In my time covering Navy athletics I’ve learned two important things about the Academy and the kind of men who play sports there. One is that the Army-Navy Game means an incredible amount to these players. The other is that every single member of every athletics team has a story to tell. From the star quarterback garnering national hype to the four-year scout team player who never cracks the three-deep, each member of the Navy football team is there for a reason, and that reason is the most refreshingly pure expression of college athletics imaginable.
The love of the game, and the love of his teammates and school.
During Army-Navy week that love is on full display in Annapolis, especially for the senior players who go to work on the practice field day-in and day-out only to stand on the sidelines come gameday. For those like safety Brian Blick, the importance of Army-Navy can’t be glossed over. You see, for Blick, there won’t be an opportunity Saturday to score the go-ahead touchdown, and he’s not likely to make the defining fumble recovery to give Navy its tenth straight win in the series. But that doesn’t matter, because for Blick and those like him, the Army-Navy game isn’t about who gets the spotlight.
“The Army-Navy Game, to me, is a celebration of the Brotherhood,” said the North Carolina native, who has played in six games this year, mostly on special teams.
When asked to elaborate, Blick recalled a conversation he had with Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo before the season started. Looking at a picture of a past Navy team at the White House during the presentation of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, Niumatalolo asked the longtime scout team player to tell him what he saw.
“I told him when I look at that picture I see a bunch of tough guys,” Blick said. “Guys who’ll battle through adversity no matter what happens to them. To me, the Army-Navy game is the epitome of that team, and what builds a Navy football player.”
If a tough guy who battles through adversity defines a Navy football player, be prepared to see a picture of fullback John McCauley in the dictionary right next to Blick. A 6-foot, 247-pound backup who has never carried the football, the former wedge-buster McCauley all but disappeared from the radar of most Navy fans following the NCAA’s decision to ban the “wedge” return style in college football games. But even now, as a scout team player in practice, he’s more than happy to lay the wood to help his teammates improve.
“When I did play, and even now when I’m just in practice, people know me for my toughness, just hitting people really hard,” he said with a grin. “That’s basically what I’m known for and what Navy football is all about.”
McCauley suffered a serious foot injury last spring and was unable to practice, but love of the game – and a stern desire to play in one more Army-Navy game – propelled his rehab and motivated him to return. When asked to describe what Saturday means for him, he didn’t hesitate in showing his excitement.
“This is the game of the year,” McCauley said. “No matter what the records are, no matter what the bowl game is, this is the game. Sweat, blood and tears; that’s all that matters. This game is what the whole season comes down to.”
For some, the meaning of the Army-Navy game is deep-rooted. Torri Preston, a former fullback and reserve nose guard whose father spent 32 years as a Marine Crops Gunnery Sergeant, remembers watching the Army-Navy Game as a child and being drawn to the possibility of one day playing in it.
“I saw it on TV when I was little, and I always knew that being in the Marine Corps and being in the military was something I wanted to do,” Preston explained. “Watching that game on TV, I always imagined that someday that could be me.”
Preston, like Blick, said that preparing for the Army-Navy game and having the chance to be a part of the rivalry makes all the anonymity of his career and ups and downs of a losing season worth it.
“To me, playing Navy football is all about my brothers,” Preston said. “When I go out there everyday – I mean I’m not necessarily a star player or anything – but everybody on the team has an equal role, whether you’re a scout guy or a starter.”
“You’ve got to come to work everyday like you’re the starter,” he continued. “You’ve got to work like you’re the number one guy to give those other guys the looks that they need in order to be successful.”
If there’s one person who knows how much the Army-Navy Game means for the seniors – especially the backups and scout team players – it’s Niumatalolo. Asked if he wanted to use this year’s game preparation as he would a bowl game, the third year head coach made clear that he has but one-goal in mind for Saturday; to send Navy’s seniors out on top.
“This game means everything to everybody,” Niumatalolo said. “Especially the seniors with all that they sacrifice for the school. This is an exciting time for them. My number one goal is hopefully to send our seniors out the right way.”
As for Blick, McCauley, Preston, or any one of the other seemingly anonymous Navy senior backups who go into their final college football game against Army, they’re all proud to point out that they wouldn’t trade their experiences at the Academy for anything else. Stardom or anonymity, they feel blessed to have joined the elite fraternity of the Navy football “Brotherhood,” and know that the four years they’ve spent on the practice field of Rip Miller Stadium have been worth it.
“I wouldn’t trade anything,” said Blick. “It’s been a blessing to be a part of this program, a part of this Brotherhood. No matter what happens – no matter how my career has played out – it’s been the biggest blessing in my life, and I’m thankful for every minute of it.”
AdamNettina – at – gmail.com