President Obama congratulated some service academy athletes at the White House Monday as he awarded the 39th Commander in Chief Trophy to the Air Force Academy football team.

"This is a group that has a lot to be proud of, but obviously the most impressive thing about these young men, the thing that sets them apart is that being a football player isn't what defines them," the president said in the Rose Garden. "They're airmen first, and more important than any bowl game or trophy is the commitment that they've made to serve this country."

The trophy, which is named for the President of the United States who is of course the Commander in Chief of all US military services, is awarded to each seasons winner of the college football series between the three military institutes - United States Military Academy (Army), the United States Naval Academy and the United States Air Force Academy.

Air Force, who leads the Commander in Chief's count with 17 trophy wins, had been in a dry spell since 2002, so the Falcons victory last November over Army's Black Knights was due.

"Until this year no one on this team knew what it felt like to beat Army, to beat Navy, to visit the White House and to earn football bragging rights over the other branches," Mr. Obama to the group of Air Force cadets. "Now you know the feeling."

Their victory broke Navy's seven year winning streak, bringing the trophy back to Colorado Springs for the first time in eight years. Navy is second in the trophy count with 12 wins, Army ranks third with six. The three academies have shared the trophy four times.

"This team found a way," the president said of the cadets' balancing act between athletics and military training, noting now that the football season has ended, the seniors begin a transition to a very different life as they, the president put it, "become part of the finest military that the world has ever known."

"I know that the camaraderie, the work ethic, the brotherhood that all of you have built as part of this team will serve you well as you defend freedom around the world," said Mr. Obama. "As President, I have no greater honor, no greater responsibility, than serving as your Commander in Chief. And as all of you begin your service to our nation, I want you to know that we are going to do everything in our power to help you succeed and help you come home safe. You all make us incredibly proud."

The cadets presented their Commander in Chief with two gifts - an official Air Force football with the president's name and the scores of the academy's victories over Army (35-7) and Navy (42-22) and an official Air Force football jersey.

The players joked they couldn't put the number 44 on the jersey - as in the 44th President of the United States - because Navy already did that last year, so instead they decided on 23, the number the president wore when he played basketball. "My old number, Obama noted, "Before Michael Jordan, by the way."

The trophy was first awarded in 1972, by then Commander in Chief Richard Nixon. It was the idea of Air Force General George B. Simler, the commander of Air Training Command and former Air Force Academy athletic director.

The other two federal service academies - the United States Coast Guard Academy and United States Merchant Marine Academy - do not participate in the Commander in Chief's trophy competition. These two smaller schools, who compete in Division III athletics, instead face one another in the Secretaries Cup each year.