Matt Warrick

Navy linebacker Matt Warrick pursues Army quarterbaack Trent Steelman during last year's game. Warrick's father, Vince, graduated from West Point in 1980 and spent 12 years in the Army, ultimately as a helicopter pilot. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / December 10, 2011)

Ken Niumatalolo noticed the Army guys looking askance as he wound his way through the Pentagon to attend a ceremony for his brother, an Army lieutenant colonel.

"I think they recognized me," said the Navy football coach, chuckling. "And I don't think they were too happy to see me."

The Army-Navy football rivalry — set to be contested for the 113th time Saturday in Philadelphia — is felt from the halls of power in Washington to the waters and battlefields of the Middle East. "Beat Army" is one of the few public utterances allowed from first-year midshipmen at the Naval Academy. And the same is true of "Beat Navy" for cadets at West Point.

Niumatalolo felt a little bit of that worldwide tension at the Pentagon, but his experience illustrated another facet of this unique rivalry — the sense that it's a battle fought within one larger family.

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Army and Navy players want to beat each other badly, but theirs is a rivalry defined as much by the ties that bind the two programs as by competition. Navy players come from Army families. Army players come from Navy families. Close friends play on opposite sides. And to a man, players and coaches say they feel part of the same mission.

"They know what we go through." Niumatalolo said, reflecting on the rivalry. "We know what they go through. They're us. We're them."

Niumatalolo knows how close the bonds are because they cut across his family. His eldest brother, James, has served in the Army for almost 30 years. You can hear the respect in Niumatalolo's voice as he describes how his brother's duties carry him back and forth between South Carolina and the Middle East.

So who will James Niumatalolo be pulling for Saturday?

"Blood is thicker than water," his little brother said. "In this game, he pulls for us. For Army-Navy, he wears the blue and gold."

The families of several players will be tugged in both directions as well.

Army running back James Dixon spent parts of his childhood in Guam and Hawaii, because his mother, Laura Ashley, was a chief petty officer in the Navy. Dixon was well aware of the rivalry growing up and generally pulled for the Midshipmen.

He remembers going to work with his mother and observing the respect she commanded without having to be heavy-handed. She attributed her formidable presence to her time in the Navy, so Dixon, wanting people to treat him with similar regard, became a natural candidate for a service academy.

When the time came for recruiting, however, Army showed more interest than Navy. That was just fine with Dixon's mother. "She just wanted me to be happy," he said.

Dixon is only a sophomore, but he already appreciates the special nature of Army-Navy. "It's kind of like fighting with your brother," he said. "The love is great, but the fights are going to be enormous."

Will mom's heart be divided by this fraternal showdown?

"No, I don't think she'll be divided," Dixon said. "She enjoyed her time in the Navy, but she likes me more."

Navy linebacker Matt Warrick says the same about his father, Vince, who graduated from West Point in 1980 and spent 12 years in the Army, ultimately as a helicopter pilot.

"He's rooting for Navy," Warrick said. "He told me he'd root for Navy for four years."

Warrick grew up wanting to attend a service academy and delighting in the pageantry of Army-Navy. "I think every graduate gets pretty wrapped up in it," he said of watching the games with his dad.

He was recruited by both academies (in addition to Harvard and Princeton) but says his dad took it in stride when he loved his visit to Annapolis. "I think some of his friends were probably more disappointed than he was," Warrick said. "I think he agreed it was the best place for me."