WEST POINT, N.Y. - These are somber times at the U.S. Military Academy, and even the school's bucolic Hudson Valley setting can't mask the stark reality of war. There was a funeral here last month for a former swimmer turned soldier who was among the American casualties in Iraq.
What the war that is being fought thousands of miles away has also done is give the biggest game of every Army season - against Navy - a different place in the minds of the players. It has even changed the way they view a game they have played since they were kids.
"To me, football before college was everything. It was like a big thing in my life," said Ricardo Evans, a sophomore tailback from Waldorf, Md. "It becomes more of just a game, a leadership learning experience. It's preparing me for life's trials and tribulations."
Said Ryan Kent, a senior linebacker and team captain from Woodbury, N.J.: "It put things in a different perspective. It doesn't make it any less important, but there are going to be lessons that you learn on the football field that can be transitioned over to the military side."
This year's game against Navy on Saturday in Philadelphia is significant for other reasons: Unless the Black Knights beat the Midshipmen at Lincoln Financial Field, Army (0-12) will suffer its first winless season in 30 years and the worst since the program started in 1890.
"It's definitely been a long year, a very frustrating football season," Curt Daniels, a junior linebacker from Leawood, Kan., said earlier this week. "It's one of those where you've just got to persevere. One thing that Army football has taught me is perseverance."
How to handle an unexpected change in leadership, perhaps. Six games into this season, fourth-year coach Todd Berry was fired after his teams had won only five of 40 games. The 1996 season that ended with a 10-2 record and a three-point defeat to Auburn in the Independence Bowl was a distant memory.
"I think my concern was the lack of progress we had made going into this season [1-11 last year]," said athletic director Rick Greenspan, who had hired Berry after they had worked together at Illinois State. "Then we got to the halfway point and the concern was, would we, could we, become as good as we hoped we could without the change? That's what fostered the decision."
Greenspan, a 1975 Maryland graduate who played baseball in College Park, said he understands the added hardship the Black Knights and the coaching staff have endured with the move.
"It's very difficult, first and foremost, for the players," Greenspan said. "Secondly, it was very difficult for the assistant coaches who personally I feel have done an admirable job in a very trying time by continuing to work hard, not being negative despite the perilous future they might face."
John Mumford, who was promoted from defensive line coach to interim head coach, has come to appreciate the work ethic of players who have been badly overmatched in athletic ability playing in a much-improved Conference USA.
"As you would expect cadets to do, they pulled up their bootstraps and have continued to work hard," Mumford said recently. "You've got to fight human nature sometime of taking the low road and being indifferent. They care. Their hearts are right."
`They're the glue'
Mumford said the military training his players receive, especially in terms of leadership, "kind of kicked in during this time. I think they're more the glue than I am in holding this together."
Said Kent: "Maybe we can handle a little more adversity. During the summertime when we train, we are purposely placed in adverse situations. When we're in the Army, we're going to need to react positively, because we're going to have soldiers that need that positive reinforcement to deal with the mission."
The mission this week is clear: Beat a 7-4 Navy team that is, at least when it comes to the program's progress, light-years ahead of Army. Last year's 58-12 loss at Giants Stadium - the largest margin of defeat for Army in this historic series - will be motivation enough for the Black Knights.
"Every year, there's always something going into the Navy game," Kent said. "Maybe it's a winning streak, maybe it's a losing streak, maybe it's getting to a bowl game. Every year, it's just a big game for both programs because of the tradition."
The Army coaches and players say what has transpired in the months since the United States began deploying troops to Iraq has not been a distraction on the field. Daniels, whose brother, Chad, played here and is now stationed in Iraq as a member of the 101st Airborne, said it is merely part of the culture.
"It's really kind of a way of life," Daniels said. "I think about my brother all the time, but you can't let that just own you. Since we are at West Point, we've pretty much accepted the fact that when we graduate, we're going to be out there with them, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or maybe someplace new."
But Daniels can't get away from it completely.