PHILADELPHIA -- Navy co-captain Clint Bruce gazed longingly at the 2 1/2 -foot-tall Commander in Chief's Trophy, presented annually to the winner of the football competition among the three major service academies.
The Midshipmen (8-2) have not owned the trophy outright since 1981. Regaining it after more than a decade of losing football has become one of their major goals this turnaround season.
"It's so close," Bruce said recently at a media luncheon. "You just feel like grabbing it, putting it under your coat and carrying it back to Annapolis.
"But it's just like seeing a Christmas tree lined with all the presents. You know you can't open them til Christmas Day. And for us, we know we've got to wait until Dec. 7 and beat Army before this trophy really belongs to us."
For a moment, the senior linebacker considered the bigger picture of service football.
"This game is such a great opportunity for both our teams," he said. "Not only the trophy, but a bowl game could be at stake.
"People have been saying the two academies should drop down to Division I-AA because we can't compete at this level, but we made the critics eat those words."
Across the room, Bruce's counterpart, Army co-captain and linebacker Ben Kotwica, one of the backbones of the defense in Army's 9-1 season, was expressing similar thoughts.
"This trophy has been spending too much time out west," said Kotwica, noting the recent dominance by Air Force, which had held it since 1989 before losing to Army and Navy this season. "We have to bring this trophy back to West Point."
Bruce and Kotwica have more in common than their roles as team captains and as undersized -- Bruce is 6 feet, 238 pounds, Kotwica 5-11, 211 -- overachieving linebackers. They are throwbacks to an era of rock 'em, sock 'em football.
Speaking of Bruce, Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie said: "He's one of those guys who gets glassy-eyed before a game. He's all football player."
The Texas native, who is determined to become a SEAL after graduation "so I can blow up things," plays every game with the same high-risk attitude. But beating Army after being involved in three straight heartbreaking losses by a total of five points has become a crusade.
"I take a lot of responsibility for us losing last year," said Bruce, recalling the Cadets' 99-yard touchdown march against the clock for their winning touchdown.
"I know there were a lot of plays I was involved in that could have changed the game's outcome," he said.
Bruce was credited with 16 solo tackles against Army, but is still haunted by that final drive.
"I know of at least three tackles I should have made to stop that march," he said. "I either made the tackle too late or didn't bring enough with me.
"And I tried blitzing [quarterback] Ron McAda when it was fourth-and-24 on our 29. He slipped away and stayed on his feet long enough to complete a pass down to the 1-yard line."
Bruce has had little reason to apologize for his play this season. He had 14 tackles in the 20-17 road victory over Air Force, matched that figure against Notre Dame and recovered and forced a fumble in the 64-27 rout of Duke.
"Playing a part in a winning season is a great feeling. It's what I came here to do," he said. "But it can't really be satisfying unless we beat Army. I couldn't even do that when I was at prep school [Naval Academy Prep School]. This is my last crack at these guys."
Kotwica has much fonder memories of last year's Army-Navy game.
He was credited with making the stop on Navy quarterback Chris McCoy inches short of the goal line in the fourth quarter, leading to a fourth-down pass that fell harmlessly in the end zone.
"Sure, I remember that play," Kotwica said with a broad smile. "Looking at the tape later, I know I only got a shot at McCoy because they didn't call a face mask penalty on [defensive end] Tom Burrell. We got lucky on that one."
But luck did not play a part in Kotwica's becoming a defensive starter the past three years and Army co-captain this season.
bTC As a teen-ager on the South Side of Chicago, Kotwica lived for Sundays and sandlot football.
"I'd watch the first quarter of the Bears game for motivation, and then go out and play some other neighborhood team," he said.
Kotwica said he modeled himself after two of his Bears heroes, linebacker Dick Butkus and running back Walter Payton, both Hall of Famers.
He said he wants nothing less than going out with a clean slate against Navy.
"They're more explosive and determined than last year," he said. "But if we execute, it doesn't matter who we're playing. No one figured at this point a bunch of little academy guys would be 9-1. Now, we've got to finish the job. I owe it to this game that has given me so much."
Navy vs. Army
Site: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia
When: Saturday, noon
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WNAV (1430 AM), WMAL (630 AM)
Last meeting: Army beat Navy, 14-13, at Veterans Stadium on Dec. 2, 1995.
Records: Navy 8-2; Army 9-1
Pub Date: 12/03/96