Navy fullback Alexander Teich, left, and Army linebacker Steve Erzinger talk during the Army-Navy football luncheon on Nov. 30 in Arlington, Va. (Evan Vucci / The Associated Press)
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ARLINGTON, Va. The fullback wearing the "standard dress blues" uniform will soon be a Navy SEAL. The linebacker nicknamed A-Rod in the "dress gray" uniform has returned from a back injury that had put his football career and his plan to be an Army infantry officer in jeopardy.
Wednesday's media day for 112th Army-Navy game was a reminder that this rivalry features players who will soon face dangers far greater than the triple option.
"When you recruit people here, and you're in people's homes, that's always in the back of your mind," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Yeah, the education is second to none, there's great career opportunities and being able to provide for your families, but there's also a chance they might have to pay the ultimate sacrifice. They'll be in harm's way that's a reality.
"So that's always on the back of your mind, but it really hits you after the last game, the finality of the last game."
For the time being, the focus is on football and pageantry as the academies prepare to meet Dec. 10 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., the first time the game has been staged in the vicinity of the nation's capital. The basic facts are there for all to see: Navy has won nine consecutive games in the series; both teams emphasize the old-fashioned running game; neither Navy (4-7) or Army (3-8) is headed to a bowl game, although both sides say bowls can be anticlimactic.
"This game is way bigger than a bowl game," said Navy captain Alexander Teich, a fullback. "There's so much passion in this game. A bowl game is kind of a celebration. This game, this is how football's meant to be played."
Teich said he's one of only 28 seniors from his graduating class selected to become one of the SEALs, whose popularity spiked after the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan in May.
"The academy erupted," Teich said. "Everybody went out to the T-Court and had on all their Navy SEAL kind of stuff and American flags, and music was playing and everybody was loud and running through the streets of Annapolis.
"The big fact was that they got him. The next part was that it was involved with the Navy. A little school pride there."
Teich is a general science major who has run for 790 yards and a 4.7 average this season, involved in the thick of things in the triple option offense. And that's where he'll also be with the SEALs.
"I kind of always want to be leading from the front," he said. "They're the tip of the spear, the first ones into the fight, and that's kind of my mentality I want to be the first one into that fight leading my men."
Andrew Rodriguez was Army's leading tackler in 2009, but he hurt his back lifting weights during the following offseason. He was diagnosed with herniated disks and spinal stenosis and had surgery. Coach Rich Ellerson said "it was unlikely he was going to be able to play again."
"I put a lot into the decision about whether I should continue playing and what I should do," Rodriguez said. "If the back goes, then you're not going to be able to fulfill your military obligations, so I struggled with that decision a lot."
But the rehab went better than expected. Despite missing the 2010 season, the mechanical engineering major was elected as a team captain this season and is third on the team in tackles. He's a finalist for the Campbell Trophy, the so-called "academic Heisman," awarded to the nation's top scholar athlete.
"A-Rod's one of the greatest men of character on the team," quarterback Max Jenkins said. "For somebody to miss an entire season and get elected team captain, that says something in itself. Anybody else who had to go through that kind of situation might not have come out on the winning side like he did."
Yet there's still one winning feeling Rodriguez has yet to experience.
"For the senior class, this is our last chance to beat Navy, and we're well aware of that," Rodriguez said. "I was talking a lot to the younger guys, it always seems like you're going to have more chances, but the time goes by so fast."