The game Navy coach Paul Johnson labels "college football in its purest form" has arrived for the 105th time.
Unbridled intensity and passion. Brethren in uniform who might be side by side in combat in the near future. A world-wide audience. All the trappings associated with the United States military. Honoring each other by standing and singing the respective alma maters when the game ends, win or lose.
Those elements will flood Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field today at 2:30 p.m. when Army confronts Navy before a sellout crowd and servicemen and women listening and watching at home and at far-flung stations abroad. President Bush will attend the game.
"Being on an academy team is so much more than just playing football," said Army linebacker Greg Washington. "We're there also thinking about what we're going to be doing when we graduate. We're putting on Army and Navy jerseys. We know who we represent.
"We hold ourselves to a higher prestige. We don't play the game for glory; we play it because we love it."
Although Navy has the Emerald Bowl remaining, this is The Game. Perish the thought of losing to the Black Knights.
"That's something you don't even fathom at all," said Navy cornerback Vaughn Kelley. "That would definitely hurt."
Both teams sacrificed their holiday to practice on Thanksgiving, normal procedure for a Johnson team, but a new practice at Army under Bobby Ross.
For Navy, winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy is paramount; for Army, gaining a share would be a major step forward for a previously downtrodden program.
"We haven't won it outright, just retained it," said Navy fullback Kyle Eckel, whose team has beaten Air Force while Army lost to the Falcons. "We want to win it."
Ross has generated new excitement at West Point, where a national-worst 19-game losing streak ended in October. The hope is that the Black Knights can match the turnaround achieved by Johnson and the Midshipmen, who have won 16 games the last two seasons.
The danger is that the players will get too caught up in the pre-game hype.
"If anything in this game, sometimes you have to temper it [the emotion] because you want to play with fanaticism, but it needs to be intelligent fanaticism," said Johnson. "You can't just go out there and go crazy and not know where you're going and what you're doing."
"It's in the preparation that you win, not in the emotions," said Ross.
For 77 seniors on the two sides, this represents their final fling at what has been called the greatest rivalry in sports. They will never forget it - wherever the future may take them.
NOTE: The jerseys of three former Midshipmen who have been killed in action while on active duty this year will be draped over empty chairs in the Navy locker room and on the sidelines. To be honored are Scott Zellem (No. 31), Ron Winchester (No. 73) and J.P. Blecksmith (No. 10).