Even now, Army's Clint Dodson can tick off every second of jubilation following the Black Knights' last victory over Navy in 2001.
After the hugs and high-fives, Dodson raced to the stands, scaled the wall and landed amid the Corps of Cadets. There, teetering on the railing, right fist pumping, the 235-pound tight end led the sea of grey in a rousing chorus of the Army football song.
"It was more yelling than singing," Dodson confessed. "It was an awesome moment — and one of shared stress relief. After 9/11 that year, we all knew we were going to war, but it was a great unknown.
"Walking onto the field that day, I had a feeling that, pretty soon, there would be sand under my feet, but that was about it."
Army won, 26-17 and, while the 112-year saga that continues today at FedEx Field in Landover routinely pays homage to the past, that particular game saluted the future. Nearly 70,000 fans in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, including President George W. Bush, and millions more on TV tuned in to a contest being played by men bound not for the NFL, but for distant climes with labyrinthine names, to wage America's war on terror.
In retrospect, players on both sides said they knew the world was watching.
"You could feel it, before the game," said David Hills, Navy's placekicker. "The country rallied around us. The week before, at Notre Dame, as we got off the bus, people were clapping and cheering for an 0-8 team. It wasn't a good-luck-on-the-field cheer, but a deep-in-the-gut cheer because of what was to come."
For days before the Navy game, Army co-captain Brian Zickefoose was bombarded with inspiring emails from recent football-playing grads at West Point, since deployed to the Middle East.
"Everyone had this big sense of patriotism," Zickefoose, a linebacker, said. "It made you feel great, but it also gave you a sense of, 'Hey, don't screw this up.' "
Army (2-8) took the increase in interest to heart, Dodson said.
"I must have done three or four (media) interviews every night for two weeks before the game," said Dodson, the Black Knights' other co-captain. "It was really intense. We saw the game as a rallying cry for both the military and America. We said, 'Let's show them the character of the people who are going to lead this country.' "
At the same time, players said it was a struggle to focus on the game at hand, right up to kickoff. Even they had to pass through metal detectors to get into the stadium.
"President Bush gave us a few words of encouragement before the game, which was great. But before he came down, security had to do all this crazy stuff to check out our locker room," said Lenter Thomas, Navy's star safety. "And there we were, trying to get (psyched) for Army. It was hard to block that stuff out."
Both sides got pep talks from Bush. Sen. John McCain, a Navy grad, met with the Midshipmen and "gave one of the greatest pre-game speeches I ever heard," Hills recalled. "He said, 'It's been a tough year for the country, and a tough year for Navy football. Now, go give 'em hell!' "
It didn't happen. Big plays sank Navy. Army scored touchdowns on a 96-yard kickoff return, a 60-yard run and a 42-yard pass. Defensively, Zickefoose sparkled: 15 tackles, two sacks and an interception toward game's end that earned him praise he'll not forget.
As he ran off the field, following the interception, Zickefoose was greeted by Ret. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who was standing on the sidelines.
"He (Schwarzkopf) said, 'Great job, way to go!' Then he slapped me on the back," Zickefoose said. "Awesome."
Thomas' 10 tackles led Navy (0-10), while Hills did most of the Middies' scoring: three field goals, including a career-best 47-yarder. A New Yorker, he wore two shoulder patches that day, honoring both the police and fire departments of that city.
"That was my gesture to remember those civil servants who sacrificed their lives to rescue people in those (World Trade Center) buildings," Hills said. "Who knows, maybe they were with me that game. The wind was at my back most of the day."
After graduation, three of those men — Dodson, Zickefoose and Thomas — saw combat in the Middle East. Dodson (infantry) was a platoon leader in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Now 33, married and the father of two, he lives in Hawaii where he works as a financial adviser.
Zickefoose, 32, became an Army Ranger and spent a year in Iraq. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and two daughters and works as a construction manager for a Pennsylvania utility firm.
Thomas, 31, served as fire control officer aboard the USS Nassau and was twice deployed to the Middle East. Single, he's employed by a Texas oil company as a supervisor in damage control.
Hills spent four years in counter drug operations as ordnance officer aboard the USS De Wert, in Central and South America. Now 32, he works as a financial adviser in Monterey, Calif., where he lives with his wife and three children.
One player who took part in the 2001 Army-Navy game has been killed in action. J.P. Blecksmith, a Navy receiver who caught one pass that day, was shot by a sniper in Iraq in 2004.
"I know of some guys, from that game, who got hurt in combat," Dodson said. "Guys who took shrapnel, and guys who have some limb issues."
He'll think of them all on Saturday.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun