Sept. 20, 2012
The Army quarterback never really had a chance. Faking a handoff to the fullback should have gained him a step or two. It did nothing, at least to the two linebackers who, without the slightest hesitation at the sight of ‘play action’, crashed the backfield, keeping only him in their crosshairs.
Try as Trent Steelman did to Houdini his way out of trouble, spinning away from Navy’s Jarrod Shannon, there was no great escape from the grasp of Matt Warrick. With fewer than six minutes remaining in a six-point game, Warrick hurled Steelman to the turf. Steelman landed to the right of the passing pocket that never materialized, just short of the Midshipmen’s 35-yard line.
Officials marked the ball at the 29. The difference means little. What matters at this stage of the 112th encounter of Army and Navy is the decade-long divide between the two. The Black Knights last won in 2001. Ever since, in fact as cold and hard as winter at West Point, they haven’t been remotely this close, nearly this late.
But now, trailing 27-21, they faced 3rd down and 11 yards to go. No thanks to Warrick, who in impacting the Army-Navy game is living a childhood dream. Though not exactly as he dreamt it.
With few exceptions apart from family and teammates, the identity of Navy’s first-time starter at inside linebacker was unknown in early December 2010, at the outset of the 111th Army-Navy Classic. The Mids had played 25 games since Matt Warrick first reported for plebe summer, and he’d appeared in only two of them.
But with a linebacker’s number -- 51 -- and a linebacker’s look -- his shoulder pads seemingly broader than most -- Warrick was on the field on the second-to-last Saturday of the fall. He had been impressive defending the Mids’ option offense in practice. And because the Black Knights were of a similar style, it made sense to Navy coaches to reward Warrick with his first career start.
Anonymity to outsiders didn’t last long. Again and again, 13 times in all, Warrick’s name was called on a tackle by Navy. No one else’s -- teammate Tyler Simmons also made 13 stops -- was heard more frequently.
Warrick has remained in the lineup since. He entered last weekend at Penn State as a starter in 15 straight contests. That his streak started with Army is only appropriate; for West Point is where, almost literally, Warrick’s story begins.
At the same age Matt left home in Missouri for the United States Naval Academy, his father Vince was leaving Tennessee for the United States Military Academy. Each fulfilling the same calling, albeit at different places, while playing different sports. Matt was a football recruit; Vince a baseball recruit.
The elder Warrick graduated and served 13 years in the Army, piloting helicopters and rising to the rank of major. Near the end of his military career, he was stationed in Garmisch, Germany. Already caring for two daughters, Vince’s wife Nancy gave birth to a third child, and their lone son.
Before their boy was toddling around, the Warrick’s left Bavaria for the St. Louis area. Vince transitioned into the business world, eventually to manage a venture capital and private equity firm. Though his youngest, Matt, never experienced life as a ‘military brat’, military values were very much a part of his upbringing.
“My dad got out of the Army probably the year after I was born, so I didn’t really move around a lot, at least because of the Army,” Matt said recently, about a week away from his senior season opener. “But definitely, with my dad being in the Army, it impacted the way I was raised, with him teaching us the values the military talks about: respect, discipline and stuff like that.”
Vince also taught Matt about “Duty, Honor, Country,” and the special place where those cherished concepts form the motto. And naturally, the football team representing it.
“I always grew up watching West Point football on television and thinking it was so cool,” he says. “It’s kind of funny...”
Instead of completing the sentence, Matt chuckles at his thought, which is as easily understood, as it was unspoken.
Army has run another play. Steelman made up four of the five yards lost on Warrick’s sack. The Black Knights are losing ground and losing time. Unless they prolong this series, they’re in danger of losing the game. Again.
Their head coach Rich Ellerson uses the first of three timeouts. It’s 4th down. Army is seven yards from a fresh set of downs, 25 yards from the end zone and 4 minutes, 39 seconds from the same, stale feeling. Odds are, if they don’t convert here, the Cadets will have seen their best opportunity to take the lead over the Mids pass them by.
On the other side of Landover’s FedEx Field, Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green has a good idea of what to expect. Years of experience and weeks of scouting video inform the strategy he wants Navy to employ when play resumes.
Of course, whatever call is made, by either team, whomever executes it best wins the down. And, in all likelihood, the day.
From behind the Army offense, an end zone view reveals Warrick about five yards off the line of scrimmage, on the right hash mark. Immediately before Steelman receives the snap from center, a Black Knight back motions from the left wing to the right. Steelman starts in that same direction. So does Warrick, shuffling two, maybe three steps to his left and inching forward.
