"You give all for the group," says Johnson, a commercial pilot. "Team goals over individual successes has got to be something I carry with me every day.
Current player Jabaree Tuani, whom Niumatalolo has called the greatest defensive end ever to play at the academy, says he has gained valuable experience performing under pressure.
"You can be down one second, you got to make a play here or there," says the senior defensive captain. "The situation can be stressful, but still you've got to find a way to overcome it. You keep coming back to fight."
In the fleet, he says, "You're going to be faced with problems and situations where you're not really going to have all the time or the assets that you need. But you're still going to have to find a way to get it done."
Football is the most visible sport in a culture of competition at the academy. All midshipmen are required to compete in a sport, be it intercollegiate or intramural.
That's on top of the 140 credit hours — 90 of them in math, science and engineering — they must complete in four years, and the military training.
"You're on a set time schedule," says Firlie, now a senior vice president at RBC Wealth Management in Hunt Valley. "You've got class, then practice, then you're going back to study hall for two or three hours — or it's no more football for you."
For all the rigors of college football, several former players say practice was something of a relief after the rest of the academy experience.
"The mental challenge that you go through every day to just get to practice, and then you have the opportunity to do something that you're very good at — you know, there's no more positive way to burn off some of that frustration," Johnson says.
Service academy football is an experience they share with their opponents at West Point. That's one reason the rivalry is so fierce.
"Everyone is pretty much equal in terms of where they've come from, what they've done, what's the sacrifices they've had," says Harry "Skip" Dittman, a center in the mid-1960s.
"You're fighting your brother is what you're doing," says Calland.
The rivalry is ingrained in the midshipmen from their arrival as plebes. As they walk through Bancroft Hall, the academy dormitory, first-year students are required to square their corners — turn at right angles — and say as they pivot: "Go Navy — Beat Army."
Former defensive tackle Bob Kuberski went from a high school program that lost just one game in his four years to a Navy program that won just 10 during his undergraduate career. He later played in a pair of Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers, and won a championship against the New England Patriots in 1997.
Still, he calls playing for Navy "one of the absolutely best things that I could ever have done in my life — to the point where I struggle to find something that gets me as excited."
Kuberski says the Army-Navy game is unique.
"The fervor of the crowd is more electric than at the Super Bowl," he says. "I've been in the game at all levels, and it's awesome."
Calland played for the 1973 team that beat Army 51-0, the most lopsided final in the series. After the game, a reporter asked him if he felt bad for beating up on another service academy.
"I looked at him like he was crazy," he remembers. "I said, 'If we could have beat them 100-0, it wouldn't have been enough.' And if you had asked them, they'd say the same thing.
"That's the deal. You're not going to let up on each other. Because you can't quit. And you have to play hard until it's over with.
"That's the philosophy that carries with you when you're in combat. You can't let down. But we're going to shake hands and we're going to congratulate each other and we're going to sing our alma maters together. And one day we could be standing side by side in a real fight."