PHILADELPHIA -- They were back in that place again, explaining how it felt to come so close.
Portraits of despair, but with their pride intact.
"I don't think I can put into words what it feels like," said Clint Bruce, a senior linebacker on Navy's football team.
He was standing outside the Midshipmen's locker room yesterday at Veterans Stadium, his hands gnarled and his chin marked by a bright red bruise.
"I'm sorry," he said to reporters, "but I just can't explain how bad it feels."
Navy's five straight losses to Army, by a total of 10 points, had rendered him numb.
"It's the same thing over and over," he said.
Close games. Chances to win. A victory so close that the Mids can almost sniff it.
But in the end, always, there is that long, sorrowful walk back to the locker room.
The Mids made the walk in a cold, steady rain yesterday after Army's 28-24 victory, in which Navy twice had chances to score in the final minutes, but didn't.
"I respect those [Army] guys more than anyone and I love playing them," Bruce said, "but I wanted to walk off that [Army-Navy] field a winner once."
A senior, he will have no more chances. His class will go winless against Army.
"That reality is settling in," he said. "I'll be dealing with it. I'm not sure how."
Incredibly, his class could just as easily have gone undefeated against Army. Their run of close losses will go down as the stuff of fable.
They lost in 1993 when a freshman kicker missed an 18-yard field-goal attempt on the last play. They lost in 1994 when Army made a 52-yard field goal late in the game. They lost last year on a 99-yard Army touchdown drive that followed Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie's decision to eschew a probable game-clinching field goal.
The year before they arrived, Army came back from 17 points behind to win on a 49-yard field goal with 12 seconds left in 1992.
"How do you deal with it?" someone asked Navy quarterback Chris McCoy, a junior.
"I guess we'll find out," McCoy said.
"Does today's hurt the most?" someone asked.
"In a way, it does," McCoy said. "You always want to beat Army. But there was so much more at stake today. Knowing that makes this one hurt the most."
For the first time in 33 years, both teams had winning records (a combined 17-3). The winner would go to the Independence Bowl and win the Commander in Chief's Trophy, a major prize at the academies. President Clinton was in attendance, the first president to come to the Army-Navy game in 22 years.
"I'll take solace in knowing that we got the country excited [about the game] and quieted the people who had been saying both Army and us should give up Division I football," Bruce said.
And yet, this was not the time for taking solace. The sting of defeat was still too fresh.
The Mids had an 18-point lead in the second quarter and blew it in 20 minutes. The comeback was Army's biggest in the 97 games between the teams.
"It came down to the end, like always, but it never should have," backup quarterback Ben Fay said.
"We lost our concentration and let them back in," Weatherbie said.
Down by four, the Mids still had two superb chances in the end. McCoy drove them to a first down at the Army 4-yard line with three minutes left. They blew the chance with a horrific series that included a procedure penalty and two dropped passes.
LeBron Butts, a junior receiver, had his hands on both passes in the end zone.
"My fault entirely," said Butts, dressed in his service uniform after the game, and looking questioners right in the eye.
After a punt, the Mids began a final series at their 43 with 56 seconds left. Weatherbie inserted Fay, his best passer.
After not taking a snap for 59 minutes, Fay almost pulled off the greatest job of relief pitching since Moe Drabowsky in the '66 World Series.
Two completions and a holding penalty moved the ball 47 yards, to a first down at the Army 10.
"It looked easy," Fay said. "But with the prevent [defense by Army], sometimes those first 40 yards are a lot easier than the last 10."
Such was the case this time. Fay threw into the end zone on four straight plays, but none was close to a completion.
"Give their defense credit," Fay said. "They got good pressure on me and didn't open up."
Butts, who had caught a touchdown pass earlier in the game, watched the final series from the bench.
"I got pulled because I dropped two touchdown passes [on the prior series], and I have no problem with that," Butts said. "I knew the importance of the plays I didn't make. I'll just have to learn from this. And I will. It won't happen again, I promise you that."
When the final gun sounded, the Mids were back in that place again, making the long, sorrowful walk to the locker room.
"It hurts," Fay said, "but those [Army] guys are guys just like us, they never quit. I think we all knew the 18-point lead wasn't going to last."
"No offense intended," Clint Bruce said, "but if you weren't on that field, you can't understand. If you haven't played for Navy against Army, you don't know how I feel right now."
Pub Date: 12/08/96