For Midshipmen and Cadets, the bright pageantry of Army-Navy day will commence in the dark.

At 3:30 a.m. tomorrow, their white hats glistening like stars in the predawn blackness, the 4,400-strong U.S. Naval Academy brigade will begin assembling outside Bancroft Hall, the 1,700-room Beaux-Arts dormitory on the Annapolis, Md., campus.

Meanwhile, at that same time, on the parade grounds of the majestic U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., more than 4,000 sleepy Cadets in their flapped, gray overcoats also will be massing.

Within 30 minutes, the two contingents will be aboard 82 buses, eating boxed breakfasts and singing traditional songs as, from north and south, they converge like invading troops on Philadelphia.

The Cadets and Midshipmen will be at the colorful center of the daylong rituals surrounding - overshadowing, some say - the 109th football meeting between the service academies.

They will get into formation several times, stand in security lines, parade, salute, sing, chant, cheer, and party. They will ride on buses, hail cabs, stare up at the Navy jets and Army helicopters, and stand on their feet during three hours of emotional football.

"It's a very long day," said Lt. J.D. Walker, who, as the Naval Academy's logistics director, is charged with supervising the brigade's day. "It's a fun day, but there's an awful lot of standing around in cold weather."

Stripped of its national football significance long ago, the Army-Navy game remains a tactical wonder.

Thousands of future officers have to be assembled several times; transported hundreds of miles; fed; ticketed; and, most important, displayed for a sellout crowd and a national TV audience, for whom the spectacle of this patriotic pageant of pomp is as appealing as the football.

Whether it's the pregame parade, the postgame singing of the alma maters, or the many traditions and antics that take place during the preceding week, Army-Navy remains a cherished piece of Americana.

"There's just nothing else like it," said Andrew Kerr, a Navy senior and a Northeast Philadelphia native. "No other football rivalry comes close."

A running tradition

West Point worked on handing off a rather large rock. The rock was replaced by a football when the 21-member marathon club took off in a hail of gunfire last night, traversing a carefully planned, 150-mile route that will get the participants to Lincoln Financial Field today.

The "Running of the Game Balls" has been an Army-Navy tradition, like bonfires, pep rallies and pranks, since 1975.

Navy's runners will start the 1241/2-mile journey today at noon. Vans will accompany both groups, helping speed their trips.

Runners from the first Army van were scheduled to take turns with the ball until a 3 a.m. switch-off in North Jersey. A third van will take over this morning in Flemington, N.J. They will cross the Delaware River to New Hope, then make their way to Broad Street and the Linc.

Unlike Army, Navy won't reveal its runners' route.

"Security concerns," explained Judy Campbell of the academy's public affairs office.

Cadet senior Spencer Garrison of Yardley, whose family has operated a Fishtown grocery for nearly a century, said: "We've gotten it down to an art the last few years."

"It's definitely our most logistic-intensive event," team captain Paul Knudsen said. "We have to coordinate crossing the state lines. We have to switch off with the state police."

The Navy runners are from the 13th Company. It's thought that getting the "unlucky 13th" off campus before the game is a good thing. They will reach an undisclosed firehouse near Philadelphia tonight, where they will rest until concluding their run in the morning.

Two years ago, as Knudsen ran somewhere in New Jersey, a car coming in the opposite direction "suddenly . . . skids to a halt.

"The door opens, and this guy comes running out, starts chasing me down," Knudsen said. "I'm like, 'What's going on?' It's this older gentleman. He starts running next to me. He left his car on the road. He said, 'Go Army. Beat Navy. I'm Class of 1969, West Point.' Then he just ran off."

Impromptu pep rallies

Yesterday morning, Kerr, a xylophonist, and 30 of his fellow Navy Drum and Bugle Corps members roamed the 171/2 miles of corridors at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

For three hours, the musical group banged out loud, stirring drum cadences, and several renditions of "Anchors Aweigh" and "The Navy Victory March."

Many of the Navy men and women among the building's 23,000 military employees - most of them wearing "Beat Army" buttons - joined in the impromptu pep rallies. The Pentagon's Army contingent, however, wasn't nearly so inspired.

"We were there to rub it in a little," said Kerr, referring to Navy's six-game winning streak in the series. "They weren't enjoying things nearly as much."

Exchange of 'prisoners'

Every year, a few dozen Cadets and Midshipmen swap academies for a semester. Just before tomorrow's game, these "prisoners" will be exchanged so they can sit with their brethren.

Billy McAloon of Madison, N.J., a Midshipman at West Point this fall, had one change of clothes this week. The rest had been "borrowed" by Plebes.

After Thanksgiving, his girlfriend drove him back to West Point. He had two trips from the car to his room. He never made it back to his car.

"They tied my hands together. They grabbed my cell phone out of my pocket," McAloon said. "I told them that my girlfriend was in the parking lot. They called her and told her I wasn't going to be back. Then they sent a representative to get my stuff out of the parking lot."

His room was empty, its contents all outside the barracks.

"My rack, as we call it in the Navy, was unmade. They put all the sheets and stuff on top," McAloon said. "My desk and dresser was arranged just as it would be in the room. All my stuff was properly stowed under the track. It literally looked like my room was assembled outside."

The Midshipmen there got revenge. They had been told by Naval Academy officials not to steal the mules, McAloon said. But last Sunday, Raider, the 19-year-old Army mascot, was dressed to resemble the Navy goat.

Even though officials at both schools have banned mascot thefts, the Navy goats, Bill XXXIII and Bill XXXIV, were moved from their normal quarters in Gambrill, Md., this week and shepherded to an undisclosed location.

Rivals for three hours

Despite their active physical regimens, the Cadets and Midshipmen figure to be weary by tomorrow's end.

They rise at 3:30 a.m., don full-dress uniforms, assemble outside, and march onto buses. After the 31/2-hour ride to the stadium, they will assemble again in the parking lots.

They must go through the same security checks as any other fan. Inside, they move to a field entrance, where, at just after 9, they will "step off," their official parade onto the field.

They remain either on the field or at its edges through most of the pregame festivities, which will include the "prisoner exchange," the arrival of the game balls, the flyovers by four Navy jets and four Army helicopters, and the national anthem.

Moving to their seats at last, they will, according to tradition, stand during the entire game. Afterward, they will march back onto the field for the singing of the alma maters.

Only then will they be granted liberty. Most will make their way into Center City. While their predecessors preferred the more formal bars at the Bellevue-Stratford, Warwick or Ben Franklin Hotels, they are more likely to head for South Street.

"Everyone has my phone number," said Navy's Kerr, the Philadelphian. "If they need any tips about where to go, they know who to call."

Upperclassmen like Kerr can spend the night in Philadelphia. Everyone else will return to the academies on buses that will depart regularly from the stadium until 9 p.m., and then from Center City until midnight.

On the long ride home, their weeklong dislike of their opponents figures to diminish, not peaking again until next December.

"For 364 days and 21 hours, we're comrades, brothers and sisters," said Skid Hayworth, a 1970 Naval Academy graduate and now the Navy Alumni Association's vice president for communications. "But for those three hours during an Army-Navy game, we want to kill each other."

109th Army-Navy Football Game

When: Tomorrow at noon.

Where: Lincoln Financial Field.

TV: CBS3.

Overall: Navy leads the series, 52-49-7.

Current steak: Navy has won six in a row.

In Philadelphia: The series is tied 38-38-4.

At Lincoln Financial Field: Navy leads the series, 4-0.

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Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.