Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007 | Navy football ended its 43-year losing streak to Notre Dame, and Phil McConkey called Saturday’s 46-44 triple overtime victory, “maybe the greatest game ever played by the Naval Academy.”

My reaction: “Bigger than the biggest football win over Army?”

But in a Navy town like San Diego, the adopted hometown of the Buffalo native, who won’t give him a little joyful latitude?

McConkey was a Navy wide receiver in the inaugural Holiday Bowl in 1978 — he’s in the Holiday Bowl Hall-of-Fame — and won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants in the 1986 season during a six-year NFL career that finished with the Chargers in 1989.

“All around the world, you could hear sigh of relief from Navy personnel, Navy graduates and Navy football players,” McConkey said. “Some of us thought we would never see it in our lifetime.

“That game epitomizes the spirit and character of Navy football. It’s 6-6, 310-pound Notre Dame guys against 240-pound Navy guys. They go into the game undersized, but they always go into it playing to win.”

With one more victory this season, Navy (5-4) locks up an automatic bid to the third annual San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20 at Qualcomm Stadium against an at-large entry.

The win should come this week when the Midshipmen play at North Texas State (1-7). If not, winnable games remain against Northern Illinois (1-8) and Army (3-6).

“Besides the Navy people, I heard a big sigh of relief from Bruce Binkowski,” said McConkey, referring to the executive director of the 30th annual Pacific Life Holiday Bowl that manages the Poinsettia under the Holiday Bowl umbrella.

Navy played in the first Poinsettia Bowl in 2005, helping that game establish itself as the little brother of the Holiday Bowl. Navy senior Reggie Campbell, an explosive 5-foot-6, 168-pound slotback, would be among the players returning to the Poinsettia Bowl.

In the inaugural Holiday Bowl, McConkey caught the game-winning pass to beat BYU in the final moments. That finish established the bowl’s history for dramatic comebacks.

“We have a long history of Navy supporting the game,” Binkowski said. “This will be the 30th year the teams will have their luncheon on an aircraft carrier (the USS Ronald Reagan).”

A long-standing and beneficial relationship is the reason Navy and Notre Dame have continued their series, even though the 43-year losing streak is an NCAA record.

During World War II, Notre Dame was a small all-male school that lost so many students to the war effort it faced the possibility of having to close its doors. But the Naval Academy, with plenty of candidates, started sending officers to be trained at the South Bend, Ind., campus (including my uncle, who later was a Marine Corps Colonel at Camp Pendleton)

In return, Notre Dame continued to schedule Navy, guaranteeing big gates for Navy football.

Before Saturday, Navy’s last win over Notre Dame was 1963, the year when Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy before going on to serve his military commitment and then become Captain America as the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback and a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer.

There have been plenty of near-upsets by Navy, including the 1997 game when Morse High alumnus Gervy Alota was a team captain as a senior safety. Navy was stopped at the 1-yard line as time expired to leave the Midshipmen on the short end of a 21-17 loss.

In 1999, a bad spot allowing a Notre Dame first down and eventual touchdown n “the worst official’s call I’ve seen in 40 years of watching football,” McConkey said n enabled Notre Dame to win 28-24.

But Navy hasn’t backed down from renewing the Notre Dame series.

John Shacklett, the retired Morse High football coach, once had three former players from his state-power teams started for Navy in the mid-1990s — Alota, guard John Moe and wide receiver LeBron Butts. Shacklett recalls Alota telling him that the players were offered a chance to vote on continuing the Notre Dame series. The vote was a unanimous yes.

“Of course it was,” McConkey said. “Why wouldn’t you want to go play at a place like Notre Dame? If you’re a Navy football player, you want to play against the best. When I went to Navy, I was 5-foot-10, 145-pounds, but I believed I could play major college football.”

Something else McConkey loved about Navy’s win was Notre Dame’s sportsmanship. Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weiss and his players stood with Navy’s players after the game during the traditional singing of Navy’s Blue-and-Gold alma mater.

McConkey is still angered by Navy’s treatment at Rutgers in a loss earlier this season when the Rutgers students booed and chanted “You suck!” to Navy’s players. New Jersey newspaper accounts said the chants included, “F— you, Navy!”

“It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen, and a disgrace that Rutgers’ coach and athletic director allowed it to fester,” McConkey said. “Keep in mind, when I went to the Naval Academy, as a country we were getting out of a war. These kids went to Navy after a war had started. That’s all you need to know about who these Navy kids are and what they’re made of.”

No chance, of course, of such disrespect when Navy comes to San Diego.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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