Suddenly, unblocked, he shoots between the right guard and tackle. On the 12th play of a series consuming nearly six minutes, and representing really Army’s last, best hope, Warrick again drives Steelman back. This loss is worth a yard, and so much more. CBS will later air the highlight toward the end of its coverage as the “Play Of the Game.”
More than eight months later, Warrick will downplay his role in halting the Black Knights, asserting that he was simply carrying out his responsibilities.
“Really they were just perfect calls by Coach Green,” he will say of his 2nd- and 4th-down tackles. “Both were the same calls, calls we hadn’t run much during the game. They worked out perfectly, like he was in their huddle.”
Unlike his son, Vince Warrick considered only one service academy. He was a West Pointer all the way.
But when Navy assistant coach Chris Culton began recruiting Matt out of Marquette High School, and the idea of an education in Annapolis became a strong possibility, Vince mainly stayed out of the way.
“He didn’t pressure me to go to West Point at all,” says Matt, who attracted interest from both schools primarily as a running back. “He kind of helped me to guide my thoughts, but didn’t pressure me one way or the other. I can’t really think of any single piece of advice that he gave me, but he just made sure I knew what was best for me and my future. He definitely helped me a lot to reach (my) decision.”
Warrick traveled to West Point and Annapolis. Despite the first of his football loves, he was smitten enough with the latter to accept appointment to the Naval Academy.
“After I came on my visit and saw the coaching staff, the way that they conducted their jobs, and just the opportunity I would have coming here, it seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” Warrick says of what ultimately made him bond with one brotherhood over another. “They’re great people, but they’re really good at their jobs. I respected them instantly.”
Initially, those coaches kept him on offense. Weighing close to 190 pounds, the 6-foot-2 Warrick didn’t look or run like the typical Navy slot back. In a position crowded with others smaller in size and fleeter of foot, he could neither make the travel squad nor graduate from the scout team. Warrick didn’t dress with the varsity until the 2009 home finale, in mid-November against Delaware.
Following the Mids’ season-ending Texas Bowl rout of home-state Missouri, his sisters’ alma mater, Warrick took part in conditioning drills as if an offensive back. Soon before the opening of spring practice, he got an offer too good to refuse.
“After ‘Fourth Quarters’ (workouts) my freshman year, Coach (Ken) Niumatalolo came to talk to me,” Warrick recalls of a conversation with Navy’s head coach. “He basically told me that I had a better opportunity to play if I switched to linebacker.”
Accepting such a move would pair Warrick with a new position coach, Steve Johns.
“His style of running back wasn’t conducive to this style of offense, like the guys they have playing now, the little guys,” Johns explains. “Matt’s a bigger kid, and he was kind of stuck on the depth chart there. But athletically, he was as good or better than the guys we had at linebacker, so we thought we’d move him and that he could really contribute.”
“At that point, I was definitely ready to accept it because I had spent the whole year on scout team as an A-back,” says Warrick. “I didn’t really see myself working my way into any playing time there, so I was pretty excited.”
But unlike many contemporaries who play two ways, on offense and defense, in high school, Warrick was a virtual novice on his new side of scrimmage. Unaccustomed to covering pass routes, for instance, he faced a greater learning curve than the competition for playing time at inside backer.
But while lacking against most types of offense, Warrick accelerated his understanding of and ability to react to option attacks. For obvious reasons related to repetition.
“I never really played linebacker in high school at all, so when I got here and started playing, all my experience the spring of my freshman year and sophomore season was against the option,” Warrick says. “I’d never really seen a different kind of offense in a live situation before.”
Appearing only on a pair of hot, humid Saturdays in September, versus Maryland and at Louisiana Tech, Warrick watched eight consecutive games without leaving the sideline. In late November, Navy started preparing for Army. And Warrick started opening eyes.
“Going against our scout team offense, they were running Army’s offense, and I guess I was practicing pretty well,” he remembers. “At that time, I wasn’t very good playing against conventional offenses, pro style offenses that other teams run. But I felt like I had a strength against the option and that’s pretty much what (our coaches) said. So they put me with the starting defense a week before the game.”
As you know, he was still there the day of the game.
“It definitely was really crazy,” Warrick continues. “I never expected it. Going through the whole season, I barely played at all. When I found out I was starting, I definitely had to take a step back and take it all in for a second.
“I remember just running out of the tunnel and seeing the crowd, just seeing the game from the other side. I’ve always grown up watching it, but I don’t think you appreciate how big it is or how important it is until you’re on the field. It’s a surreal experience.”
Yet it was really happening, as witnessed by a certain West Point grad who well before then made a pact with his son.
