Every year since 1930, one of America’s most beloved rivalries has played out on the gridiron.

The Army vs. Navy game is known for its (mostly) tongue-in-cheek antics: the “prisoner” exchange; the disparaging T-shirts and memes; the Sports Center interviews where the branches toss humorous insults at one another:

“I tried to change my password to “Navy” but Gmail said it was TOO WEAK.”

“Army waits a half hour after eating to swim.”

“Let’s play Navy … said no kid ever.”

This year the Army-Navy game – routinely watched by some 8 million Americans the second Saturday of December – will be played in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, just 11 miles from the World Trade Center. During the 20th anniversary year of the 9/11 terror attacks, the game is sure to have some added significance.

The branches – infamous for their sibling-like rivalry and bickering – will be hard pressed not acknowledge how that annual December matchup felt two decades ago, as Ground Zero still smoldered and we all began to fully appreciate that we were a nation at war. Even the Public Affairs guidance for the annual unit shout-outs – famous for their interservice jabs – has encouraged videos that recognize and memorialize the 9/11 attacks.

Looking back on that Army-Navy game of 20 years ago, it’s easy to remember the feeling of pride in those young Cadets and Midshipmen fighting it out, yard for yard, on the field. All of us understood that they almost certainly would deploy into harm’s way sometime after their spring graduation. Perhaps longtime sports broadcaster Dick Enberg said it best:

“We went to West Point and Annapolis and talked to the kids. And the game seemed significant but insignificant. They talked about their career as military men. You looked in their eyes and it was clear that, after the football, they were playing a really difficult game. But the quality, the level of every kid, it made you so proud, knowing this is the kind of quality we still breed in America.”

Americans understood precisely what Enberg was saying. And those of us already in uniform felt the weight of knowing that we eventually would be leading and serving with those young troopers. Football games end in win/loss columns; in war, there is no second place.

There was fear that another attack might happen at the game. The stadium was filled with senior ranking military leaders. President Bush visited both locker rooms for a pre-game speech, then spent half of the game on the Navy sidelines and the other half on Army’s. Senator John McCain, a graduate of the Naval Academy and decorated Vietnam veteran, gave a talk so rousing that several Midshipmen cried. One still calls it the most memorable moment of his life after his wedding day and the birth of his first child.

But the game that day was devoid of trash talk. Heckling in the stands – so customary – was muted. After the game the teams stood at attention for the playing of both schools’ alma maters, and that tradition seemed more poignant than ever. As one player put it to The New York Times: "We're rivals on the field, but we're brothers in service.”

The players on the field that day went on to serve with distinction. Time and again, they would encounter one another – in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arabian Gulf. Army linemen Chad Jenkins and Alex Moore would be platoon leaders together in Fallujah. Two Navy players – Lt. Brendan Looney and 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith – would be killed in action in the coming years.

Many of the players of that 2001 game would say that after graduation, they were often aware of how reliant they actually were on the other service. Army Center Nolan Gordon would remark that, in combat, he felt safer the minute he saw Navy helicopters circling above. Numerous Navy SEAL officers and Army infantry special operators who played that game have told stories of chance meetings downrange.

Here on Rock Island Arsenal, we’re already planning for a “friendly” football game between the Soldiers and Sailors who call this island home. Deed 6 – a proud West Point graduate – keeps hinting he’d like to get in for a play or two.

Like any sibling rivalry, elbows can get pointed and feelings can get hurt. But, in the end, this anniversary year of 9/11 reminds us all that we’re really on the same great team.

The memes will be flying on social media on December 11, and I know I’ll get a laugh out of many of them. But in the end, one will always stand out in my mind.

In it, the front lines of the Army Black Knights and the Navy Midshipmen face off in their three-point stance. The text below the photo says it all:

“Army vs. Navy: The only game where everyone playing is willing to die for everyone watching.”

So true. So inspiring and humbling.

Still … with all that being said …

Go Army! Beat Navy!