Ricky Dobbs paused for a moment. The former Navy quarterback was trying to explain what it meant to play against rival Army during his time at the Annapolis school.
But he needed a few seconds to organize his thoughts.
“Its just special,” Dobbs finally said in a telephone call Wednesday. “It's hard to put into words, but we have so much respect for our military academy brothers. But we want to beat them bad, too. There's a ton of pride on the field when Navy plays Army.”
After Dobbs graduated in 2011, he never expected to compete in the historic rivalry again. But Saturday night in Philadelphia, he'll do just that.
As part of its military appreciation night, the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League will hold a full-contact exhibition pitting Navy veterans against Army veterans after the Soul's 6:05p.m. game against the Iowa Barnstormers.
It's a part of an effort by Soul ownership to help improve veterans' employment rates. Marty Judge, a minority owner of the team and CEO of The Judge Group staffing firm, has put together a job fair for veterans with more than 35 employers that will take place before Philadelphia's game.
The goal is to improve upon the 20.4percent unemployment rate of veterans ages 18-24 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 9.9 percent unemployment rate for all veterans who served since September 2001. The job fair will include “speed interviewing,” so veterans can meet as many employers as possible.
“It just doesn't seem right to me. I have had some success only because those people fought for our freedom,” Judge said. “I knew that we had the resources to make a change.”
He flipped on a television and watched a news story discussing the difficulties veterans had finding jobs. Judge figured his staffing firm could help employers get in touch with veterans, and vice versa.
But he also knew he had the perfect entity to spread awareness and publicize the event. Judge considers the Army-Navy game the best rivalry in college football, and he knows the matchup evokes passion from both sides.
So he approached Soul majority owner Ron Jaworski, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, with his idea of creating a veterans game. The two began contacting employers for the job fair as well as players and coaches for the game.
The event has picked up steam since August, and Judge said the plan is to play the veterans game each year.
“Other than fighting for our country, I know the military academies take plenty of pride in football,” said Judge, who noted that the Soul is hoping to sell out its 16,000-seat venue for the event and expecting at least 12,000 fans. “It all seemed to fit.”
While the event promotes a universal cause, the game still will be competitive, Dobbs said.
Each team consists of dozens of veterans or active-duty officers from either the U.S. Army or Navy. Though many of the players attended military academies, it is not a requirement.
The Navy side includes former Midshipmen players such as Dobbs, who went 3-0 against the Black Knights, and Andy Person, who went 0-4 against Army during his time at Navy.
“It's our first time competing against Army since we left the service academy,” said Dobbs, who is now serving on the destroyer USS Oscar Austin in Virginia. “For some of us, we want to continue our success, but for others, they'll be clawing and fighting for their first win.”
Unlike in 2009 and 2010, when Dobbs led Navy to convincing victories over the Black Knights, his team might be at a disadvantage. Most of the Army players live in the Philadelphia area and have been able to practice together several times.
The Navy team has a group of players living in Annapolis and a separate group in the Norfolk, Va., area. Gary Vinciguerra, the coach of the Navy team, has practiced only once with his full team in attendance.
“It's been tough. We'll definitely be the underdogs,” said Vinciguerra, an assistant coach at Division III Widener in Chester, Pa., and a former Midshipmen safety. “But we've got some great athletes and guys with a lot of heart. It'll be fun.”
For Dobbs, the entire event will carry a deeper meaning.
Preparing for the game has brought back fond memories, but the event's purpose is just as important.
Dobbs has friends who have gotten out of the military and struggled to find jobs and to begin a new chapter in their lives. It's a struggle he hopes to help by playing in Saturday's game, and also a struggle he'll soon be a part of.
“It'll be fun and all, but it's for an important cause,” Dobbs said. “I didn't hesitate to help out. I mean, hey, I'll be a veteran one day soon, too.”
Military Appreciation Night
1 p.m.-4 p.m.: Judge VIP Speed Career Networking event for military veterans in the Cadillac Grille in the Wells Fargo Center. Details: judge.com, 800.650.0035.
3:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.: Stars And Stripes Fan Fest at Cure Club with military interactive areas and displays, as well as live entertainment featuring a performance from Biz Markie from 5p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
6 p.m.: Arena Football League game (Philadelphia Soul vs. Iowa Barnstormers)
After the AFL game: Army veterans vs. Navy veterans full-contact game
This article originally listed the wrong name for Marty Judge, a minority owner of the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.