COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The Air Force Academy's version of major college football begins the same way every game. All 4,400 students ... er, cadets ... line up in a tunnel under the stadium. Squadron leaders take attendance on clipboards to make sure no one is skipping the mandatory Saturday duty of supporting the Falcons -- and thereby wasting the tickets the cadets are required by the Academy to purchase.
Once that's taken care of, the squadrons begin to assemble into formation. The scene escalates into mild chaos, with cadet crowd surfing, widespread water spraying and dollar bills floating down from the stands like confetti.
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.
Of course, as a first-time Air Force football attendee standing high in the thin air of 48-year-old Falcon Stadium, waiting for a much-anticipated matchup with No. 24 BYU to commence, I have no idea anything but supreme order governs the tunnel festivities. Because by the time the squadrons march onto the turf, they look like they've been doing this for decades: disciplined, stepping in perfect unison, a moving square 110 members strong.
The 40 squadrons arrange themselves on the field and remain in formation in front of a sellout crowd of 46,692, delivering the young men and women what would be a once-in-a-career thrill at other institutions. But it is a weekly occurrence here.
And so goes the little-known gridiron spectacle at Air Force, or "The Academy," as it's known to locals. Overshadowed by service academy rivals Army and Navy (a pair the Falcons have dominated in recent decades, winning 40 of their past 54 meetings and 17 Commander-in-Chief trophies) and tucked away from the BCS maelstrom in the underrated Mountain West Conference, Air Force might be the best kept secret in college football.
The Falcons' triple-option offense has ranked in the top 10 nationally in rushing for 24 straight years. After beating Army 42-22 last week, the 6-4 Falcons -- who spent back-to-back weeks in the top 25 earlier this season before losing three straight -- rank third in the nation with 310 rush yards per game.
They have played in six bowl games each of the past three decades and perennially contend for conference championships. They also graduate 90 percent of their players and have ranked No. 2 among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate the past two years, ahead of such brainy institutions as Duke, Northwestern and Rice.
"As a recruiter," co-offensive coordinator Blane Morgan said, "I can sit in a kid's home and say that at Air Force, we've been in the top 25, we play big-time games on national TV and you can get a degree that stacks up with any in the nation."
On this day, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Air Force is trying to do what it hasn't done in seven years: beat BYU. The Cougars' recent decision to leave the Mountain West has put a sizable target on their jerseys, to say nothing of their 24-6 record against Air Force.
Heavy traffic on the way to the stadium limits my tailgating presence, but that's OK. Unlike the majority of college football pregame parties, tailgating on Academy grounds is tame. The cadets generally grill some burgers and throw a football, then prepare for their march onto the field. Alcohol is a no-no here.
Usually, two aerial showcases follow the cadet march, but due to gusty winds today, the parachutists can't float onto the middle of the field carrying the stars and stripes and black prisoner-of-war flags at their feet. So we settle for a deafening blast above the stadium, and crane our necks just in time to see F-22 Raptor and F-15 fighter jets slice through the atmosphere like missiles.
The scene brings to mind what Fisher DeBerry -- Air Force's all-time winningest coach, who retired after the 2006 season -- told me the week prior to the game: "A lot of people come to see things associated with an Air Force game, in addition to the game itself."
The stands are buzzing. Contrary to what happens at other college stadiums, which might remain half-full well into the first quarter, nearly everyone at Falcon Stadium has found a seat before kickoff. The American flag on the north end of the oval flies at half-staff, a 9/11 tribute complemented by thousands of tiny flags being waved or worn by fans, as many as three in one bun of hair.
Honoring the country is official business here, as are the rules that dictate life at the Academy. But the football program has always provided an escape from the big picture.
"As freshmen, we're not supposed to fraternize with the upperclassmen, but when we come out here, it's different. Everyone's just like, 'Beat the Cougars!'" says Conor Favo, a "fourth degree" (aka freshman) from Pittsburgh. "Even though it's mandatory to attend games, I feel like most people would come anyway."
BYU, looking every bit a nationally ranked team, takes the opening kickoff and promptly drives down the field for a 7-0 lead. The score deflates Falcon Stadium, but not for long. Deploying its disciplined, cut-blocking option left, right and straight up BYU's gut, Air Force churns down the field without huddling. Eighty-four seconds after the Cougars' touchdown, Tim Jefferson lofts a perfect play-action pass to a wide-open Mikel Hunter for a 37-yard score.
BYU answers to make it 14-7, but it's the last time the Cougars will score. Second-quarter touchdown runs from Jefferson (5 yards) and Hunter (33 yards) -- a pair of electrifying athletes who would command respect in any major conference -- give the Falcons a 21-14 lead at halftime. Which, of course, is when they set loose the falcon.
Unfortunately for the handler, the falcon doesn't just snare his satchel of food and land on the handler's wrist. Instead, he flutters into the first row of seats, to the astonishment of the people sitting there, many of whom scatter like the raptor is a rattlesnake. The handler quickly arrives and settles everyone down while reclaiming his bird of prey.
The first Air Force falcon was named Mach 1. Now there are four in the flock, two at each game. If you don't want to watch their halftime show, you can wander the concourses and read hundreds of plaques honoring men and women who have given back to Air Force. Most of the plaques are recent, but the practice dates to -- and actually enabled -- Falcon Stadium's birth.
In 1958, four years after the Academy was founded, Air Force capped its only undefeated season with an appearance in the Cotton Bowl, an enormous achievement for such a young program. But the Falcons' 9-0-2 season did more than just put them on the national map; it helped raise money for a stadium of their own.
Until Falcon Stadium's opening in fall 1962, Air Force played its home games at the University of Denver. The situation was far from ideal, so cadets took action.
"We sent letters to airmen around the world and people throughout the defense industry, asking them to donate to our stadium," said retired Col. Brock Strom, a 217-pound All-American tackle and Falcons captain in 1958.
The influx of money stunned the cadets, enabling the $3.5 million stadium to be built into a sage-grass hill without using any public money.
John Lorber, a retired four-star general, scored the first touchdown in Falcon Stadium history against in-state rival Colorado State. It was the only touchdown of Lorber's career. He went on to command tens of thousands of troops in the Pacific, serving 35 years before retiring in 1997. Now he, like College Football Hall of Famer Strom, is a season-ticket holder.
When asked what he took from his Air Force playing days, Lorber said: "The pride in doing the job right."
"It's a completely different playing environment at the Academy," he said. "You play football for fun. It wasn't a job. You did it because you wanted to, not because you had to keep your scholarship."