The 2001 season was not a good one on the field for Army or Navy. The Midshipmen came into the traditional finale against Army winless and with an interim coach. Charlie Weatherbie had been fired seven games into the season and defensive coordinator Rick Lantz had taken over.
"We'd been through kind of a tumultuous season," said Marine Capt. Josh Brindel, who played defensive line for Navy.
The Black Knights were 2-8 heading to Philadelphia.
But the Army-Navy game is always about more than football, and when the United States is at war, it becomes maybe the most public way possible to honor those who serve in the military.
President George W. Bush visited both teams prior to kickoff.
Navy quarterback Ed Malinowski got to meet Bush before he came into the locker room to address the team. Malinowski, who now works for a defense contractor outside of his hometown of Pittsburgh, gave the president a football signed by the team.
"One of the more defining days of my life," Malinowski said.
Bush also took part in the coin toss before the game and Malinowski could be heard by on-field microphones calling, "Heads, sir."
Army won 26-17, its last victory in the series. For Gordon, just getting on the field was a momentous achievement.
He had broken his ankle in the first game of the season. His college football career was over, doctors told him. No way, was Gordon's response.
His goal was just to get on the field for a play during the Army-Navy game. Doctors weren't even sure he would be able to walk unassisted by then.
He was able to trot out of the tunnel with his team before the game and when Army ran the final two plays to kill the clock, Gordon took a spot on the offensive line.
Bush returned to the Army locker room to congratulate the Cadets. Gordon said it looked as if Bush hadn't "slept in 12 days."
"It blew me away," he said. "And I said, 'OK, this is serious.' Here's the leader of the country, you can tell he hasn't slept. What's my future hold for me? I just met on the field with my brothers and played a game and we just shook hands. And now it's time to go put on our uniform and go take it to somebody else somewhere else."
Gordon was twice deployed to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
Jenkins was deployed four times to Iraq.
Dodson went to Iraq once and Afghanistan once.
Dial did two tours in Iraq.
Malinowski was twice deployed to Iraq.
Brindel also did two tours in Iraq.
McDonald did one tour in Iraq.
To a man, they all said football helped prepare them for combat.
"The mechanics are very similar," McDonald said. "The process of planning. The practice.
"The results are a little different. They're a lot different. But it's a great steppingstone. It's a great learning experience to help you go into it. You're developing young warriors minds (in football). Young men to think in a certain manner."
McDonald's time in Iraq lasted only a few months.
In 2006, while in Haditha, the Humvee he was riding in hit an improvised explosive device. McDonald's left leg was severely injured.
He doesn't remember much from the time between the explosion and waking up at a hospital in Germany. But when he did come to, the Army-Navy game was on television.
"I was lying there for a couple days, so I believe the Lord had a role in that one," he said. "I woke up and the Army-Navy game was on. And it was a win."
McDonald earned a Purple Heart, but the injuries meant he would not return to combat.
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