125 miles, 21 hours, 1 rivalry

Tradition: The Naval Academy's 13th Company is running a relay to Philadelphia to deliver a football before today's game against Army.

December 06, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

If they look out their windows in the wee hours this morning, rural Pennsylvanians may do a double take: Midshipman Nicholas Culver will be dashing down their country roads in combat boots and a reflective vest, carrying a football through the snow in the dead of night.

As a member of the Naval Academy's 13th Company, Culver has no choice. The freshman is captive to a two-decade tradition called the Running of the Game Ball, part of the buildup to today's Army-Navy game.

The 125-mile, 21-hour relay began at noon yesterday in Annapolis. It takes Culver and the other 120 mids in his company up the byways of Anne Arundel County, through Baltimore's streets, across Pennsylvania's countryside and suburban townships, to Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, the game site.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption accompanying a story in yesterday's Sun about the Naval Academy's Running of The Game Ball misstated the titles of Lt. Joseph Chopek, who is the 13th Company's officer, and Marie Clark, who is the company's chief petty officer
The Sun regrets the error.

"We're running the ball 125 miles, and all just for the football game, for the victory, you know what I mean?" Culver said. He was scheduled to carry the ball for 2.4 miles in backwoods Pennsylvania at 1:50 a.m.

From the looks of his 5-foot-7, 194-pound physique, nothing is going to stop him, least of all forecasts of ankle-high snow. "Just run through it, I guess," he said.

The Running of the Game Ball started in 1982, to banish the unlucky 13th Company from campus in advance of the game involving one of the nation's oldest and most venomous football rivalries. It has evolved into a logistical marvel involving three chase vehicles, ham radio and satellite tracking, police escorts, a Web site, and a sleepover party at an Oxford, Pa., firehouse.

"We do it because it's tradition, and we've done it every year," senior Mike Kessler of Hauppauge, N.Y., the company commander, said yesterday.

But isn't running a football through back roads in darkness and snow just a tad crazy? "A lot of things we do here are," he said, grinning. Then he charged out of the Bancroft Hall dormitory for the relay's first leg, cradling a football stamped with a gold-colored "N."

The runners know well that the 104th Army-Navy game is the finish line, too, for a comeback football team.

After a demoralizing 3-30 record in the three preceding years - one of the worst records in college football - the midshipmen have gone 7-4 this season. The team is going to the Houston Bowl at the end of the month, its first bowl game since 1996.

Though the mids are highly favored over the 0-12 Army Black Knights, the rivalry is famous for upsets. A victory today would give Navy the coveted Commander in Chief's Trophy, awarded by the president to the best academy team, for the first time since 1981. A loss, and the trophy stays with Air Force.

The relay might be less visible than the academy's traditional pep rallies, bonfires and push-up contests. But Culver, of Bedford, Pa., sees it as kindling for the football team's morale.

"It really must mean something to them that we would put forth that kind of effort to beat Army," he said.

The runners expect to arrive in Philadelphia about 9:30 this morning. They will relax until just before the afternoon kickoff, when the company's seniors will run the ball into the stadium and hand it to the Navy team captain before thousands of fans. (The game is played with a service-neutral ball.)

If snow stops the runners, Kessler said, the company would make up any lost mileage by having other mids run laps around the academy until the roads clear. "Either way," Kessler said, "we'll run 125 miles at some point today, tonight and tomorrow."

Not to be outdone, Army started a similar run, from West Point, N.Y., a few years after Navy. Army's 25-member Marathon Club likes to note that its runners do legs of about 8 miles, compared with Navy's 2 to 4 miles. The club left Thursday evening and completed the 150-mile journey to Philadelphia last night.

"They may have a little longer tradition," said Cadet Adam W. Armstrong, a senior from Cleveland who presides over the Army runners. "But you could say we have better endurance. Maybe it has to do with us being land-based and them being sea-based."

Navy senior Carl E. Case, of Springfield, Va., the operations officer for the 13th Company (the academy's student body is split into 30 companies), started the planning in mid-August. He had midshipmen drive the route to make sure roads are open and to identify fast-food places and gas stations where vans can safely pick up and drop off runners.

He divided the run into 55 legs and made sure every company member signed up for one. He ordered long-sleeve T-shirts, which runners wear on top of long underwear, featuring a football player with "13" on his jersey.

And he got in touch with firefighters at the firehouse in Oxford, Pa., where dozens of mids throw down blankets, eat sandwiches and watch movies while waiting their turn with the football.

The run has become the 13th Company's calling card, just as the annual painting of the campus' Tecumseh statue falls to the 9th Company and the annual croquet match against St. John's College to the 28th Company.

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