but neutral enough ground. Next year's game returns to a renovated Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.

Both academies hope to take the game on the road after that and are soliciting bids from cities. "It's a way to share the game with the country," says Rick Greenspan, director of intercollegiate athletics at Army.

Everyone shows up

There are other big games in college football, but nowhere else does every student attend (more than 8,000 combined show up for the Army-Navy match).

The game has an allure that "transcends college football," says Michael Aresco of CBS sports, which broadcasts the games. "It's a national treasure."

Still, when the game is over, camaraderie takes over for rivalry. We want "to play calm, play cool, play [our] jobs," says senior Alex Moore, starting offensive lineman for Army. "It's Army-Navy. We respect them," he says. After the game, win or lose, "we will sing their alma mater, they will sing ours."

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