Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo never tires of the feeling that permeates the locker room in the moments before the opening kickoff of the annual matchup with Army.
"There's a chill that goes through you unlike any other game," Niumatalolo said. "It's the craziest thing because you're in the locker room and it's quiet, a little bit serene, and then you step outside and there's this rush and you know it's different."
The 121st meeting between the service academy rivals is Saturday, and this one will be very different. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time in 77 years the game will be played at West Point's venerable Michie Stadium. Both schools agreed to move it from its customary site in Philadelphia after attendance limits were placed on outdoor events in Pennsylvania because of concerns over the novel coronavirus, and it was Army's turn to be the home team.
This show must go on just as it did for two years during World War II at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with games played at both academies.
"We are excited we are able to play this game here for only the fourth time in history," Army coach Jeff Monken said. "The state of our world right now has forced the game away from Philadelphia. It will be special to play it here. It will be very nostalgic and really a great piece in the history of this rivalry."
No fans will be allowed at Michie Stadium — capacity 38,000 instead of nearly 70,000 at Lincoln Financial Field — but at least the entire Brigade of Midshipmen and Corps of Cadets (about 9,000 total) will be there, and President Donald Trump is scheduled to fly in.
Navy (3-6) leads Army (7-2) 61-52-7 in the series, which started in 1890 when West Point cadet Dennis Michie accepted a challenge from Navy to play a football game. The Midshipmen arrived at West Point by ferry, and with one year of football experience to none for Army they easily prevailed 24-0 on the Plain before about 2,000 spectators.
The Black Knights returned the favor the next year at Annapolis, winning 32-16, and a football rivalry like no other was beginning to blossom.
According to Gene Schorr's "The Army-Navy Game," players on both teams personally congratulated one another during an evening celebration in the Navy boathouse after that initial Army victory, and cadet Michie and Navy quarterback Worth Bagley, the stars of those teams, shook hands, looking forward to the next meeting. Seven years later, both men were killed in the Spanish-American War.
"There's so much history in both of these schools, so we're playing for so much more than just football," Army senior offensive lineman J.B. Hunter said. "We're stoked for this opportunity. For us, it's very important. We don't want anyone coming in our backyard (and winning). We're just going to hope that what we do is going to work."
Navy is unbeaten in three games at West Point and won the previous encounter 13-0 in 1943, when the great Glenn Davis was a plebe at West Point. The Midshipmen won last year's game 31-7 behind the stellar play of senior quarterback Malcolm Perry, who rushed for 304 yards and two touchdowns.
Both teams have had quarterback trouble this season, though. Injuries have forced Monken to use six players at the position. Niumatalolo started freshman Xavier Arline in last week's 19-6 loss to Tulsa, the team's fourth straight setback, and he could get the nod.
"He did some good things last week, but he was also a freshman last week," Niumatalolo said. "But what better stage to prepare you for the biggest game of the year than playing the 22nd-ranked team in the country. We're definitely encouraged by that."
Junior Christian Anderson was the starter for Army when the season began. Monken is keeping his choice a secret. Army's triple-option-based offense has averaged just less than 300 yards rushing per game to 185.3 for the Midshipmen.
If Navy wins and Army defeats Air Force next week, the Midshipmen will retain the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, emblematic of supremacy among the academies. Navy is the first team in service academy football history to play both of its rivals on the road in a season. The Midshipmen lost 40-7 at Air Force in early October.