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You can't blame Navy fullback Kyle Eckel for saying the Midshipmen's game Saturday with Notre Dame is more important to the players than the annual intraservice bloodletting with Army.
OK, Paul Johnson can blame him, but he's Navy's coach, and he doesn't want to get called by "5,000 admirals" who take offense to Eckel's assertion that the Irish is a more important foe than the Black Knights, even if the Army mule just won its first game since the days of Blanchard and Davis.
"We don't end the fight song with `Beat Notre Dame,' and it doesn't say `Beat Notre Dame' on our weights," Johnson says, more than a little miffed.
In the big picture of Navy football, of course Army is the main rival, largely because the Knights also consider the Middies rivals, too, while ND thinks of Navy as, well, a speed bump. That's what happens when you beat a team 40 times in a row. The Irish are too busy with Southern California, Michigan, Purdue and qualifying for the Cialis Bowl to care that much about the school in Annapolis.
So maybe Eckel was experiencing a senior moment. This is his fourth year at Navy, and folks tend to get a little comfortable when they're at the top of the service academy food chain and no longer memorizing the entire New York Times for some power-hungry upperclassman. But he does have a point, as sacrilegious as it may seem.
Eckel didn't come to Navy to play Army or Air Force. He wasn't even considering the military life until a Midshipmen assistant showed up at his suburban Philadelphia house and told him the Mids play Notre Dame every season. Eckel's response was something along the lines of, "Where do I sign, coach?" Let's face it, there isn't much call in the upper echelons of the 1-A world for 5-11 fullbacks who run 4.75 40s. So, when somebody's dangling the chance to play the Fighting Irish -- "the most storied program in the country," according to Johnson -- you grab it.
"It's extremely important," Eckel says.
It's also extremely lopsided -- in fact, the most lopsided rivalry in history. ND's 40-game winning streak is even longer than Oklahoma's dominance of Texas, for cryin' out loud. Talk about Daddies. The last time the Mids won, back in '63, Alabama was a national powerhouse.
Not that Eckel or his teammates spend too much time thinking about the Big 4-0. They have been around for just three of the losses -- at most -- and only one of those, in Aught-One, was an Irish blowout. Navy had the darn thing won in 2002, but Notre Dame staged one of its annoying comebacks to win. And last year, well, let's just say Father Murphy couldn't find his penalty flag on that clipping penalty late in the 27-24 ND victory in South Bend, when the Irish won on a last-second field goal.
But enough about all that. Since the pads started popping in earnest back in August, the Navy brass has been hoping that this would be The Year. And it could be. The Mids are 5-0, and even if that spotless mark hasn't come at the expense of a murderer's row (or even a petty thieves' row), any time you beat Air Force in Colorado Springs, you're doing something.
In his third season at Navy, Johnson, who served as the Mids' offensive coordinator in '95 and '96 when they really had his option attack crackling, has taken the program back to the postseason and has it on the precipice of a huge accomplishment.
"I've told the players that this is a chance for them to play on national TV against one of the most storied programs," Johnson says. "I want them to play like their hair was on fire."
Eckel sure will, if his coach ever lets him stop running gassers for that Notre-Dame-more-than-Army crack. Eckel may go just 5-11, but he uses every ounce of his 240-pound frame to wreak havoc on the interior of any defensive front, no matter how big it is. Watching Eckel run recalls great fullbacks of yore. He's a modern-day Zonk, crashing through tacklers with brick-hard forearms and somebody's blood on his jersey. The Navy attack puts huge pressure on a defense's perimeter and then jams Eckel up the gizzard, Nagurski-style. It's a beautiful thing, especially in a college football world where good, old-fashioned ground-game carnage is so often ignored.
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But will repeated doses of Eckel be enough to prevent Loss No. 41? Using the "never pick the team that keeps losing and losing" Texas big-game theory, it should be impossible to predict the Mids to beat Notre Dame. But all great philosophies have corollaries. So here goes: Navy beats the Fighting Irish, because for the first time since '63, the Mids have the better team. And when Navy does win, get ready for one helluva celebration.
Almost as big as the one that comes when they beat Army.
Almost, Kyle, almost.
While Dr. Phil and Kobe trade barbs about who was the bigger pain in the butt (early returns have it too close to call), basketball fans are more interested in how well the Lakers will do, now that Comrade Bryant has completed his purge of the party ranks.
Well, we caught a glimpse Tuesday night in the Lakers' exhibition opener against Seattle. The final: Sonics 87, L.A. 80. Kobe played a whopping 41 minutes, scored 35 points, launched 13 threes and watched just one teammate -- the vaunted Slava Medvedenko -- score in double figures. Now, anybody who puts too much stock in the results of exhibition games should be forced to sit front-and-center for all 41 Bobcat home dates, but it doesn't take a genius like Phil Jackson to understand that Bryant has his team and his wish: There is nobody on the roster, not even Olympian Lamar Odom, with the power to stop Kobe from pursuing his Michael Jordan fantasy. He's going to shoot, shoot some more and keep shooting. If more than three consecutive possessions go by this season without a Kobe shot, it will be big news.
It's going to be all Kobe, all the time. He's going to be the Official Spokesman. He'll hog the highlights. But he won't win. MJ always had the ultimate prize in his sights, because winning was what he loved most. Bryant wants to win to enhance his resume, to help wipe away the stain from the Colorado mess and to show everybody he's as good as his idol.
Well, it doesn't work that way. When Kobe wants to win because the thought of losing makes him physically ill, then the Lakers have something. Until then, they have one of the game's most selfish players, who's now thrilled to be in charge of "his" team and who will chase personal goals with the fervor of a starving man attacking a buffet spread.
Bow and Curt-sy
The biggest crime in the entire Curt Schilling Ankle Incident is not that personal lapdog, er, Boston manager Terry (Tito) Francona sent Schill out to throw three innings of B.P. to eager Yankee bats Tuesday night. No, that's why Schilling insisted Francona manage the Sawx as one of his terms for joining the club. Tito will do whatever Schilling wants. The crime is that it looks like we'll have to suffer through another year of moaning by Boston fans (and sympathetic baseball media romantics) about The Curse and how the Sawx will never win it all until Babe Ruth's body is exhumed and clad in a Boston uniform. About Bucky F---ing Dent and Billy Buck and Aaron Boone and how the baseball gods have it in for Boston. El Hombre can't take it anymore. So, everybody, when you hit your knees tonight, please pray that a miracle occurs, and the Schilling-less Red Sox somehow win the World Series this year. That way, baseball can move on, and the obsession with this miserable franchise's misfortune can end. Then we can focus on the Cubs. Arrrrggghhhh!