PHILADELPHIA -- For three hours or so every December, brothers in arms become blood rivals and two football teams with probably the largest rooting sections in all of sport, reaching across the globe, compete in a setting draped in pride and pomp.
Army-Navy, a game that is as much military pageant as it is athletic event, ended in a 26-14 Midshipmen win at Lincoln Financial Field, their fifth straight victory in a series that stretches across 107 meetings and three centuries.
And, as always, yesterday's game also served for many as a reminder of the men and women in all branches who devote themselves to military service - particularly in times of conflict.
"We're able to be here doing what we're doing because the military is doing its job somewhere else," said Bob Wakefield, a retired Navy captain from Arnold who was serving up omelets in a tailgate tent that served as headquarters for about 50 Navy fans.
Wakefield's uniform of the day was a Navy apron and spirit button that said, "Army football, helping Navy look good since 1890."
"This isn't just a game," Wakefield said. "This is in honor of the people who are out there serving now as well as the people who served in the past and will serve in the future."
Yesterday's game ceremonies began with the traditional march onto the field of rank-after-rank of West Point cadets in their gray capes and then Annapolis midshipmen wearing dark blue bridge coats.
In what some Navy partisans said was a bit of reverse psychology, the Brigade of Midshipmen turned to the Army side and serenaded the Corps of Cadets with a rendition of "On, Brave Old Army Team."
Then using modern media as a battlefield, the two sides went at each other in more pointed fashion with a series of comedy skits on the stadium's jumbo video screens. Navy rallied its side with a series of homemade movie parodies using familiar films, such as The Godfather, Snakes on a Plane and Back to the Future.
Army countered with its own jibes showing a white-uniformed man being kidnapped by abductors in a dark car and then tossed back on the street with the caption, "Milkmen, they only look like Middies."
"It's cool how mids and cadets react toward one another," said Navy junior Steve Mankins, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "It's definitely a rivalry, but it's a rivalry where we're all on the same side. ... After the game, we'll be out and I'm sure we'll be hanging with some cadets."
Not lost on anyone attending yesterday's game was that midshipmen and cadets, whether on the field or in the stands, could face deadly battles soon in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In that regard, they had to look no further than a group of fans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center - about 50 seriously wounded veterans - who were transported along with escorts in luxury train cars to the game.
"I think it's more emotional for the parents, the loved ones, the friends - and even the other officers," said Army Maj. Bryan Sizemore of the prospect that many military academy graduates could soon be in harm's way. Sizemore, who has served in Iraq, was attending yesterday's game with his wife, Sandy, also an Army major and an Iraq veteran.
"Given our current situation, they have an opportunity to be a casualty," Sizemore added. "And that makes it more solemn."
For those on active duty overseas, the Army-Navy game is often a welcome respite.
"It raises a lot of spirits, especially among soldiers who are deployed ... and now more than other times because we are at war," said Cadet Sgt. Victoria Vernon, of Lewisville, Texas. "It is really symbolic for them that Army does a good job of representing them, and that Army do well in this game."
In fact, underdog Army did get off to a promising start when the Cadets took an early 7-0 lead against the Meineke Car Care Bowl-bound Mids.
But in the third period, Navy (9-3) used a reverse to break a 7-7 tie and then pulled away when it converted two Army turnovers into 10 points. The Cadets (3-9) got one more chance to celebrate with a late touchdown.
The Mids retained possession of the Commander in Chief's Trophy, but it was outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who was yesterday's top dignitary, presiding over the coin flip and then sitting first on the Army side and then on the Navy side.
But at game's end as both sides lined up to salute each other's alma mater, it was clear who the real guests of honor were.
"This is the best traditional game the United States has to offer," Sizemore said. "You're taking young men - especially the seniors - who obviously understand that they're going to soon be serving in conflict in difficult locations. And this is their last opportunity on the fields of friendly strife."