United States Naval Academy game days in Annapolis are packed with so much entertainment -- flybys by fighter jets, aerial tricks by Navy Seal parachutists, a crosstown march -- that football, marketed as the premier attraction, sometimes becomes a distraction.
Just ask Chet Gladchuk, who became Navy's athletic director in 2001. At his first Navy football game, the pageantry so overwhelmed Gladchuk that he nearly cried. He went to every game that season, and his emotions rarely waned.
At every home game, roughly 4,000 midshipmen march from the Naval Academy through Annapolis to the stadium.
(Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)
"Those games were the best football experience I'd ever seen," Gladchuk said.
Navy finished that season 0-10.
In the years since, Navy has revitalized its football program, creating a blend of sport and spectacle rivaled by few other colleges. Over the last two seasons, Navy amassed a 10-1 record at Jack Stephens Field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The pregame pageantry, Gladchuk said, no longer ends with a football letdown.
"When I first came here three years ago, we couldn't beat the local high school team, and people still loved coming to the games," Gladchuk said. "Now you've got the crowd going crazy, you've got four F-18s blowing past the stadium and shaking the screws loose. Sometimes you just go, 'This place is awesome!' "
The Navy football experience, as Gladchuk calls it, crescendos in the 30 minutes before kickoff. Some 4,000 midshipmen sweep through campus in an ordered march and file into the stadium. They take their seats -- all Naval Academy students are required to attend games -- and salute the visiting team with a respectful cheer. The home team jogs onto the field carrying an American flag a few moments later to a resounding "Go Navy!"
As many as four fighter jets soar over the stadium about five minutes before kickoff, and the Navy choir sings the national anthem. Usually, about a dozen Navy Seals parachute into the stadium from 30,000 feet, sometimes delivering the game ball. A cannon sounds to signal the start of the game.
"The whole thing is amazing to be a part of," Navy football captain Josh Smith said. "Sometimes you'll look over at the visiting team, and the players are just staring up at the flyover. I don't think anyone has the atmosphere that we do."
And this season, it might be better than ever. Navy hosts a Pacific-10 Conference team for the first time ever Sept. 10, playing Stanford. They also play at home Oct. 8 against rival Air Force.
The Midshipmen open the season Sept. 3 with a home game against Maryland, but that game will be held at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, where the Ravens play, to accommodate a bigger crowd.
"The atmosphere at Navy is only going to get better," said Vaughn Kelley, a senior cornerback. "We've always had a ton of wild stuff going on at the games, and now we've got the football to go with it."
Last season, Navy averaged 31,000 in attendance, only 3,000 shy of stadium capacity. Gladchuk said he thought that number would grow this season.
"Who wouldn't want to come to this place?" he asked. "It's impossible not to get the chills or the goose bumps. With everything going on, with the patriotism, it's almost like a religious experience."
The Navy ticket office, at 566 Brownson Rd., Annapolis, is open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets also can be bought at 800-US4-NAVY or www.navysports.com. Single tickets cost $20 to $35.