An American icon Army-Navy game: Today's game returns luster to annual battle for bragging rights.


STRIP AWAY stories of $50 million contracts and drug violations from the sports sections of America's newspapers and one might think they had turned back the clock a few generations to the Golden Age of Sports: The despised Yankees win a World Series. A heavyweight boxing bout generates genuine excitement. A legion of fans trails a hot, young golf sensation (named Tiger, not Arnie). And this afternoon, Army and Navy play a football game that will recall the days when the service academies churned out heroes for the gridiron as well as the battlefield.

Make no mistake. The annual game between these service academies has been an icon of the American sporting scene for nearly a century, graced by the likes of Staubach and Dawkins and Blaik and McCallum. But in recent years, football fortunes waned at Army and especially Navy. Some suggested the academies should leave the game to the big-time college football factories, whose semi-pro squads need not concern themselves with campus regimen or post-graduate service obligations. The torpedoing of such expert opinion by the exciting teams of Army and Navy this season is enough to make a civilian smile.

Today's "civil war," as sports author John Feinstein dubs it, will draw a military viewing and listening audience of 1 million, from sailors in the Pacific fleet huddled around a radio to soldiers in Bosnia. President Clinton will be in the stands at Philadelphia, attending his first Army-Navy contest. An added incentive: The winner receives a post-season bowl bid.

Victory by the Midshipmen would be sweet because their heart-rending, last-minute losses to the Cadets the past several Decembers have been the stuff of Greek tragedy. Plus, Annapolis' Naval Academy is a source of pride for Marylanders. Of course, plenty of folks at Maryland bases such as Fort Meade, Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Ground would prefer a school-record 10th win for Army.

Both military branches have had their share of wrenching, embarrassing headlines in 1996. The build-up to today's game has been a respite that could not have come at a better time.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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