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Army-Navy: Philadelphia's college football spectacle always special

In 86 of 118 Army-Navy games, Philadelphia has hosted this football tradition unlike any other. Lincoln Financial Field will be home to this year's game for the 11th time.

Navy midshipmen take part in the “March On” before the start of the 2013 game at the Linc. Where else can you see a tradition like this?
Navy midshipmen take part in the “March On” before the start of the 2013 game at the Linc. Where else can you see a tradition like this?Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI

It's an annual pre-Christmas miracle, one that even in an overcrowded sports calendar, even in a city obsessed with its professional athletes, even in a nation where the military's footprint has been greatly diminished continues to delight.

During the 86 occasions over 118 years when the Army-Navy Game has been played in Philadelphia, its significance as a football contest has fluctuated up and — for much of the last half-century – down. But through it all, the annual December meeting of the service academies has remained an American spectacle.

A postgame assessment offered in 1912 by The Bellman magazine following a 6-0 Navy victory at Franklin Field still rings true:

"The Army-Navy Game is by no means the best football played," wrote Philadelphia author Warwick J. Price, "but there can be no doubt that it is the most spectacular game of all."

And that's almost always been so, whether the venue has been Franklin Field (18 times), Municipal/JFK Stadium (41), Veterans Stadium (17) or, as will be the case for the 11th time Saturday at 3 p.m., Lincoln Financial Field.

Generations of Philadelphians have helped fill those stadiums and in the process adopted either Army or Navy as surrogate home teams.

"Philadelphians truly believe this game belongs to them," said Army coach Jeff Monken. "The whole city embraces both teams."

Wherever it's been played here, Philadelphia fans, watching in the fading light of so many late-autumn afternoons, have been fortunate to witness the stirring rituals that bookend the game itself — the pre-game March-On, when great monochromatic swaths of Cadets and Midshipmen parade in; and the postgame, midfield gathering of both teams to serenade the Brigade and the Corps with their alma maters.

Where else but Philadelphia in December can football lovers experience formal-dress balls at downtown hotels and the ear-splitting wonder of fighter-jet flyovers? Where else outside the Pentagon can they observe the easy mingling of brass-bound Army generals and Navy admirals? Where else might they see a president walk across the field at halftime? Or a goat get kidnapped?

This is where Heisman Trophy winners (Doc Blanchard, Glenn Davis, Pete Dawkins, Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach) and American heroes (Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Bill "Lonesome End" Carpenter) performed and burnished their legends.

In a city rich in historic sports events, those epic 1940s battles before 100,000-plus fans at cavernous Municipal Stadium, when the Cadets and Midshipmen annually were among the nation's best teams, still rate among the most memorable and best-attended ever.

Emotional intensity fuels Army-Navy as much as pageantry, in part because the futures of these young athletes will be determined by duty instead of dollars. For them, this classic rivalry is the sporting equivalent of warfare.

"I can remember jumping out of a helicopter under enemy fire [in Vietnam]," Army's Dawkins once said, "and the emotion and shock were the same I'd experienced at Municipal Stadium before kickoff."

And often, very often in fact, the football ain't bad either.

So evenly matched has the competition been that until Navy ran off 11 consecutive victories from 2005 through 2015, the ancient series had been tied at 49-49-7.

"There are a lot of great rivalries in sports," Staubach said in 2008. "But Army-Navy is different. When you see the March-On and hear the cheers of the Midshipmen and Cadets, when you experience the passion Philadelphia feels about the game, and when you think about what might be ahead for the players, you just know this is different."