Even though nearly 30 years have passed, the thrill is still in Skip Orr's voice as he recalls his sophomore year at the Naval Academy, when he took the field against Notre Dame for the first time.
"We played the game at South Bend and I can remember the special feeling of walking into Notre Dame stadium -- 60,000 fans for them and maybe 100 fans for Navy," said Orr, a 1965 Navy graduate who played flanker. "Just looking up and seeing the Golden Dome. You just get caught up in the aura. I enjoyed it."
It was even more enjoyable because Navy defeated Notre Dame, 35-14, in that 1963 game, which happens to be the last time the Midshipmen have beaten the Fighting Irish.
Since then Notre Dame has won 28 straight in the longest -- and most lopsided -- continuous intersectional rivalry in college football.
During the past three years Notre Dame has dominated the games, outscoring the Midshipmen 131-31. And while another mismatch is anticipated at Giants Stadium on Saturday -- the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish are a 38-point favorite -- the Naval Academy brass wouldn't think about dropping Notre Dame from the schedule.
"This series is good for us and this game gets us pumped up," said Navy senior defensive lineman Robert Goodson. "These are the types of games we need to play to know what level we're capable of playing."
With Notre Dame coming into the game 5-1-1 and Navy 0-6, some might think these are the games Navy needs to avoid. That theme took up most of the time allotted to Navy coach George Chaump during his teleconference call with the nation's media on Monday. The first question: Why does Navy take punishment against Notre Dame each year?
"I don't think it's punishment at all," Chaump shot back. "I take offense to that statement. We played good football against Notre Dame the last two years."
Navy lost those two, 38-0 and 52-31, but the Midshipmen didn't play as badly as the scores suggest. Actually, punishment for Navy was the six straight years during the 1980s when the Midshipmen played Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse in successive weeks (Navy went 0-17-1 in those games).
One of the first things Navy athletic director Jack Lengyel did when he arrived in 1988 was to remove Pitt and Syracuse from the schedule.
"I took those games off the schedule not because they're bad institutions, but because I think they have different requirements that are a little more difficult to be competitive against," Lengyel said. "We've added Vanderbilt, Tulane, Boston College, Rutgers and Rice -- teams that are academically oriented and schools that have some of the basic requirements that we do. Now we have a middle-of-the-road program."
Navy's slow start this year could be attributed to its difficult schedule, which at one point this season was rated the second toughest in the country in college football. When Lengyel first put together the current schedule he had no idea teams such as Virginia (No. 23), Boston College (No. 11), North Carolina (No. 22) and Rutgers (4-3) would be so successful.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, is considered Navy's top opponent every year, and going against one of the nation's best teams each season helps sell the program to recruits, academy officials say.
"Some people argue that you haven't won in so many years, but when I go to the players each year and say 'Gentlemen, would you like for me to drop the Notre Dame game?' to a man they say no," Lengyel said. "They say 'One of the reasons why I came to the U.S. Naval Academy is not just because it's a good school, but the fact that you play a schedule like you do and the fact that you play Notre Dame.' "
"We have played well against Notre Dame," Lengyel said. "We'd like to beat them. We need to beat them." One thing is clear: If the traditional series is ever to end, it won't be at Notre Dame's request. Each year, Irish coach Lou Holtz is asked why Notre Dame plays Navy, and each year he gives his standard response.
"I'm not in charge of the scheduling," Holtz said yesterday. "I don't think we force Navy to play. It's my understanding that the Naval Academy wants to continue the series."
Dave Church, a punter for Navy in 1965 and 1966, said that the current schedule -- including Notre Dame -- suits the Midshipmen fine.
"I think we can realistically compete if we play one or two games like that each year," Church said.
And playing against Notre Dame gives Navy a shot at national recognition. Not too many people across the country know that Delaware beat Navy last week. But every football fan would take notice if the Midshipmen defeated the Fighting Irish. And by playing the game, each of the current Midshipmen at least has that opportunity.
"When I first became interested in Navy I never knew they played Notre Dame," said Navy running back Duke Ingraham. "The only big game I knew of was the Army game. But this is a big game for us. One day, our time is going to come."
* Chaump, 6-22 in three seasons at Navy, received a vote of confidence from Lengyel yesterday. "I feel very confident that George Chaump is the man to bring this program along," Lengyel said.
Saturday's Navy-Notre Dame game will be the 66th meeting between the two teams. Notre Dame has a 55-9-1 advantage. Since Navy's last win in 1963, the Fighting Irish have won 28 straight in the series. Here is how the No. 10 Irish and winless Navy compare this year in several statistical categories among the 107 Division I-A teams (numbers are per game; ranking in parentheses):
.. .. .. .. .Total Rushing.. .. .. .. .. ..Pts.
ND.. .. .. .. 365 (60) 117 (14).. .. .. .. 18 (32)
NA.. .. .. ...412 (91) 209 (90).. .. .. ..34 (105)
ND.. .. .. .. .482 (3) 288 (3).. .. .. .. ..38 (5)
NA.. .. .. .. 258 (99) 138 (71).. .. .. .. 8 (107)