Former Navy quarterback Roger Staubach and former Air Force quarterback Allan McArtor were golfing together at Pebble Beach on a sun-swept afternoon in late August when Staubach revealed his only regret about his illustrious college career.
"Allan and I played during the same time, and I told him the one thing I really wish I could have done was play a game against him and Air Force," Staubach said. "I have so many great memories about my days at the Naval Academy, but if I could do it again, I would have loved for us to play Air Force because I never got the chance."
Air Force began its football program in 1956, and while the teams have faced each other each of the past 34 seasons, they never met during Staubach's tenure as the Midshipmen's quarterback, from 1962 to '64.
"There's always something special when the service academies play each other that's not in any other game," said Staubach, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner who will attend his first Navy-Air Force game today. "This is not a regular game, and everyone involved knows that."
The Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the football competition among Army, Navy and Air Force, has been in the rotunda area of Bancroft Hall for the past two years. The winner of today's game can claim the trophy by defeating Army later this season. If each team goes 1-1, Navy retains the trophy.
"Pretty much everyone in the brigade walks by the trophy at every day, and it's a big sense of pride for us," Navy junior outside linebacker David Mahoney said. "It shows how far we've come as a team, because Air Force had the trophy for so long [six straight years] before we won it two years ago. I'm sure they want it back as much as we want to keep it."
Said Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry: "This game is for bragging rights. I'm sure they've been pretty busy at the Pentagon, but I'm sure there's been some talking and some wagering going on about this game. We like having something in our trophy case. It didn't cost two dollars. It cost a lot of money and right now it's as useless as some of the vases my wife has that don't have any flowers in them. The trophy case is in some storeroom right now."
Navy and Air Force have played some of their best games against each other in recent years, as eight of the past 13 meetings have been decided by six points or less. In 2003, Navy fullback Kyle Eckel rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries and to lead his team to a 28-25 victory. Last year, Navy's Geoff Blumenfeld made a 30-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to lift his team to a 24-21 victory, its first in Colorado Springs since 1996.
The close finishes have further fueled the interest in Air Force's first game in Annapolis since 1997. Navy received $3 million to hold its "home" game against Air Force at FedEx Field in 1999, 2001 and 2003. Navy officials stopped selling tickets last week for this year's game after more than a school-record 37,000 were purchased, all but ensuring today's attendance will surpass the stadium record of 36,172 set on Air Force's last visit, said Eric Ruden, one of the Navy's senior associate athletic directors. Tickets were selling on eBay for more than four times their $35 face value earlier this week.
"You have to be blind not to see how big a game this is for both teams and our fans," Navy junior outside linebacker Tyler Tidwell said. "I don't think the word 'animosity' would be the right word to describe how the teams feel about each other. I would say you have two highly competitive teams that need to win this game. And anytime there is a trophy involved, it just adds to it."
"It's not hard for us to get up for Navy," Air Force junior quarterback Shaun Carney said. "If you want to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, this is a game you have to win."