The hit knocked Hughes "Hoot" Stahl on his back. He knew the feeling.
"It was like getting earholed by a linebacker," said Stahl, who played football at the Naval Academy. Only this punch was delivered by an enemy mortar that struck near Stahl as he dived behind a cemetery wall in Naraj, Iraq.
The blast flattened Stahl, who lay amid the smoking rubble. His Marines thought their platoon commander was a goner. But the 6-foot-6 former tackle staggered up and, ears ringing, evacuated the last of his men into armored vehicles with support from an Army cavalry unit.
Two years later, and home now, Stahl can't believe he survived that attack in August 2004. He thinks about those soldiers who helped save his men.
"I've always wondered if, on that particular day, I was helped by anyone who played football for Army," he said.
As Navy prepares to play Army for the 107th time in football today, some of those with the keenest interest are former players who have gone on to serve in the war in Iraq.
Some are back home; others remain in the Middle East. But all say that the lessons they learned on the football field have served them well in battle.
"The emphasis on team, subjugation of individual glory for collective success, and physical hardship - all [were] valuable experiences," Marine Corps Maj. Andrew Thompson replied in an e-mail from Kuwait last week.
"The lessons associated with winning and losing were also invaluable," wrote Thompson, a former safety who co-captained the 1995 Navy team and endured four losses to Army by a total of six points.
"The stakes were high in [the Army-Navy] games. The stakes are even higher over here."
For six days last year, machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down on Lt. Brian Stann's outmanned Marine unit as it held a strategic bridge on the Euphrates River. Time and again, Stann's platoon turned back insurgents, a mission for which the one-time Navy linebacker received the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest combat citation.
Football, the 2003 Navy grad confirmed, readied him for war.
"There are times when you are losing football games and it is easy to toss in the towel and say forget about it. But the teams that stay and fight until the end build character and honor," Stann wrote in an e-mail from Iraq.
"At Navy we never quit, no matter who we played or what the score was. In Iraq there are many adverse times; death and casualties unfortunately are an everyday occurrence.
"In Iraq there is no room for men who walk with their heads down. We must be at our best at all times or we will only face more strife."
Part of that strife includes losing comrades, some of whom were teammates at Annapolis. The war has claimed at least two recent Navy football players: 1st Lt. Ron Winchester, a starting tackle who graduated in 2001, was killed by a roadside bomb in Anbar Province in September 2004. Two months later, 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith, a wide receiver and member of the Class of 2003, died from a sniper's bullet in Fallujah.
"Navy football paid a dear price," said Stahl, who had suited up with both men but was closer to Winchester. The linemen had roomed together on Navy road trips and had run into each other once near Baghdad. There, the Marine platoon leaders exchanged hugs and memories of Navy's 30-28 victory over Army in 2000, their senior year.
Among Stahl's keepsakes is a photo taken of himself and Winchester that day outside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
Stahl learned of his friend's death via the Internet, while fighting in Iraq.
"That was hard," he said.
Winchester "seemed invincible," said Marine Capt. Ed Malinowski, an ex-Navy quarterback also stationed in Iraq at the time.
"Once, in a game against Toledo, I stood up after scoring a touchdown and got leveled by [an opposing player]. Ron leveled the guy right back with one quick shot. He always had your back."
For seven months, Malinowski wheeled around the streets of Fallujah in an armored Humvee, escorting ambulances out of the city and supply convoys into it. On Nov. 10, 2004 - the day before Blecksmith was killed - enemy rockets nearly struck Malinowski's column as it rushed to save an injured Marine.
Tanks chased the insurgents. This time, it was the Army doing the blocking for Malinowski, the Mids' team captain in 2001.
"Enemies on the field, brothers off the field," Malinowski said this week from his home in Bowie. "You really don't get that until you're in Iraq, fighting side by side.
"I may have hated Army on Dec. 1, 2001, but I got over it real quick."
Now stationed in Maryland, Malinowski expects to watch today's game under far more comfortable - and safer - conditions than he did the previous two years.
In 2004, he watched Navy thrash Army with about 20 sweaty Marines crammed into a conference room near Fallujah. Last year, Malinowski saw the game from a storage room inside a hydroelectric dam the Marines were guarding in the city of Haditha.
"The quality of life was better the second time," he said. "I had the cooks fix chicken wings and pizza."
Navy won that game too, 42-13.
"Army-Navy is a diversion, sure, but it's symbolic of something bigger," Stahl said. "It's going up against guys who are just as smart, tough and mission-oriented as you.
"It's rehearsing plans and going out in the real world to execute those plans under the most austere conditions - and under physical duress. It's playing against an opposing will equal to your own.
"That's the purest parallel I can draw between having played football and the leadership challenges I would soon face in combat," he said.
"That's the essence of what you do as an infantryman."
Alumni on Army football
Value of teamwork
"Army football teaches you about teamwork, commitment, hard work and brotherhood that you can't learn playing at any regular school. I learned as an offensive lineman that I had to be able to trust the people to my left and right, and also that I have to do everything in my power to ensure that I don't let them down. Today, as a platoon leader in Iraq, I feel these lessons being applied in real life."
1Lt. Seth Nieman (Class of '05)
"After a firefight in Vietnam, [former Army star] Pete Dawkins recalled that he was nervous, but not as nervous as he was before the Army-Navy game. I have to agree. All the comparisons are true - football is close to the intensity of combat. In both arenas, you must work as a close unit to accomplish what you need to get done, and in both the Army and football, the units take a lot of pride in the quality of the results."
1Lt. Joel Glover ('05)
"There is absolutely no doubt that Army football prepares us for the challenges that we face on today's battlefield. Making tough decisions in a complex and mercurial environment; rising to the occasion in the face of adversity; getting back on your feet after a setback and continuing to march forward; laying it all on the line for your fellow soldiers."
Maj. Mike McElrath ('92)
Army vs. Navy
When: Today, 2:30 p.m.
Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Line: Navy by 20
Series record: Navy leads 50-49-7
Last meeting: Navy won, 42-23, on Dec. 3, 2005
Navy's seniors seek to become the first class in academy history to go 8-0 against Army and Air Force. PG 7C