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The real importance of Navy-Air Force

There are a bunch of so-called "big games" tomorrow, starting with Alabama against Florida in an SEC showdown and Texas vs. Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. Both games have tradition, powerhouse teams and national appeal.

Meantime, Navy will be playing Air Force in Colorado Springs in a game that won't have anything close to the hype and coverage even though it's far more meaningful on so many levels.

Midshipmen senior safety and co-captain Wyatt Middleton put that into perspective the other day after practice when he talked about keeping in touch with many of his friends on the front lines in Afghanistan via e-mail. Imagine sending an e-mail to a buddy who's putting his life on the line to protect the United States, wondering if he made it through another day filled with exchanges of gunfire, roadside bombs and enemy ambushes.

Many other players on both Navy and Air Force endure such mental trials regularly in addition to the daily academic and military demands at each service academy. Then after their senior years, they'll enter combat together. Those circumstances set this game, along with Army-Navy and Army-Air Force, apart from any other rivalry.

"We fight with them on the field, in between the lines, but off the field, they are our brothers in arms," Middleton said of the Falcons. "That's what really makes it special. Once we both graduate, we'll both be serving in the military, fighting on the same team. Now we're fighting against each other on two different teams, so that's what's really what's interesting about it."

This game will have added significance for Navy in the wake of the death Lt. Brendan Looney, a Naval Academy graduate who died when his helicopter crashed in rugged terrain in southern Afghanistan. He was one of nine American servicemen killed.

Looney, who attended high school at DeMatha, originally played football at Navy but developed into a standout on the lacrosse field. He played on the team that reached the NCAA title game during his senior year. Also on the team that season were his brothers Billy and Stephen.

Looney went on to become a Navy SEAL and was deployed to Iraq within 48 hours of of marrying in 2008. He was on four tours of duty in all in Iraq and Afghanistan and died just several weeks before he was to leave the military. Looney will be laid to rest on Monday at Arlington Cemetary next to his closest friend, Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, who died in the line of duty in Al Anbar Province. Manion was Looney's roommate at the Naval Academy.

Those are situations players such as Navy senior left tackle Jeff Battapaglia deal with routinely, even during a simple stroll to lunch on the Annapolis campus.

"I saw a group of about 10 to 12 SEALs and their families walking through Bancroft Hall," Battapaglia said on Tuesday. "I immediately knew they were here for something for him. . . . I kind of just took a moment, stopped where I was and just nodded my head in appreciation of them because we are in a way, in a sense isolated here. You go to class play, play football and do it all again the next day, but when something like that hits so close to home, we had a moment of silence last Friday at practice, and it's always in the back of everybody's mind, so it's a sensitive subject for us here, especially as guys graduate and go on to do things like that. We'll always remember him and what he did here and what he stood for."

By Gene Wang  | October 1, 2010; 5:42 PM ET
Categories:  Wyatt Middleton  
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