He could have been first off the field; he wanted to be last.

"Hard to accept that it would be the final time," Jon Ross was saying a half-hour later, still in uniform, sitting on a table in an interview room inside Veterans Stadium. He was part of Navy lore now, as almost surely the only Midshipman to letter on four football teams that beat Army. That wasn't quite so important, just yet.

"Had to gather it all in," Ross said of his lingering near the end zone, being tearfully polite after the 24-7 victory, allowing nearly all his joyous teammates to clank down the steps ahead of him and back toward the dressing room. "Hard to put into words."

He tried:

"The fans . . . such a great feeling just being out there . . . what I do makes people happy. It's almost impossible to picture not doing it any more. And my being out a year makes it even more meaningful, because I could watch. I wanted to savor the feeling."

Ross did not play last season because, a group of his academy peers decided, he had violated the honor code by using unauthorized notes during an open-book test. Punishment was a year as an enlisted man, what is known as a "non-rate laborer."

As soon as he left, Ross said, he knew he had to get back.

"Never said I did it," he said of the charge. "But I accepted the decision. There were a lotta things going on in my life at the time; it was in the best interest of the Navy that I bow out gracefully."

Ross bowed out today with even more class.

He is a Pat Fischer playalike, a feisty cornerback from Arizona who comes shoulder high to most tight ends but who can disrupt an offense in several ways. Today, he knocked himself out making a tackle on a first-quarter kickoff at the 15-yard line.

"Did they carry me off the field?" he asked on the sideline a short time later, speaking to his buddy, Jeff Shoemake.

"Sorta," Shoemake said.

"Dang."

"Don't remember much at all about the first half," Ross admitted. "But I do know I said to myself, 'This head has got to clear up. That's all there is to it. I will not spend the rest of this game on the sideline.' Not the best decision as far as my health goes, but I couldn't miss it."

When Ross reviews the game films, he will see himself in the Army backfield quite a lot. Dumping another courageous, crazy player, Army halfback Gerald Walker; a little (5-foot-9) star who twinkled ever so long this special day. Defense was dominant, even before the kickoff.

That's when Army should have realized it was doomed, when several dozen Cadets tried to steal an enormous balloon manned by a half-dozen Midshipmen and failed. The attack began at 11:57 a.m.; it was repelled at 11:57.30. Even Army's touchdown was a 15-yard charge, after a Navy fumble.

Ross knew before the game, knew even before the season in fact, that victory today would put him among the very elite athletes in academy history. Navy has beaten Army four times in a row before, but nobody could recall a player earning four stars. Greg Papajohn had a chance last year, the one Ross missed, but the teams tied.

"Nice honor," he said quietly, letting that soak in. "A long road. Lotta ups and downs, as a player and a person."

The ups?

"Leaving on a winning note, being back at the academy, enjoying my education and appreciating it. Biggest has been the support of my parents. You can imagine what a blow last year was to them, but they stayed behind me 100 percent."

That year with the fleet made his return to the academy close to inevitable; it made his return to the football team uncomfortable, most of his close friends having graduated. Ross was vital to the team this season, but also somewhat distant. On the sideline today, he would seek out Shoemake, whose football career ended with a severe knee injury last season.

Had the Army quarterback thrown a second-half screen pass slightly lower, Ross' day would have been even closer to perfect. That play he remembered.

"Hoping he would throw it out there," he said. "I was looking for the touchdown (off what he thought would be a certain interception). I could see him (the quarterback) looking around, trying to set the screen up. Then he lobbed the pass, and the tight end got it. I'm not known for my height; all I could do was make the tackle (for a one-yard loss)."

Ross is not sure what to tackle after graduation.

"Some type of air (flying)," he said. "Navy air or Marine air. Whatever the decision, I know I'll make the best of it. I'm getting to be pretty good at that, it seems."