Air Force game a real rush (continued)

Of course, even band members have to adapt to less oxygen available at 6,621 feet above sea level. Courtesy of Air Force Athletics

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This remains true today. Air Force's players are like all 4,400 cadets at the Academy in that they attend college on full academic scholarships. They even get paid a monthly stipend of $960.90, from which the Academy deducts their living expenses, including haircut and uniform money.

"There's no football worshipping here," said Morgan, who quarterbacked Air Force to the 1998 WAC title before turning to coaching. "You're just another student."

Except this is a student who is preparing to join the U.S. military after college -- a very different form of real-world life than what most of America's graduates know. This, in part, is why the football rivalries between Army, Navy and Air Force are so unique.

The Falcons in photos

For a closer look at the Air Force football tradition and the scene at Falcon Stadium, click here to see 15 gallery images.

Beyond their short-term disdain for each other -- "Their alumni are billionaires; ours are still millionaires," one cadet said, referring to the age of the military institutions, Army having been founded in 1802, Navy in 1845 -- their shared long-term goals bond them in mutual respect.

It is why they hug each other after viciously contested games and remain on the field for each other's alma maters.

"You're playing for big-time bragging rights," DeBerry said, "but eventually you're going to be on the same team -- the nation's team."

Falcon Stadium has nonetheless played host to its share of stunts leading up to rumbles with Army and Navy, none of which trumped the famous Navy painting prank in the late 1980s.

The Thursday night before the game, a group of Midshipmen meticulously painted over the hugely written "AIR FORCE" on the Falcon Stadium bleachers -- which are visible from Interstate 25 -- and replaced it with "NAVY," dead center. Air Force officials discovered the vandalism the following morning and scrambled to paint over the damage before Saturday's game, taking much of the day to complete it.

"That was one of the best pranks I'd ever seen," chuckled former Air Force sports information director Dave Kellogg, who runs the Academy's Hall of Fame. "We never did find out who did it, but we think it was Navy SEALs because it was so professionally done."

"We also stole their goat a few times, too," DeBerry pointed out.

Now, Air Force hires a private security firm to guard Falcon Stadium each week leading up to a game with Army or Navy. The move doesn't seem so strange at a place where soldiers holding M-16s patrol stadium parking lots and 10 bomb-sniffing dogs clear the venue on game-day mornings.

Yet for all its quirks, Falcon Stadium also has hosted some of college football's legends and a long list of historic games. In 1975, Joe Montana came off the bench to lead Notre Dame back from a 30-10 deficit, winning a 31-30 thriller. That was five years after Air Force upset eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett and vaunted Stanford in 1970 -- and well before the Falcons finally beat Notre Dame for the first time in 1982, with more than 45,000 fans celebrating like Prohibition had ended.

The greatest team in Air Force history remains the 1985 squad, which rose to No. 2 in the nation and finished 12-1. And the greatest player remains defensive tackle Chad Hennings, a sophomore on the '85 team. Hennings went on to lead the nation in sacks his senior year with 24 and won the 1987 Outland Trophy. He flew 45 missions in Iraq, then returned to play nine years in the NFL, winning three Super Bowls with the Cowboys.

Unbeknownst to many, another former Cowboy, Bill Parcells, launched his head-coaching career at Air Force in 1978, going 3-8 and lasting just nine months before bolting for an assistant's job in the NFL. (Parcells declined an interview request for this story.) Despite the brief tenure of "The Tuna", current head coach Troy Calhoun -- one of nine Air Force alumni on the coaching staff -- is just the sixth coach in the Academy's 55-year history.

Having made a name as an NFL coordinator, Calhoun -- who served in active duty for six years -- returned to Air Force in 2007 with the Falcons reeling from their third straight losing season. Since then, he has restored the Academy's winning tradition and is constantly linked to high-profile job openings around the country, most notably at Tennessee. But he always reiterates his commitment to Air Force.

"The academy's purpose -- to educate and develop young people of integrity and fortitude who serve as outstanding leaders for our country -- is both unique and quite moving," he said after signing a contract extension in 2009.

Back on the Falcon Stadium turf on Sept. 11, Air Force's players haven't let up, especially on offense. They keep burrowing holes in the Cougars' defense, sprinting around the tackles like water bugs despite the oxygen-depleted air at 6,621 feet. Jefferson completes just five passes all day, but the Falcons pile on two more second-half touchdowns and win going away 35-14.

By then, the fans in the club-level box next to press row are doing pushups -- one for each point on the board -- in sync with the freshmen who storm the field after each score. Last season, a lucky group of fourth degrees ("They sort of 'voluntell' you when you have pushup duty," says Robb Wilson, a freshman from Tennessee) did 419 pushups as Air Force beat Nicholls State 72-0.

While strolling the stadium and debating whether to spend $6 on a funnel cake or a buffalo cheeseburger, I bump into a grinning civilian, J. Jeff Johnson, 45, who appears nicely lubricated. Johnson explains that he grew up in Colorado Springs and has been coming to Air Force games since he was in the third grade. (Season tickets cost as little as $60 for the general public.)

Kind of a drag they don't sell beer inside the stadium, I mention. His grin widens. "There's a parking lot out there if you need it," Johnson says. "You got to respect our military."

The stadium stereo bids adieu to BYU with the classic "Hit The Road Jack," then moments later launches into "Proud To Be An American," a fitting contrast for this school and this day. The game stats flash on the scoreboard: Not only has Air Force outgained the vaunted Cougars offense 477 yards to 309, but the Falcons' total includes 409 yards rushing.

The following week, Air Force will outgain No. 7 Oklahoma 458-367 in Norman, missing out on a colossal upset by just three points, 27-24 -- the first of Air Force's three losses to teams ranked in the top 10, including a recent 28-23 heartbreaker to Utah. The Falcons' 351 rushing yards are the most a Bob Stoops defense has allowed at Oklahoma -- numbers made all the more impressive when one considers Air Force doesn't have a single 300-pound starter.

But, of course, that's all part of the charm here -- the underdog mentality, a gridiron representation of an armed force's ideals.

"I used to tell my players, 'By God, we're playing for the entire Air Force the world over,'" DeBerry said.

In carrying out that mantra, DeBerry and the rest of Air Force's devotees have given the old oval that is Falcon Stadium an enduring mystique, beyond that which characterizes the program as a whole.

"Every time I go to a game, I still get chills up my arms and legs when I walk in the stadium," said Lorber, 68, the retired four-star general who took an option pitch into the south end zone 48 years ago. "My heart starts beating a little harder, and even though I'm way too old to play, I'd still like to try it one more time."

Devon O'Neil is a sports and adventure writer in Breckenridge, Colo. He frequently writes about skiing for ESPN.com and has had work published by outlets ranging from the Boston Globe Magazine to Popular Science. His writing, bio and contact information can be found at devononeil.com.