Annelyssa Reynolds cares deeply about being at the annual Army-Navy Game to cheer for Navy - deeply enough to schedule her wedding around it.

Reynolds, of Mount Laurel, and her beloved, David Snyder of York, Pa., exchanged vows at St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia on Friday. Less than 24 hours later, weary but exhilarated, they joined a dozen family members and friends for a pregame, blue-and-gold tailgate party in a parking lot near Lincoln Financial Field.

Reynolds, 28, has been going to the Army-Navy Game to cheer for Navy since she was 10, the first time accompanying a friend whose father graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.

"I get chills every year," she said. "It really makes me feel like a patriot."

What does the game mean to Navy, to the midshipmen, their administrators and teachers, to legions of alumni and supporters? For many, more than words can say.

It's a huge, once-a-year family reunion among men and women who feel called to service. It's a celebration of life and achievement - tempered by the knowledge that with a war in Afghanistan and conflicts around the globe, not every midshipman and cadet will be here to see future contests.

The game result yields joy or frustration - joy this year; Navy won, 21-17 - that can linger not for a day or a week, but for years.

"This really is our bowl game," said Vice Adm. Walter E. "Ted" Carter, superintendent of the Naval Academy. "This is still the biggest game of the year for us."

Carter, a 1981 graduate, can easily summon the sting of the Navy loss in 1977, when he was a freshman.

"It stuck with me that whole year," he said.

On Friday, 24 hours before kickoff, he correctly predicted a Navy victory. "Fourteen in a row!"

Given the long history of the rivalry, it's easy for the game to disappear in a blur of numbers - the 116th meeting, the 86th game in Philadelphia, 49 Army wins, 60 Navy victories, seven ties.

But for Navy backers the overriding ideal of service makes the contest more than a football game.

"I care deeply about it," Navy Cmdr. John Schofield said. "Independent of me being in the Navy, or working at the Naval Academy, on a base level I care about it as a sports fan and an American."

The depth of the rivalry, the high caliber of play, "the young men on the fields of friendly strife, to borrow from MacArthur, who represent our nation" - it swells into pride and admiration, he said.

Schofield, 42, has seen it from both sides. He was born at West Point, where his Vietnam-veteran father was an academy teacher. After high school, he briefly attended the Army academy before transferring to Villanova University, where he joined the Navy ROTC.

Today he's the Naval Academy spokesman.

"These young men and women are very special," he said. "It's not just the 70-some young men who put on shoulder pads and jerseys. It's all the young men and women in the stands."

On Saturday, a balmy summer-in-December afternoon, Navy enthusiasm was displayed on flags, cars, trucks, and T-shirts. Some people donned foam hats shaped like battleships. One woman, 22-year-old Rachel Berte of Iowa, proudly wore a plush hat that looked like a smiling goat - the Navy mascot.

"This is my favorite day of the year - not Christmas, not my birthday," said Bob Kuberski of Ridley Township, who played football at Navy and with the NFL Packers and Patriots. "You get to see all your family and friends, classmates and shipmates."

Still, it's unclear how much of a hold the game exerts on the larger American imagination. The people in the stands are fervent. And the event brings millions of dollars to the local economy. But many people in Philadelphia skipped watching the game on TV, opting to stroll through Christmas Village in LOVE Park or visit holiday shows.

"That game is one of the jewels in the crown of college sports," said Drexel University athletic director Eric Zillmer, a psychology professor who studies rivalries. "Is it as big as it used to be? Of course not."

Few things are, he said. The Internet and cable technology have splintered the culture - and college football. Fans can watch or follow dozens of games on weekends throughout the fall.

That proliferation has rubbed some shine off the Army-Navy matchup, he said. So has the fact that Navy has won the last 14 games. Is it still a rivalry, he asked, if one team always wins?

"I do think the game still has a lot of magic," said Zillmer, the son of a 1944 West Point graduate. Part of that is the communal, American values it celebrates, he said.

The Naval Academy was founded in 1845. Its predecessor, the Philadelphia Naval Asylum School on the south edge of Center City, and four of the academy's original seven faculty members came from Philadelphia.

Today, the Yard, as the Annapolis campus is known, is home to 4,500 students. The crypt of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones - "I have not yet begun to fight!" - lies beneath the chapel.

That history helps compel midshipmen to place heart and soul in the outcome of the game.

"Absolutely!" said Navy freshman Romi Bruno, 18. "It's a big deal."

Midshipmen share common goals - and one is beating Army, she added.

"It's a great, fine line between competition and collaboration," said Mark Snedecor, who traveled to the game from California with his wife, Ingrid, and a group of pro-Navy friends.

They loved seeing Philadelphia - including an Army-Navy relay race at the Art Museum steps Friday morning - but were intent on a Navy victory.

"Definitely here for the win," said John Villanueva, accompanied by his wife, Teri, both with the California group.

Newlywed Reynolds wanted Navy to win, too.

Several of the men in her family, including her father, enlisted in the Navy. Her grandmother served in the Army.

Neither she nor her new husband is a service-academy graduate. What has kept her returning year after year, she said, was a mixture of family pride and game-day pageantry.

She loves watching the processions of cadets and midshipmen, seeing the flyover by Navy aircraft, and awaiting the arrival of the president or high government officials.

They wanted a December wedding, but when they started look at dates "it was like, 'We can't get married that Saturday, it's Army-Navy,' " Reynolds said.

Snyder, the bridegroom, knew the importance of the contest to his bride. "She's gone her whole life," he said Saturday.

The wedding, friends agreed, was beautiful. So was the reception at the German Society of Philadelphia on Spring Garden Street. And, of course, gathering to cheer on the midshipmen.

"Instead of hosting a brunch," Reynolds said, "we're tailgating."

215-854-4906@JeffGammage

Inquirer staff writer Samantha Melamed contributed to this article.