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Kicking this memory won't be easy


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If he heard it once, he heard it maybe a hundred times after his field-goal attempt had gone exactly where he directed it, staying wide right and giving the game to Army, 16-14.

Navy freshman Ryan Bucchianeri, looking the part of a person entering shock, was told by his coach George Chaump, "Don't let it wear on you. You did your best. A game is not won or lost on one play."

These words and others from teammates and even some Army players probably helped -- but only momentarily. They will remember beyond forever, for that is the nature of this contest.

Throughout the history of sport, games are what we have allowed them to become, for better or for worse. When it comes to Army and Navy and a football field, however, all control has been lost. Players at these academies, someday to be joined by the Flyboys out in Colorado Springs, have no choice. They are made to feel the anguish and finality of Judgment Day four times.

Most of them will tell you it's worth it when the prize is victory over their most esteemed rival. Still, you have to wonder when the pressure built up in the series often seems to have as much or even more effect on the periphery people, not to mention all the duty posts around the world and the ships at sea.

Clear to memory is a 7-7 struggle before the customary 100,000 in the old South Philadelphia monstrosity JFK Stadium nearly three decades ago. The coaches appeared to freeze. The quarterbacks would come off the field, perhaps seeking counsel, and the men supposedly making the decisions would make a beeline for elsewhere. You're on your own, kid.

While it's certain Bucchianeri's blunder all but absolves and trivializes the fumbles, penalties, boots, bobbles and breakdowns stacked up over three hours of play, consoling words won't produce the same effect. Actions might have, though.

For instance, with 4 1/2 minutes remaining in the game, the Mids took over on their 20-yard line and rushed the ball down the field like the Green Bay Packers of the early '60s. Five first downs they mustered as senior Billy James left defenders strewn all over the field with quick and powerful forays.

On first-and-10 from the Army 14, James dived through the middle for 7 yards and Navy looked to be going in when two more slams earned a first down at the 2. Two runs and a pass, nothing involving James, put the ball at the 1 and it was Bucchianeri time.

The Mids, it seemed, had lost interest in scoring a touchdown. Their end game was totally directed toward setting up a dramatic, winning field goal on the last play. Yet they ran two plays to the right and away from the center of the field, and left the ball between the college and pro hash marks, making their kicker's job a bit tougher.

"We talked and talked about getting the ball to the middle, but. . ." said Chaump, allowing his voice to tail off. As for the absence of James getting the ball at the end, the coach explained, "Billy was running from deep tailback during the drive and Army wasn't getting any penetration. We didn't have to hold out blocks as long. When you get down close, that changes and you run your fullback, who hits in there quicker."

"I think we all questioned what they were doing at the end, especially running to the right," said Army's starring free safety, Jim Cantelope. "Believe it or not, we were all confident something good was going to happen for us at the end because of the bad snap on the field-goal attempt earlier."

Ah, yes, the alleged try for three points by Navy at the beginning of the game. It was fourth-and-nine at the Army 10 and Bucchianeri was assigned a role in what was to be a "fake field-goal attempt," according to the coach. No doubt the freshman's confidence was soaring at this point.

Maybe you saw the play. Out of the blue, a center snap shot from guns went careening out to the 44-yard line where the Cadets took over. "Our center said he heard somebody yell," said Chaump. "It was probably a defensive guy. Anyway, he got excited and snapped the ball and nobody was looking. The play was a little shovel pass underneath."

The point is, there was more than enough blame to go around if that's your intention. That includes game MVP Jim Kubiak, who not only didn't make sure the ball was in the middle of the field at the end, but was throwing late and behind receivers all day, costing them valuable yardage as ball carriers.

It seemed cruel that Bucchianeri was fitted with goat's horns after having so little to do with the activity of the game leading up to the end. "I did my best," he said more than once and he appeared to believe it. No doubt Ryan's already thinking it was far from his best because, after all, it was only an 18-yard chip shot.

"He'll shake it off and come after us next year," Army quarterback Rick Roper said of Bucchianeri.

Hopefully, most of the people who judge this game to be Armageddon will, too.

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