Bobby Ross understood the nature of the Army-Navy rivalry long before he took over coaching the Black Knights in 2004.
Ross grew up knowing that his father passed up an appointment to West Point because of the Depression. Ross later served in the Army, coached at The Citadel and saw one of his sons graduate from the Naval Academy.
But it was after the first of Ross' three seasons at West Point that the essence of the rivalry was driven home.
It happened at the funeral of former Army football star Glenn Davis in March 2005.
"A gentleman was introduced to me," Ross said. "It was Joe Bellino. He had driven down from his home in Boston to pay his respects. There was a bond between Heisman Trophy winners. But the deeper bond was because they had been part of the Army-Navy rivalry."
Though none of the players in today's Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field has accomplished close to what those two legendary figures did in their long-ago but not forgotten careers, the bond remains rooted deep in a rivalry that dates to 1890.
Today's game will be the 109th meeting, the 81st played in Philadelphia and Ken Niumatalolo's first as Navy's head coach.
"I think there's a great mutual respect because we know what they go through and they know what we go through," said Niumatalolo, who first came to Annapolis 13 years ago as an assistant to then-coach Charlie Weatherbie.
"It's tough just to be a student at any of the service academies, much less to be a football player. There's a lot riding on this game. There's no pro aspirations after this game. This is it."
Said second-year Army coach Stan Brock: "I played in the Super Bowl, and I tell people that this game is 10 times bigger than the Super Bowl. If you go the Super Bowl, and it's in a 70,000-seat stadium, the majority of those people at the game are not rooting for either of the teams. When you go to the Army-Navy game, there are 70,000 people in that stadium that this game means the world to. This is it."
Navy (7-4) will be going for its seventh straight win over Army (3-8), the longest stretch of superiority by either team. The Midshipmen have already clinched retaining their sixth straight Commander in Chief's Trophy, as the football winner among the three service academies, and a victory would give it to them outright.
Navy senior receiver Tyree Barnes said there is a tangible difference in preparation as well as priority.
"You realize that you're a part of something that's bigger than yourself," Barnes said. "Guys will play hurt; guys will do everything they can to be a part of this game to help us win."
It is why Navy senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is returning after missing the past month, and much of the season, with a hamstring injury. It is why Army quarterback Chip Bowden, a sophomore, will play despite spraining his right ankle at practice Monday and walking around this week in a protective boot.
"We realize the intensity of this game, that if we were to lose to Army, it would completely ruin everything that we've been pushing for this entire season," Barnes said. "You don't want to be the class to drop that ball; you don't want to come back that Sunday or Monday having lost to Army. You don't want to walk around the rest of the year thinking about that."
There's even a difference between Army-Navy and their respective games with Air Force. The tradition goes deeper, and is certainly more storied in nature that either team's game with the Falcons.
"The president's going to be at Army-Navy; that's a pretty big deal," Navy senior cornerback Rashawn King said. "It's a different dynamic of institutions."
Said Army senior fullback Collin Mooney: "It's the last football game that I'll probably play for the rest of my life, so it's a huge game. I've been thinking about it a lot over the last couple of weeks in terms of what it means for me and for other people as well. With everything that is going on in the world, you can look at the Army-Navy game as something good. It's pure competition between two great teams."
NAVY (7-4) VS. ARMY (3-8)
Today, noon, Philadelphia
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM
by 10 1/2