By Nicolaus Mills

Saturday's Army-Navy game will mark an historic encounter. Seventy years ago, Army and Navy played one of the most storied games in their long rivalry. In December 1944, with World War II still raging, Army, the number-one team in the nation, completed an undefeated season by powering its way to a 23-7 victory over Navy, the number-two team.

"The greatest of all Army teams. ... We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success," Gen. Douglas MacArthur telegrammed Army's winning coach, Earl "Red" Blaik, from his Pacific headquarters.

MacArthur, who had earned his varsity A at West Point as the manager of the 1902 football team, was not alone in treating the 1944 game as a landmark event. The game provided a war-weary America with just the distraction it needed. "The country can now return to fighting the most terrible war ever inflicted upon mankind," one sportswriter observed afterward.

This year's Army-Navy game will not generate the excitement the 1944 contest did. The days of Army and Navy fielding the best football teams in the nation are over. Attending a service academy now means five years of post-graduation active duty, and without a draft, it is a rare athlete who is willing to make such a commitment to the military. Elite high school football players want nothing to come between them and a lucrative National Football League contract.

Still Army-Navy games continue to provide us a chance to see what is rare in the college football games that make it onto our television screens - a rivalry in which the best players on the field don't have one eye on the pros and another on retaining their athletic scholarships (everyone at a service academy has his expenses paid for by the government).

Presidents have been attending Army-Navy games since 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt began the tradition. The commander in chief sits with one side in the first half and crosses the field to sit with the other at halftime. These customs not only honor the players, but they also remind us that the Army-Navy game has the capacity to bring us together as a nation.

In 1963, after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Army-Navy game was nearly canceled. At the request of the Kennedy family, the game was instead postponed a week. What followed helped begin a national catharsis. Philadelphia's huge Municipal Stadium took on, as one reporter noted, the feel of an outdoor cathedral, and by the time the afternoon was over, the nation had taken a first step toward healing by watching a game the late president, a World War II Navy officer, loved attending.

The next year, former President Dwight Eisenhower, then living in Gettysburg, sent the Army team a telegram on the eve of the game. "You will always have what you give today," Ike wrote. "The more you give, the more you will keep." His words were intended to inspire Army, then mired in a five-year losing streak to Navy. But his words applied to both teams, especially the players who would soon be in Vietnam.

The athletes who will take the field Saturday will play at a time when the nation is again at war. Thus the game has a special poignancy. We must not forget that the men who play in it can only hope for relief - not escape - from the risks that come with their education.

Immediately after the game, both teams sing their alma maters. "Win first, sing second" is the tradition at the Army-Navy game. And there is one more custom to take note of: remaining on the field while the other team's anthem is sung. Nobody is left behind.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of "Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed." nmills@sarahlawrence.edu