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Nothing says patriotism like Army-Navy football

By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2002


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As academy voices sang America's anthem with unique purity, my eyes elevated beyond the stadium rim, seeing clearly New York's captivating skyline, a half-dozen miles east through blue-sky December chill, causing one more hard swallow over the absence of the World Trade Center.

A thousand times a year, we hear the Star-Spangled Banner at sports happenings major and minor, as too many athletes opt to stand bored at nonattention, but this was Army-Navy football, where posture is textbook, eyes sharp, minds have big-picture focus and hearts are afire with homeland passions.

Patriotism in high style.

Upon the 61st anniversary of Pearl Harbor's bombing, with the United States again on global terror alert, Saturday brought 8,000 budding military leaders from Annapolis and West Point to the Meadowlands for an afternoon of fun combat that, for a 103rd time, would stir a world of emotions in soldiers and sailors old and young.

Only when it's Navy-Army can teams with 1-10 records appear with such incredible surges, prompting efforts approaching even the superhuman, with every Cadet and Midshipman knowing well the pride that it is riding. Lethal theatrics wouldappear

Before kickoff, the U.S. Army sent six Apachee helicopters from Fort Campbell, Ky., churning low and powerful over Giants Stadium as a sellout crowd gasped and then roared. Soon, the U.S. Navy showed with a thunderous flyover of four supersonic Tomcats from their Oceana, Va., base.

Somehow, you felt safer.

At halftime, 18 well-decorated elders, survivors of the Dec. 7, 1941, infamy at Pearl Harbor moved slowly but impressively onto football grass. Some with canes. A couple all but blind. Leaning on buddies for support. Median age 80-plus. So far from Hawaii yet always so near.

Cheers exploded, from uniformed academy youth as well as from great pews of energized U.S. veterans and thousands who never wore military gear. Appreciation seeming as genuine as it was voluminous.

Oh, yes, football

By midafternoon, Navy was a monstrous 58-12 winner, causing millions of grins to erupt, along with just as many frowns, on faces of proud Navy and Army multitudes who engaged in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and less-documented skirmishes in between.

On an athletic stage like no other, Navy junior quarterback Craig Candeto should've earned some sort of medal. Galloping his way into football lore worthy of mention in the same paragraphs with Roger Staubach or fellow Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino of the Middies as well as mid 1940s Army wonders Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.

Candeto, a Floridian out of DeLand High, ran for six touchdowns and passed for a seventh in the 46-point drubbing. Army is pretty fed up with seeing the 20-year-old economics major. Candeto also plays baseball. His .212 batting average is sub-mediocre. Still, last spring, when the academies met on a diamond, Navy won 3-2 in a game decided by a Candeto home run.

Army is feeling swamped.

But be assured, these Cadets are far better at tanks, cannons, rifles and hand grenades that at football. As battered as they've been during a 1-11 season, even by Navy, the gents from West Point would be a lock to thump FSU players at calculus or bury the Florida Gators in tactics of war or wear out USC jocks in any chemistry scrimmage.

On the collegiate football scale, Navy and Army rank poorly. With these kids, rank can have a much different meaning. While they sit low in comparison with BCS-powerful Buckeyes, Hurricanes, Hawkeyes and Bulldogs, it's a safe bet that some of Saturday's players will achieve rank on a far more vital scale, becoming admirals, generals and heroes on real battlefields.

None of them is headed to the NFL. There are no Staubachs or Napolean McCallums this time. Not even new Middie darling Candeto. Instead, their professional prognosis is more likely the Middle East and other domains of evolving U.S. concern.

Army-Navy is a gorgeous, idealistic quilt of the American conviction. Rich with history, idealism, importance and unique color. We see these impressive, devoted young people and somehow there is better feeling about American tomorrows.

Check the faces and there is unquestionably a look of change. Haircuts still are crisp, attitudes orderly and uniforms perfect. But among 4,000 from the Point and 4,000 more who came up from Maryland, the gatherings were 15 percent women. Good for Candeto. Good for Navy's lopsided victors. Good for the real meanings of West Point and Annapolis. But this Saturday of Navy-Army is about so much more than football.

"We are again reminded," read a letter from President Bush in the game program, "that our achievements in peace and war have been built on the sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform."

When it was over, both teams sang their alma maters.

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