PHILADELPHIA - All the pomp, pageantry and drama associated with the Army-Navy football game descends on aging Veterans Stadium for the final time today with the 102nd renewal of the classic series.
A capacity crowd approaching 70,000 and a nationwide television audience will watch as Navy again attempts to avoid only its second winless season in the modern era (since 1948) and Army seeks to end a two-game losing streak in the series.
The teams' combined 2-17 record aside, this meeting is the apex of every campaign for those who've served in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and is especially poignant this year with the nation at war against terrorism.
When interim Navy head coach Rick Lantz was asked to comment at a news conference here last week after being informed that Army had transported its operatives via Huey helicopter, he replied: "Hell, we'd walk to get to this game."
No conference championships are on the line. No bowl bids are involved. Not even a winning season is at stake.
But the spirit of the Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen will be unlike that at any other game in America. This will mark the 17th game at the Vet, one of the cookie-cutter stadiums of the '70s that will become obsolete with the construction of a new Philadelphia Eagles facility at a nearby site.
Army has a 10-5-1 edge at the stadium and has won five of the last six, although the Midshipmen prevailed in the latest Philadelphia matchup, 19-9, in 1999 behind budding sophomore quarterback Brian Madden.
Madden missed all of last season with a knee injury, including Navy's 30-28 conquest of Army at PSINet Stadium, but he is back as the target of the Black Knights' defense.
"Stop Brian Madden," was Army coach Todd Berry's answer to what his team had to do.
"The quarterback is always a figure who's put on a pedestal," said Army linebacker and leading tackler Brian Zickefoose. "I remember Madden as a tough kid as a sophomore. Realistically, you want to make their other people step up to beat you."
Conversely, the beleaguered Navy defense, which will be missing tackle-end Ralph Henry (Eastern Tech), linebacker Eddie Carthan, safety Eli Sanders and perhaps linebacker and captain Jake Bowen because of injuries, has a load of concerns.
Although Army's No. 1 quarterback, Chad Jenkins, and top runner, Josh Holden, are doubtful participants, the Knights' game has been nicely engineered by quarterback Curtis Zervic, seven receivers with 14 or more catches, and runner C.J. Young, who leads the team with nine touchdowns.
"They have a well-thought-out offense similar to Tulane," Lantz said. "They like to spread people out so they can move the ball. It'll be important that we don't let them keep possession.
"And I would bet Jenkins and Holden will be back. They empty the hospitals for this one."
The bugaboo for Army - a 1 1/2 -point favorite - has been turnovers. The Black Knights have surrendered 17 interceptions and 11 fumbles and have a minus-13 turnover ratio.
To the players, this constitutes the ultimate challenge.
"The records don't mean anything. The common opponents don't mean anything. All that matters is this game," said Army tight end Clint Dodson.
"You remember the last game for the rest of your life," said Navy defensive end Michael Wagoner, one of 22 seniors on the team. "We're looking forward to leaving on a high note."
"Not a whole lot needs to be said or done now," said Madden. " ... Army-Navy is where our legacy is."
The scene will be replete with the usual trappings - cheerleaders, bands, mascots and the students doing their pushups after their teams score. This game brings a cornucopia of sights, sounds and memories.
And when it ends, the battling "brothers" who have fought so fiercely will hug and stand respectfully for each other's alma mater.
"This game gives them a forum not only to show their talents," said Army athletic director Rick Greenspan, "but to show us we're in great hands as a nation."
NOTE: President Bush will attend the game today, arriving early to deliver pep talks in both locker rooms. "He can have an enjoyable Saturday, watch a little football, and also express his appreciation to the people who serve our country so valiantly," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Opponent: Army (2-8)
Site: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia
Time: 11:45 a.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (1300 AM), WMAL (630 AM)
Line: Army by 1 1/2