Marine 1st Lt. Edward "Hoot" Stahl finally gets to watch his kid brother today, to see if "little" Tyson Stahl and Navy can knock off Notre Dame.
"When Tyson was in high school, I missed all of his games because I was playing at the academy," Hoot explained in an e-mail yesterday afternoon from Iraq, where he is five months into his second deployment.
"We stay busy over here, but a lot of the officers that I work with in 'Blackhorse' are going to be watching with me. They feel like Tyson is representing all of us out here."
Tyson is a senior tackle, the former skinny runt who thought he would die happy when Hoot and his teammates allowed the kid to hang out with the Naval Academy linemen.
He cheered them from the stands in December 2000 when they beat Army, before the world was tragically altered, before three members from that same Navy offensive line -- Hoot, Ron Winchester and Scott Swantner -- would lead Marine infantry units on the ground in Iraq.
"Being the last of the three of us left over here, it's hard," Hoot wrote. "But everything happens for a reason. A lot of good people have paid a price doing this job. I will always carry their torch forward. They're always with me no matter what."
National interest has engulfed the Midshipmen's game against Notre Dame today in East Rutherford, N.J. Navy hopes to end the nation's longest losing streak to one team, a 40-year skid dating from Roger Staubach's junior year at the Naval Academy in 1963. If they pull it off, it's a tremendous tale.
But this is a better one.
It's about the tag-along kid brother who grew up, the players he used to idolize, and the soldiers he still does.
1st Lt. Ron Winchester was one of four Marines killed Sept. 3 by a roadside bomb while guarding a convoy in the Anbar province of western Iraq. Marine 1st Lt. Scott Swantner was wounded in Iraq on Oct. 6 when a grenade exploded during a house search. Hoot remains.
"Three guys off the same line," Tyson said. "Mind-boggling, huh?"
Hoot recently called to check on Swantner's recovery at the Bethesda Naval Medical Command. Swantner cracked jokes and was "more worried about me than himself . . . imagine that!" Hoot wrote.
Winchester and Hoot ran into each other in Iraq after their first seven months, snapping a picture in front of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. Hoot knew he would eventually lose someone he knew during the war. "However, to me, Ron was indestructible; the definition of a warrior," he wrote. "He loved being a Marine; he loved his Marines."
While their mother, Barbara, prays at home in Raleigh, N.C., the brothers write each other as much as they can. "Hoot makes sure I understand how real things are," Tyson said as he walked off the practice field in Annapolis this week. He said Swantner represented another one from that Navy team "who's seen the mouth of the beast."
"It's a huge thing having a brother over there," Tyson went on. "It's something I think about at least three times a day. I come here and go to practice, but once the pads come off, it's back to being a brother again, thinking about him."
Tyson is six years younger than Hoot, 27. The skinny teen morphed into a 6-foot-4, 262-pound senior. He plays Winchester's position of left tackle and plows holes for Navy, which is 5-0 for only the third time in 40 years.
He and senior linebacker Lane Jackson are actively seeking billets to become Navy SEALs, members of one of the world's most elite military units.
The sports-and-perspective cliches sometimes have no use on the Annapolis waterfront. Many days it is hard for life and football not to intersect at Navy.
In the team's media release, sandwiched between "Nation's Longest Winning Streak" and "Home Sweet Home" is a headline titled "Fallen Brothers."
Winchester was the second former Navy football player killed in the past three months. Lt. Cmdr. Scott Zellem (class of '91) was killed Aug. 10 when his Navy jet crashed in the Pacific Ocean.
Tyson does not have to opt for the SEALs. Eclectic, thoughtful, blessed with a maturity belying his 21 years, he is also a musician.
Pre-9/11, former plebes like him hoped for maybe a South Pacific assignment. Now he wants to have Hoot's back.
"I know some people will think, 'These kids are brainwashed by the military,' but once you're in it, once you're here it becomes part of you," he said. "It's a powerful thing. I can't explain it any other way."
A chopper whirred overhead at practice Wednesday, and Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's superintendent, stepped from a van with other decorated officers to get a glimpse of their unbeaten team. An enlisted man watched in combat fatigues from the sideline.
Paul Johnson, the Navy coach of the last three years who oversees one of the great option offenses in the country, tore into a player during a drill, blistering the kid for missing an assignment. Afterward, he slow-played his team.
"I don't know if you call it a rivalry 'cause you got to beat 'em once for it to be a rivalry," he said of Notre Dame. "I just hope we're not scared."
Forty years is a long time to go without a victory over one team. But it's also been four years since three close friends from the same offensive line moved downfield against Army.
"It was peacetime," Hoot said. "I remember seeing Scott and Ron, running around all smiles after time ran out."
The three eventually went off to war in the Middle East, where one was killed, another was wounded and the last of them e-mails his brother about a world he could not have imagined then.