EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A Navy team in mourning for its former co-captain, Alton Grizzard, plays Army today in the 94th meeting of the service academies at Giants Stadium.
Passions always run high in this annual season-ending game. But the Midshipmen will play with a different kind of emotion this year. The seniors are dedicating the game to Grizzard and wearing stickers with the name "Griz" on their helmets.
An all-purpose quarterback from 1987 to 1990, Grizzard holds the academy record for total yardage (5,666). But his former teammates remember him more as an inspirational leader -- "the perfect role model," said tailback Jason Van Matre.
Grizzard, a lieutenant junior grade, was killed Wednesday in a murder-suicide at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif. Ensign George P. Smith, a 1992 Navy graduate, killed Grizzard and Ensign Kerryn O'Neill before committing suicide. O'Neill, a 1993 graduate of the academy, was a record-setting distance runner for Navy.
A memorial service will be conducted at the Naval Academy chapel at 3 p.m. tomorrow.
"When he was a senior in 1990 and our current seniors were plebes, he set a shining example on how to act on and off the field," Van Matre said.
Added senior fullback Brad Stramanak: "I don't think Alton would want us to dwell on his death. He would want us to go out and beat the heck out of Army."
The Mids (4-6), already seeking revenge for last year's closing-minute 25-24 loss on a 49-yard field goal by Patmon Malcolm, have the added incentive of trying to capture their first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in 12 years. Having beaten Air Force, 28-24, Navy will need a victory over Army to win the trophy outright.
It's been an up-and-down season for coach George Chaump and his Mids, who won four of their first six games before facing the toughest part of their schedule.
Their unpredictability was highlighted by playing a near-perfect half of football against Notre Dame before losing to the Irish, 58-27. The Mids then showed their worst side in their next two games, committing 10 turnovers in a 41-7 whipping by Vanderbilt and losing to Southern Methodist, 43-13.
"We have to prove those last two games were a fluke, and not an indication of this team's true character," said Stramanak, who has scored a team-high 10 touchdowns. "Our main problem was getting all pumped up for the big games with Notre Dame and Louisville and letting down in our other games."
Added Chaump: "I believe we were a good football team for eight of our games. We definitely should have beaten Tulane, and we moved the ball all day against Louisville. What happened against Vanderbilt and SMU is hard to explain."
Getting ready for Army has never been a problem. Chaump, who received a contract extension last week, has helped motivate the team by reminding it of how an alleged officiating mistake helped Army last year. At one point Navy led 24-7.
"I'm still fighting mad about it," said Chaump, recalling how Navy was forced to take possession on its 1-yard line after an Army punt had seemingly rolled into the end zone for a touchback in the closing minutes. The Mids' poor field position helped lead to the Cadets' winning field goal.
Last season, Army and Navy were almost mirror teams, both relying heavily on ground attacks.
But that has changed this season. The Mids now rise and fall on the strong arm of junior quarterback Jim Kubiak, who eclipsed Navy season records for completions (232) and yardage (2,430).
"Kubiak is just an excellent quarterback," said Bob Sutton, concluding his third year as Army's coach. "When you can put up 24 points against Notre Dame in a half, that tells you something, and we've been vulnerable against the pass all year."
Offensively, the Cadets (5-5) have been quite successful in their familiar ground game, highlighted by the slashing runs of sophomore Akili King, who has rushed for 843 yards despite missing three games with assorted leg injuries.
King expects to play today, but how much no one is sure. Joe Ross, who weighs 30 pounds less than King, will start, Sutton said before the Cadets' final workout yesterday.
"When he [King] is walking to class or he's out here walking the field, he's fine," Sutton said. "It's just when he has to make that explosive hard cut, that's when it bothers him."
Be it Ross or King, Sutton does not expect to change his game plan.
"There are no big secrets in this game," said Sutton. "Both teams have to stick with what they do best. For us, it's running the ball. For Navy, it's passing. At this point, you can't afford to change things."
Still, the Mids fear Army junior quarterback Rick Roper, who runs the wishbone offense. "Roper hasn't thrown a lot of passes  this year," said Van Matre, "but he's got a strong arm, and he burned us several times last year."
There are no superstars in today's game, no one of the caliber of Army legends Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis or Navy heroes Joe Bellino or Roger Staubach, but this intense service rivalry still attracts sellout crowds and a national television audience.
"There are great intra-sectional rivalries like Michigan and Ohio State, Florida and Florida State, USC and UCLA," said Sutton. "But there is nothing to match the emotions of this game. When you stand in the stadium tunnel, your heart is really pumping. Everyone in the country with some military connection chooses sides."
There will be at least one "neutral" observer in President Clinton, the first commander-in-chief to attend the game since 1974, when Gerald Ford was in the White House. Keeping with tradition, Clinton is expected to spend equal time in the company of the midshipmen and cadets.