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Army-Navy transcends the gridiron warfare Won-loss records not as important as tradition of the game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- As the sun rose over the Severn River yesterday, Mary Gail Buchanan slapped blue-and-gold "Beat Army" stickers all over Navy alumni buses, served pastries from blue-and-gold tins she decorated all week and roused sleepyheads with cheers, songs, war stories and caffeine.

She hardly slept last week, leading up to yesterday's annual ritual that Navy old-timers such as her grandfather, father and brother have longed for, celebrated, relished and relived over and over again for a century.

The Army-Navy Game. Round 96.

Two mediocre college football teams without a chance for a bowl bid took the field at a sold-out Veterans Stadium.

Once more, they waged hard-fought gridiron warfare that ended in heartbreak for Navy for the fourth straight year. Army won, 14-13, on a 99-yard, 19-play drive that ended in a touchdown with 1:03 left.

And once more, this game unleashed an avalanche of emotions.

The rite played all over America, in Philadelphia, in Annapolis, at West Point, at Aberdeen and Fort Meade, at parties planned 51 weeks ago, on ships at sea, in barracks spanning the globe, in living rooms and barrooms and dorm rooms.

"There's so much mystique for this game," said Bobbi Hovis, a retired Navy nurse who watched the game at a friend's home near Annapolis.

"This is the purest form of scholar-athletes. It's pure college football as it was but what it no longer is, unfortunately."

Won-loss records don't matter.

This game, the die-hards will tell you, transcends generations, war and peace, good times and bad, the glory years of football legends long since passed and the gritty scholars who also happen to be athletes who inherited the legacy.

Perhaps, it is said, the Dallas Cowboys are America's team, but Army-Navy is America's game.

For Ms. Hovis, time has done nothing to diminish the adrenalin buzz that comes every time Army and Navy play football.

Across town, at his Annapolis home, retired Adm. Walter "Henry" Ford savored the clash once more and wistfully recalled enough memories to fill a battleship.

For the first time in 70 years, he watched this year's contest without his best friend and favorite fan, his late wife, Channez.

This one, he said, is for his bride, the young woman who spent the first day of her honeymoon at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Army-Navy game, 1925.

One of the newlyweds couldn't think of a better place to be; the other would come to understand.

"A fan then? Not exactly," he said of his wife. "She was from then on, though. It made a fan out of her. Channez went to all the games. It's always a good show, you know."

So what if most of the real athletic talent has bypassed this rivalry for big-time programs that often seem mere training grounds for the pros? The tradition most certainly has not.

Army Col. Alan Fox, West Point Class of '71, surveyed the sea of gray cadets and said, "No bowl games, no pro contacts. They're just here because they love to compete.

"Whatever we do in Philadelphia, in four months some of these seniors will be fighting together."

After all, loyalty to country matters most, he said. Some of those in the stands near him sported badges, signifying the units in which they'll serve in Bosnia.

For some of the fans seated closest to the field -- the Midshipmen and the Cadets -- those loyalties tend to cause temporary lapses of decorum among otherwise upstanding men and women.

How else to explain 4,000 Cadets jumping up and down in unison? And 4,000 Mids waving yellow foam "Go Navy, Hammer Army" hatchets in the air?

And how to explain Bob Schmermund, Naval Academy Class of '78? Mr. Schmermund, who is a respectable businessman for 51 weeks a year as spokesman for the Washington-based America's Community Bankers, every day last week changed his voice mail message at work, singing Navy songs such as "Anchors Aweigh" and telling the world: "Beat Army."

He's been doing that for years, and now people call him from all over the country during Army-Navy week just to hear the message.

No week can compare.

"You see people here who would never go to any other college game," he said. "It's an event with parachutists, jets, mules, a goat. It's a happening just to go see it and to get a sense of all that goes with it."

He sat in The Vet's upper deck yesterday wearing in blue and gold clothing -- and an ancient cloth Navy helmet.

But then, outrageous dress is nothing new.

In the late 1980s, he lost a bet to an Army buddy and Treasury Department co-worker.

Mr. Schmermund honored the wager and, as promised, took off his Navy "B'robe" in front of co-workers to reveal boxer shorts. He then presented the bathrobe to the victor.

"People kind of sat there and stared, and said, 'You guys are just crazy about this,' " he said. "And I said, 'That's the Army-Navy game.' "

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