LANDOVER, Md. -- Wading into one of the most storied football rivalries, President Barack Obama saluted U.S. troops Saturday, kicking off a series of observances marking the end of the Iraq war. As the 112th Army-Navy game unfolded before him, Obama said: "They're the best we have to offer."
The president tossed the coin at the start of the game, visited wounded soldiers and their families, and walked through a ceremonial cadet gantlet at halftime, switching sides in the traditional symbol of commander in chief neutrality.
As he watched players exchange hits on the field, Obama reminisced about his own athletic past, noting that it was early in high school that he got the idea that he wasn't cut out for football
"I played football in 9th grade and then I realized I was more built for basketball," he said Saturday from the CBS broadcast booth at FedEx Field. "I was a big kid in the 8th grade and then in the 9th grade suddenly everyone started getting a little heavier than me."
Obama attended the game with Vice President Joe Biden and with Biden's wife Jill. He strolled into the packed stadium, shaking hands as a song by the hard rock band AC/DC blared out of the stadium loudspeakers. F-18 jets and Apache helicopters flew in formation overhead.
Wearing a dark suit and tie and a long black top coat, Obama sat among the cadets on a sunny but brisk day. An announced crowd of nearly 81,000 watched the game. Navy won 27-21, its tenth straight victory over the Army's Black Knights.
"They're smart, dedicated, tough, love their country, do an incredible job. And that's what gives this game such resonance," the president told announcers Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson.
"What we're reminded of is that as important as sports are, these guys are going to be in life or death situations voluntarily protecting our country. They're going to be on the same team. It constantly makes you grateful for being here in America and these incredible young people. They are the best we have to offer," Obama said during his first-quarter appearance.
He posed for pictures with cheerleaders and signed banners and footballs. At half time, he and the Bidens visited wounded service members -- 49 Army soldiers, 18 sailors, two Marines and one airman.
Obama is drawing attention to this month's full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki at the White House on Monday and visiting Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Wednesday to thank returning soldiers.
He noted that his grandfather served in World War II under Gen. George C. Patton and is buried in the national memorial in Honolulu.
"It's a reminder that these games, as much fun as these things are, part of what we celebrate is the dedication and the sacrifice that all these young men and young women who are in the stands are going to be making for our country day in and day out."
He said that while he lived in Chicago, he cheered for Illinois. "But now that I'm in Washington, I've got to admit, most Saturdays I'm working."
It was the first time the game was played in the Washington area, at FedEX Field, home of the Washington Redskins.
"We're close to the Pentagon. A lot of these guys are going to end up serving at some point or another here in Washington, passing through, getting their orders," he said.