“(Dad) told me my freshman year that he’s going to be a Navy fan the next four years,” Matt says of Vince, USMA Class of 1980. “But after that, he’d have to switch back to Army. I don’t think it’s been too hard for him, but after I graduate, he’ll go back to being a West Point fan.”
That’s another nine months, or four if counting only playing days. One who’s certainly keeping track is Matt himself.
“You take less for granted,” he said of his 2012 seniority. “Every day in (preseason) camp you’re thinking, ‘This is my last camp ever.’ So I think you put a little more into it than you did last year.”
Including his present-day role helping to affect the future.
“I think I’m expected to be a leader by example, first and foremost,” Warrick says. “We have a lot of great leaders on defense, so I just have to make sure I set the example for the young guys.”
To Niumatalolo, Warrick is doing just that -- and more.
“If there’s a prototype, a mold of recruit here, it’s Matt Warrick,” said Niumatalolo. “He gets good grades, he’s never in trouble and he’s a heck of a player.
“He plays a thousand miles an hour. He makes my job easier, because I don’t ever have to worry about him, anywhere...he’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
Observing the way Warrick tends to his daily business, others can also note what he endured as the Mids’ leading tackler in 2011.
In his third game at South Carolina, Warrick made eight tackles. He also incurred his first stinger of the season.
By definition of the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, a stinger -- or burner -- is “an injury to the nerve supply of the upper arm, either at the neck or shoulder. The injury is named for the stinging or burning pain that spreads from the shoulder to the hand. This can feel like an electric shock or lightening bolt down the arm.”
On its own, each is temporary. But in Warrick’s case, each led to another.
“They got pretty bad last year,” he says. “They were to the point where every time I hit somebody, I’d end up getting one. There was a period of time I couldn’t take on blocks in practice.
“There was a good chunk toward the end of the season, probably four or five weeks, where I was in a green jersey every day, not hitting. That’s frustrating, when you can’t practice the way you want to.”
Being a relative newcomer at linebacker, missing out on regular contact inhibited Warrick’s development.
“That definitely hurt him,” says Johns, no pun intended. “We just had to be very careful.”
“I think it definitely impacted the way I played,” adds Warrick, who this year is fitted with a special collar and free of similar problems. “Maybe not physically, as much as mentally. In the back of my head, I probably didn’t feel as prepared as I wanted to be, and maybe I was a little more hesitant than I should have been.”
Until that is, the waning minutes of the finale with Army.
Two seconds are left on the clock; time for one last heave, if not a prayer. Following Warrick’s takedown of Steelman to end Army’s previous drive, Navy burned four and a half minutes, with eight plays and a punt. Only by spending their final two timeouts were the Black Knights able to regain possession -- at their own 10-yard line.
They can only resort to a variation of the ‘hook and lateral,’ a play made famous by the Miami Dolphins during a 1982 NFL playoff game. Steelman will try to throw deep downfield and hope for his receiver to pitch the ball to a trailing teammate to keep the play alive.
Navy knows this, of course. Green has all but a couple of defenders abandon the line and wall off their half of the field.
On the last play of the day, in darkness just outside the District of Columbia, Steelman drops back and lets loose toward the left sideline. Davyd Brooks comes back to make the catch. He’s at Army’s 39-yard line. So is Warrick.
Wrapping his arms around the Brooks, Warrick makes sure there’s no lateral to follow the hook. A little while ago, for all intents and purposes, he ended the contest. Now he’s done it officially.
It’s the ninth tackle overall, and third in Army’s last four plays for the son who once loved his father’s Black Knights but now loves his Navy brothers.
“It was definitely a crazy feeling running off to the sideline,” Warrick will later say of those late-game stands. “It was surreal for sure. Seeing the rest of the defense going nuts, it was pretty awesome.”
Matt Warrick still isn’t sure what service he’ll select. He’s a history major largely due to his interest in a Naval Academy class taught by, believe it or not, an Army lieutenant colonel during his plebe year.
His choice is narrowed between Surface Warfare or Marine Corps ground, so Matt won’t be following Vince into aviation; just as he didn’t follow his father to West Point. But as before, Matt will follow Vince’s advice.
“My dad says there’s two ways to approach it,” Matt says of a military career. “You can tell yourself that you’re going to stay in, until you have a reason to get out. Or you can tell yourself you’re going to get out after five years, unless you have a reason to stay in. I think I’m going to approach it: stay until I have a reason to get out.”
Like the decisions he’s made to date, including the one to join Johns’ group of linebackers, whatever Warrick opts for is likely to turn out well.
“He’s a high-character kid, just really wants to get better, a good learner who pays attention to the game,” says Johns. “Everyone likes coaching kids like that.”