PHILADELPHIA -- A sportswriter from Denver, a fellow named Moore, dropped in on the Army-Navy game once, as sportswriters are inclined to do, without much advance knowledge of either team. The day might have been murky. The field must have been muddy. In meager light, one gold-helmeted team can pass for another.

Anyway, it was a respectable game and he wrote a respectable story. Later, when Moore telephoned his desk, he was informed that indeed the copy had arrived. There were no questions from the editors. Did he wish to make any changes?

"Just one," Moore said. "Would you please change all the 'Navys' to 'Army' and all the 'Armys' to 'Navy'?"

At the Army-Navy game, there is a confounding sense of one great team split in two, one unchanging national team that cannot lose when it plays itself, and never does.

Time was, in a sepia past, it could scarcely lose to others either. But Blanchards and Bellinos, Staubachs and Carpenters, Ike the halfback, Bradley the center and MacArthur the student manager have long gone by. That singular way Knute Rockne had of saying "the Army" -- the curdling awe in his voice -- has left the tongue of college football. Meanwhile, Navy has excused itself from Syracuse and Pitt to take up with Villanova and James Madison. Sometimes it all seems rather sad, but not at the moment.

After more than a quarter- century of uninterrupted losses to Notre Dame, this year the Midshipmen had to listen to Father Hesburgh declare he was praying for them to win one for Tecumseh. When Navy fell to the Irish by a mere 21 points (52-31), Notre Dame fans went away grumpy and Coach Lou Holtz numbered it among the most disappointing afternoons of his life.

These people are major college football now. Army and Navy are something else.

"What Army-Navy is, I can't tell you," Roger Staubach said, "but I still feel it. I felt it in person last year and I'll feel it on television this year. It has to do with perseverance and getting the most out of talents and other materials at hand. It's like a lesson to live by, or a game plan you keep referring back to. Let me put it this way: I loved my five Super Bowls, two of them in particular, and wouldn't want to have missed any of that. But if I couldn't have both, if I had to get in the time machine and choose between the Super Bowl and the Army-Navy game, I'd take the Army-Navy game without question."

He had a choice of a similar kind. "When I was getting ready to graduate, I knew I could play professional football. I mean, I knew I was good enough. But I honestly didn't expect I would ever have the chance. I was a little sad about that, but not regretful. A Dallas Cowboys executive came to the house and talked to my parents. He had figured a way to get me out of the five-year military obligation. Several ways, as a matter of fact. It wasn't hard. I could confess my colorblindness, to start with. I could push up my wedding. I had a bad shoulder that year too. My father almost threw the guy out the door.

"I was glad. And proud. Imagine a life begun by getting out of something. There's always a way of getting out of anything. I'd have second- guessed myself forever."

He did his duty instead, took a football to Vietnam and ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame anyway. As a plebe striding into the stadium, as a Heisman Trophy winner strolling down the field, Staubach said he felt exactly the same way, like the Cadets and Midshipmen did yesterday, like a shiver marching on a spine.

Buzzing around the press box yesterday, rushing information to the media, was a cadet lieutenant from the Army, First Classman Robin Schuck of Davenport, Iowa, whose handle on the game matched Staubach's. But was that embroidery she was doing before the kickoff? "I'm counting cross-stitches," she whispered. (It's the new Army, all right, a better one.)

"Everybody at the academies has to be an athlete," she said proudly, that requirement having been the roughest part for her. "I trained from the end of August to November 9 to pass the Indoor Obstacle Course Test," she said. "Through tires and over balance beams. And I just made it: C-plus. Without training at all, my roommate set the record: A-minus. She helps me with the athletics, I help her with the academics. That's what will win today. Teamwork."

It did too. But who lost? Schuck's father, a former peacetime corporal, could not fathom four years ago why his daughter would want to go to West Point. "Now he understands, even if it can't be put into words," she said. "This is my last Army-Navy game" -- unzipping her dress gray top demurely, she showed her Beat Navy T-shirt -- "Pretty soon I'll be picking my branch and post. If they need me in Saudi Arabia, that's where I want to be."

A lot of things can't be put into words, but it can't be her last Army-Navy game. There is no last Army-Navy game.

By the way, please change all of the "Armys" to "Navy" and all of the "Navys" to "Army."