While catching a breather during basic training in 2004 at the U.S. Military Academy, Eric Baker made small talk with a fellow first-year cadet.

“Where are you from?” Baker asked.

“Pickerington, Ohio,” Steve Hueckel said.

Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra 

“No way, I used to live in Pickerington,” Baker said.

Hueckel looked briefly at Baker, then called out, “O-H!”

Baker's reply — “I-O!” — marked the beginning of a close friendship.

During the next four years, the two shared their passion for the Buckeyes, at times sneaking out of Army football games (cadets are required to attend all home games) to listen to OSU games in their barracks.

This week, nine years after both men graduated from the academy, Baker and Hueckel have reunited to watch the two schools closest to their hearts meet in Ohio Stadium. The game Saturday afternoon is the first between Army and Ohio State.

“I just feel extremely prideful,” Baker said. “I’ve always been proud to be an Ohio State fan, and I will always be proud to be an alumnus of West Point — so just seeing Army go out there and compete with Ohio State will be the icing on the cake.”

Baker and Hueckel aren’t alone in their dual loyalties. About 2,250 veterans attend Ohio State, according to Mike Carrell, director of the school’s Office of Military & Veterans Services. Not all are Army veterans, of course, but Carrell said a number of festivities are planned to celebrate the rare occasion. This is only the third time a service-academy team has played in Columbus (Navy visited Ohio Stadium in 1931 and 2009).

“We’re trying to make it feel a little different than just playing another team,” Carrell said. “There will be a lot of people whose heartstrings will be tugged both ways.”

Walt Gouldin is one of those people.

The Virginia native was a walk-on with the Army football team from 2005 to '08 and later spent 11 months deployed in Iraq. Gouldin got out of the Army in 2016 and looked for a good school at which to pursue a master’s degree in business. His wife is a Youngstown native, so Gouldin chose Ohio State.

“It’s a neat opportunity for both of my football experiences to merge together in a weekend,” said Gouldin, 31. “I have a couple of good friends coming to town who I went to school with at West Point, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

Gouldin said he will root for Army, but he added: “I think it’s a weekend where everybody wins. I think there will be a lot of mutual respect on both sides.”

Unlike Gouldin, both Baker and Hueckel say their hearts are with the Buckeyes today.

Hueckel, 32, grew up in Pickerington and graduated from Bishop Hartley High School before heading to West Point in 2004.

“Buckeye football is a passion in my family,” he said. “Wherever we are, every time Ohio State scores a touchdown, we call each other.”

Baker lived in Pickerington for four years (third through sixth grade), long enough to remain a Buckeye fan when his family moved to Cincinnati, where he graduated from Wyoming High School.

Both men said that following Buckeye football helped them through their Middle East deployments.

While in Afghanistan in 2011, Hueckel watched OSU host Wisconsin in what for him was the middle of the night.

Baker, who was home on leave, was at that game, and when OSU won on a last-minute touchdown pass, Hueckel tried using Skype to celebrate with Baker.

“I was yelling into the laptop, 'Eric!' but they were partying so loudly there (in Columbus) that he couldn’t hear me,” Hueckel said.

The two have attended several OSU games together, the most recent in 2012. Both left the Army in 2013.

Hueckel attended OSU, earning his master’s in 2015, and now works in the oil-and-gas industry in Houston. Baker, 31, lives in Cincinnati and works as a customer-account manager for a poultry company.

They're spending time this weekend with several other West Point buddies and hope to have about 20 to 30 people tailgating before the game.

“I want it to be a good game,” Hueckel said. “I want Army to play lights out and mistake-free and give OSU a run for its money if possible. But in my heart, I am rooting for Ohio State.”

Like his buddy, Baker hopes Army plays well. He cried tears of joy, he said, when Army beat Navy last year to end a 14-game losing streak in their series.

Still, he wants the Buckeyes to come out on top.

“Deep down, I’m cheering for Ohio State ...  but this (meeting) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”