John Graves never imagined that as an Army first lieutenant stationed in El Paso he still would be remembered for one shining moment in an Army-Navy football game. With 1 minute 40 seconds remaining in the 1995 game and Army trailing, Graves caught a pass on fourth down and 24 that was good for 28 yards to the Navy 1-yard line. It was the key play of an improbable 99-yard touchdown drive that gave Army a 14-13 victory. "I'm kind of known in the Army as the guy who caught the pass in the 1995 Army-Navy game," Graves said yesterday. "That's how I get introduced."

More than helping to win a game, the reception catapulted Graves to the front ranks of those whose personal heroics have contributed mightily to one of the most compelling rivalries in sports. An Army-Navy football game provides a stage so large that at a critical moment in each year's drama a participant can step forward from the ensemble and--by courage, preparation, talent, luck, by a combination of things--secure for himself a lasting fame. As Gino Marchetti, Navy's senior defensive end said this week during preparation for Saturday's 100th Army-Navy game: "A guy growing up on a farm in Kansas can become a hero in a day."

It can happen even this year, when the teams have combined to win only seven of 21 games. Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium once again will be sold out. CBS expects a large television audience. Why? Because America seems to like a natural rivalry between friendly foes, pride and pure fun, heroes strong and silent; Army and Navy offer squads of potential heroes who contrast completely with the complaining multimillionaires prevalent in pro sports. Consider Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard, Glenn Davis and Pete Dawkins of Army; Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino of Navy, and the Midshipmen's Napoleon McCallum.

But aside from such rare talents, an Army-Navy game can be even more compelling because of players such as Graves. These are the players who emerge from the ranks to appeal to emotions and secure a place in memory, often to their own surprise--and that of even their coaches.

Mark Schickner, a defensive back, saved the 1970 game for Navy. A junior, Schickner had not even played football as a sophomore. "Before the game, our coach, Rick Forzano, told our defense, 'We have to come up with four interceptions today to win the game,' " Schickner recalled. "After the game he said, 'I didn't think one guy would get 'em all, but he did.' " It had been Schickner, who tied a school record. His last interception came at the Navy 12-yard line with less than a minute to play, preserving an 11-7 victory.

"I just kept the ball," he said. "My father, who has since passed away, came down to the locker room after the game and I just threw him the ball. He had a smile on his face, a smile on his face that I will always remember."

Graves keeps a photograph of his 1995 catch--as well as a remembrance of its unlikelihood. Before his chance came, Navy could have clinched the game with a fourth-down field goal from the Army 1, but elected not to try a kick; Navy's pass play failed even with the receiver open; Army, a running team, had to be desperate to pass. But all those things happened and he became the sole potential receiver on a play called 496 Steve Key. As a slotback to the left, he curled in and then cut toward the intersection of the sideline and the goal line. Quarterback Ronnie McAda found him open.

"I was mildly concerned where I was on the field when I caught the ball," Graves said. "I knew we needed 24 yards. I had no idea if I had 10 yards or 30 yards. I turned after catching the ball and then got knocked out of bounds. That's when I saw the pylon. I was just short of it, so I knew I didn't score but I knew I had enough for the first down."

A similar play had unfolded in the 1994 game--only that time it was a Navy pass, and it was intercepted. Derek Klein had never started for Army before that game. A junior, he got the call at free safety when injury sidelined the regular starter--his roommate, Jim Cantelupe. Navy was driving in the second half when, Klein said: "We called a blitz and I moved toward the slot receiver, who went on a flag route. I stayed the course and got the ball on the 1. I knew I had made a big play, but I knew with the amount of time left in the game we would have to make another big play."

Klein was part of that one. He held the ball for Kurt Heiss, who kicked what proved to be the winning field goal from 52 yards with a little more than six minutes to play. It was Heiss's career best at a time when Army needed it for the 22-20 victory. Their celebration clearly was impromptu. "I ran one way and Kurt ran the other way," Klein said. "We met up at midfield and jumped into each other's arms."

In 1948, the spotlight should have been searing for the Midshipmen. They brought an 0-8 record to the game. Army was 8-0 and a national power with a renowned quarterback, Arnold Galiffa. Instead, the apparent mismatch was thwarted largely by one Bill Hawkins. Twice he enabled Navy to tie the score with short touchdown runs. He then preserved a 21-21 tie by knocking away a pass from Galiffa to end the game. "It was like we won," Hawkins said this week. "It was not a tie for us."

Army won a coin toss after the game to determine which team would get the game ball. But the following Tuesday a package arrived in Annapolis. It was sent by the Army team to the Navy team with a note: "This ball should be in your trophy case, not ours."

No such warm feelings were experienced by little Ryan Bucchianeri, who missed an 18-yard field goal attempt with time running out on Navy in its 16-14 loss in 1993. It is seldom noted that the ball had to be kicked from a bad angle from the right. Such was Bucchianeri's fate. Navy's coach at the time, George Chaump, wanted a running play to the left on third down so as to leave the ball in front of the goal posts should talented running back Brad Stramanak fail to score. But Stramanak saw an opening to the right. In one of those memorable moments in Army-Navy football history, Cadets linebacker Pat Work, who almost had overrun the play, reached back and managed to wrap up Stramanak and change the game's outcome.

Ten years ago, in the next-to-last game of Navy's football season, Frank Schenk missed a field goal attempt that would have beaten Delaware. Visions of the ball drifting wide right remained vivid in Schenk's mind until the following game, against Army. That day, an assistant coach told the place kicker: "Be ready, the game is going to come down to you." The coach was prophetic. With 11 seconds remaining and Navy trailing, 17-16, Schenk was called on to kick a 32-yard field goal.

"As our offense moved into Army territory, a part of me thought now nice it would be if we scored a touchdown," Schenk recalled. "I was wearing a large jacket. I could hear the CBS cameramen looking for the kicker. I stayed hidden under that jacket as long as possible. I thought I was going to throw up several times."

But having won the game with his field goal, Schenk ranks in Naval Academy lore with Slade Cutter, who is in the history books and encyclopedias for commanding submarines that sank 19 Japanese ships during World War II. Cutter, now 88 and living in Annapolis, kicked a field goal in 1934 that beat Army, 3-0. Quite often, Cutter acknowledged, people mention his kick rather than his war record.

"It's kind of silly, really," he said this week. "Of all the things in the world to be remembered for--that's something."

It's because it happened in an Army-Navy game.

CAPTION: Sixty-five years ago, Slade Cutter's field goal beat Army. At age 88, the Annapolis resident still hears about it.