Navy senior center August Roitsch has a cardboard box at his family's Houston home filled with autographed chin straps and sweat bands, and dozens of game programs and football cards, all from a team he once wanted to join.
"You should see how many Rice souvenirs I have," he said. "I was one of the biggest fans they had growing up."
Roitsch spent hours in his family's box seats on the 35-yard line at Rice Stadium, overlooking the field where his father rose to greatness as an all-Southwest Conference defensive tackle before being enshrined in the school's Hall of Fame.
"I always dreamed I'd play for Rice and follow in my father's footsteps," Roitsch said. "But then they told me they didn't have a scholarship for me, and I was totally distraught. It was like they didn't want me."
But Rice's loss has been Navy's gain. Roitsch has overcome the torn foot ligament that forced him to watch Navy's 38-6 victory at Rice last season from the sideline and will be on the field when the teams meet at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium tomorrow at 1:30 p.m.
"Oh, gosh, we hoped August would be playing for Rice because any dad would want his son to play at the same college he did," said Roger Roitsch, August's dad. "But it wasn't in the cards."
Roitsch isn't the only Midshipman who feels like he has something to prove against Rice (3-3). Navy, which is 5-1 and off to its best start since 1979, has 19 players from Texas -- more than from any other state -- including six from Houston.
Roitsch and sophomore safety Jeremy McGown are two starters from Houston, and the starting left guard, senior Dennis Phillips, is from Katy, 29 miles west of Houston.
"Rice never really looked at me: I guess I wasn't big enough," Phillips said.
"Coming out of high school, I wanted to play quarterback and Rice wouldn't give me the opportunity and Navy did," McGown said. "It's a fun argument we have in the locker room because the guys from Texas say the best high school football in the country is in Texas."
Navy has made a concerted effort to recruit in Texas, which is traditionally rich with high school talent.
"It's great high school football, and with schools only allowed to give 85 scholarships, we want to get the five or 10 kids that can't go to Rice, SMU, UTEP or North Texas," said Todd Spencer, who with fellow assistant coach Kevin Kelly coordinates Navy's recruiting in Texas. "Once you get kids from Texas here and they do well, it makes it easier for you to get more because it creates a family atmosphere."
"Having a lot of guys on the team from Texas gives you something in common and you can click right away," said senior reserve right tackle Casey Hughes, a Houston native. "I think a big reason why Navy recruits in Texas is that high school football is taken more seriously than in other places and that's why there are a lot of good players."
The last time Navy's native Texans got to play in their home state was in December, when the Midshipmen lost to Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl, its first bowl appearance since 1996.
The Midshipmen would become bowl eligible with a victory over Rice, which has lost three of its past four games. But Navy will have to play much better than it did in a 27-9 loss to Notre Dame last Saturday, its 41st consecutive loss to the Fighting Irish.
After conceding a season-high 204 rushing yards and 334 yards of total offense to the Fighting Irish, Navy faces another tough test: trying to stop one of the most potent offenses in the country. Rice averages an NCAA-leading 345.6 yards per game, led by senior running back Ed Bailey, who has rushed for 509 yards and six touchdowns on 100 carries. Navy's triple-option rushing attack averages 258.8 yards per game, sixth-highest nationally.
"Every game we play we can lose. Trust me, I guarantee you, okay?" Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. "If we don't go out and play hard and play smart and play good, we can lose. Every game left we can win, but I guarantee you if you call anybody left on our schedule and you ask them if they think they can beat us, they would say yes."