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ARMY-NAVY GAME

Army-Navy is about pageantry and pride — in those who serve, and those who soon will

Navy Midshipmen line the field during the March On before Saturday's Army-Navy game at Gillette Stadium.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — The corner tunnel inside Gillette Stadium thrummed with a steady beat of footsteps, unit after unit of Army Cadets marking time until it was their turn to march on the field. Shoulder to shoulder, eight soldiers in each line, the men and women of West Point held firm in their formation, then moved in unison toward the turf. From any vantage point, an impressive and beautiful display.

This was hours before the main event was set to kick off, one of the many pregame traditions that separates Army-Navy football from all the rest. A nod to the full tradition, pomp, and pageantry that goes along with the one true event that warrants being called “America’s Game.” Before the flyover of Navy jets and Army helicopters, before the bevy of parachute jumpers from both branches of the service, before the combined choir gathered in the end zone to sing the national anthem, there was the incredible display known as the “March On.”

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First, the Brigade of Midshipmen filled the field. From overhead in the press box, their sea of stiff Navy caps painted Gillette’s green turf white, with unit after unit of uniformed Annapolis attendees building a grid along and around the field’s yard markers. When the last of them made the field, they doffed those caps to the early-arriving crowd and departed with similar discipline, never breaking shape even as they rounded corners or reversed direction.

Then, it was the US Corps of Cadets’ turn.

This time, with a field-level view, I noticed something else amid those thrumming footsteps, something that spoke to what made this all possible. As each line of eight moved forward, their pace quickening to pass through onlookers, they angled themselves toward the field, never losing shape. The secret? It was a slight touch of their hands, just enough contact from black leather glove to black leather glove to keep each other close. A small detail, sure, but one vital to the ultimate goal.

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Kind of like life in the armed services. And in football.

While the stakes are far from comparable, football has always run its playbook through the language and imagery of battle, from quarterbacks dubbed field generals to passing games described as aerial assaults. Being that this day was ultimately about football, about Army claiming sole possession of the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy by beating Navy, 17-11, on a last-second goal-line stand, those marching soldiers brought another type of unit to mind.

They were an offensive line in a different kind of uniform. It seemed fitting, given the O-line is the one unit on a football team whose whole is better than the sum of its parts, that truly only works when each person does their job correctly. A chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. Army-Navy footballers and non-footballers alike know that to be true.

A sea of Navy Midshipmen hope for a late comeback. Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

Yet the fun of Saturday, when the weather gods partnered with gameday organizers and gave us balmy temps and clear skies, is found beyond the seriousness of purpose that fills the daily lives and marks the future service of the players and students from all service academies. This is a rivalry, plain and simple, that fuels passions and lights fires.

Army supporters strolled the pregame field with their credentials hanging from lanyards that read “Beat Navy.” A young Midshipman, having taken his seat in the stands, needled the academic credentials of his counterparts with a sign that read, “Everyone here got into Army.”

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The Corps of Cadets made sure to demonstrate their traditional “rocket” chant before departing the field, ending it with the unifying cry of “We are Army. Beat Navy.” The Midshipmen seated along the row closest to the field got first dibs on a pregame visit by Patriots legend and resident goofball Rob Gronkowski, making sure to haul the hulking tight end into the stands to join their cries of “Gronk loves the pit.”

One adventurous attendee pulled back his dress shirt to reveal a T-shirt in honor of the rooting section known by that name. Gronk, never one to pass up a selfie or a fist pump, made his way over to the West Point section for a similar Lambeau-style leap.

Then came the traditional prisoner swap. The return of semester-long exchange students that featured temporary messages taped on their backs — “NUKE ARMY” on one side, “EAT SQUID” on the other. Every last one took a gleeful sprint into the waiting arms of their brethren.

Army Cadets dance as they inch closer to victory in the fourth quarter.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The excitement was not limited to the field. Throughout the concourses, merchandise stands were stripped bare, reflective of New England’s unabashed support of the opportunity to host this game. The locals also made their influence felt with a spirited playing of “Sweet Caroline,” with fans/Midshipmen/Cadets swaying together and belting out the familiar chorus when the music went silent.

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And, of course, the delighted Army players mixed among the throng of fellow Cadets who’d swarmed the victorious field, proud to “sing second” when it came time for the traditional post-game alma mater.

The build-up had done plenty to highlight the Patriots’ delight in having the game in their stadium, from the pride of veteran long snapper and Navy alum Joe Cardona to appearances by owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick on ESPN’s “College GameDay.” It was Belichick, the son of a former Navy football coach, who spoke eloquently to the meaning of Saturday’s game.

“At the end of the day, we’re all fighting for the same country and they take the same oath of allegiance,” Belichick told CBS’s Jenny Dell. “It’s a proud moment to see these great young men and women who are going to lead our country over the next few decades and see their training and know we are in good hands.”

Hands that touched ever so slightly while marching on and off the field. Just enough to lend support, to stay together, to make the formation work. Like the motto of our nation found on the great seal, “e pluribus unum,” they made one, out of many.

Boston Globe Today: Sports | December 8, 2023
WATCH: On Friday's show: What are the chances the Patriots ship Belichick out of Foxborough? Brad Marchand puts the Bruins on his back.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.