Marc Firlie calls comparisons between football and warfare a cliche.
But he says the challenges of playing football at the U.S. Naval Academy — on top of a full academic course load and year-round military training — really did help prepare him for his work on board a guided-missile cruiser helping to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"You don't really appreciate it — or like it — when you're 17," says Firlie, who grew up in Cumberland and now lives in Timonium. "Later on, you realize what it's doing for you."
The Navy seniors who line up against Army at FedEx Field in Landover on Saturday likely will be playing their last game in organized football. While other Division I players are preparing for contracts and careers in the NFL, the midshipmen can look forward to commissions as junior officers in the Navy or Marine Corps.
On enrolling at Annapolis — or West Point, or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs — students commit to serving five years after graduation on active duty.
"They know where they're going to be six months from now, and it's probably going to be in a hot, dirty, lousy spot that you and I wouldn't want to be in," says retired Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, who captained the 1963 team and became the academy's 54th superintendent.
With that future in mind, Lynch says, the academy uses football as a means to an end — "not the end itself."
"The purpose is not to produce football players," he says. "It's to produce commissioned officers and leaders in our Navy and Marine Corps — and leaders for the future of this country."
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo says the responsibility "weighs heavily" on him.
"I'm a football coach, and I want to win in the worst way," he says. "But more importantly, I feel a great obligation and duty. … The things I'm trying to teach, the lessons that they learn on the football field, will hopefully be lessons that will help them be better leaders and better fathers and husbands."
Lynch speaks approvingly of Niumatalolo's decision to suspend captain Alexander Teich for a game this season after the senior fullback reportedly left the field following a loss to Air Force before singing the Falcons' alma mater.
"Why?" Lynch asks. "Because it's more than just football. … And he learned from that, and he's going to be a better officer because of it."
Not that the players always recognize the lasting value of what they're learning at the time. As a midshipman at the academy and a safety on the football team, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Lepore says, he internalized the habits of preparation, practice, attention to detail and discipline.
"I knew that those skills and attributes were what was needed in order to be successful on the football field," says the 2001 graduate, now an intelligence officer with SEAL Team Three in Coronado, Calif. "What I quickly learned was you can apply those skills and attributes and characteristics in the real world."
Retired Vice Adm. Albert M. Calland III remembers a 1972 game against Notre Dame. The Irish had won the previous eight meetings, and from the opening kick — returned 84 yards for a touchdown — it was clear they had every intention of making it nine.
By halftime, the scoreboard read 35-0.
Then the Midshipmen began their comeback. Quarterback Al Glenny connected with Calland, a wide receiver, on a pair of touchdowns, and ran the ball himself for a third. The defense, meanwhile, held their opponents to just one more touchdown. The final score: Notre Dame 42, Navy 23.
Calland, who would go on to lead the Navy SEALs, says games against the larger, faster and more athletic teams that filled Navy's schedule then and now helped to prepare him and his fellow future officers for the challenges that would lie ahead.
"Any time you go on a mission in a SEAL team environment, you're going with very small numbers. Potentially you're going to run into a much larger force and face some adversity," he says. "Overcoming that adversity and not quitting is what it's all about."
Navy Reserve Capt. Jeff Johnson, who as an offensive lineman in the early 1980s opened holes for All-American running back Napoleon McCallum, speaks of teamwork.
"You give all for the group," says Johnson, a commercial pilot. "Team goals over individual successes has got to be something I carry with me every day.
"When I'm in the cockpit with Delta Airlines I can tell you that the most important thing is that everybody understands exactly what's going on. There's nobody trying to protect their own world. The overall mission is the success of the flight."
Current player Jabaree Tuani, whom Niumatalolo has called the greatest defensive end ever to play at the academy, says he has gained valuable experience performing under pressure.
"You can be down one second, you got to make a play here or there," says the senior defensive captain. "The situation can be stressful, but still you've got to find a way to overcome it. You keep coming back to fight."
In the fleet, he says, "You're going to be faced with problems and situations where you're not really going to have all the time or the assets that you need. But you're still going to have to find a way to get it done."
Football is the most visible sport in a culture of competition at the academy. All midshipmen are required to compete in a sport, be it intercollegiate or intramural.
That's on top of the 140 credit hours — 90 of them in math, science and engineering — they must complete in four years, and the military training.
"You're on a set time schedule," says Firlie, now a senior vice president at RBC Wealth Management in Hunt Valley. "You've got class, then practice, then you're going back to study hall for two or three hours — or it's no more football for you."
For all the rigors of college football, several former players say practice was something of a relief after the rest of the academy experience.
"The mental challenge that you go through every day to just get to practice, and then you have the opportunity to do something that you're very good at — you know, there's no more positive way to burn off some of that frustration," Johnson says.
Service academy football is an experience they share with their opponents at West Point. That's one reason the rivalry is so fierce.
"Everyone is pretty much equal in terms of where they've come from, what they've done, what's the sacrifices they've had," says Harry "Skip" Dittman, a center in the mid-1960s.
"You're fighting your brother is what you're doing," says Calland.
The rivalry is ingrained in the midshipmen from their arrival as plebes. As they walk through Bancroft Hall, the academy dormitory, first-year students are required to square their corners — turn at right angles — and say as they pivot: "Go Navy — Beat Army."
Former defensive tackle Bob Kuberski went from a high school program that lost just one game in his four years to a Navy program that won just 10 during his undergraduate career. He later played in a pair of Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers, and won a championship against the New England Patriots in 1997.
Still, he calls playing for Navy "one of the absolutely best things that I could ever have done in my life — to the point where I struggle to find something that gets me as excited."
Kuberski says the Army-Navy game is unique.
"The fervor of the crowd is more electric than at the Super Bowl," he says. "I've been in the game at all levels, and it's awesome."
Calland played for the 1973 team that beat Army 51-0, the most lopsided final in the series. After the game, a reporter asked him if he felt bad for beating up on another service academy.
"I looked at him like he was crazy," he remembers. "I said, 'If we could have beat them 100-0, it wouldn't have been enough.' And if you had asked them, they'd say the same thing.
"That's the deal. You're not going to let up on each other. Because you can't quit. And you have to play hard until it's over with.
"That's the philosophy that carries with you when you're in combat. You can't let down. But we're going to shake hands and we're going to congratulate each other and we're going to sing our alma maters together. And one day we could be standing side by side in a real fight."