Michael Walsh: Somebody You Can Count On
Oct. 26, 2008
Seven days earlier, he watched his players do exactly as he had implored them throughout the preceding week.
Finish, the head coach said over and over again. Finish.
Now, a light rain trickling from a Carolina sky, beads of water collecting on the lapels of his grey suit, he expounded on the theme by which those same players prepared for this new Saturday.
Believe, Ken Niumatalolo said in a soft-spoken voice that reminded you kickoff was still a couple of hours away. Believe, he repeated into a microphone, recording a pre-game radio interview.
Niumatalolo recited this mantra from a spot in the northwest corner of BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, wearing a red silk tie tautly knotted beneath the white collar of his dress shirt.
Not far behind, one of the typically blue-collar kids he coaches stood outside the entrance to the visiting team's locker room. Ideally, the young man would have been on the other side of those doors, with his fellow Navy Midshipmen.
Instead, as they dressed for the occasion, a meeting with unbeaten and nationally-ranked Wake Forest, Michael Walsh was left to stare at the still mostly-vacant stadium - collecting his thoughts, while supporting himself on a pair of crutches.
The previous weekend, he simply couldn't do what Niumatalolo demanded of the Mids at large. Injury wouldn't allow it. Before others finished, Walsh was forced to exit Navy's 23-21 win over Rutgers.
As a defensive end, a single misstep trying to fight off a block caused him to partially tear a joint capsule in his right foot. Another way of saying it, he suffered third-degree turf toe.
The same type of injury that once felled no less than Pittsburgh Steelers great Jack Lambert, one of the fiercest defenders in football history, suddenly left Walsh barely able to walk to the sideline.
So, for the foreseeable future, he too would sport a red accessory. Not a necktie, but rather the scarlet jersey that brands a player injured and bans him from contact in practice.
Almost always, that would also mean being excluded from any all-expense-paid trips to away games. Space on the travel squad is simply too precious. Depth is far too important.
But there are moments in life to make exceptions. And Niumatalolo knew this - a time when his Mids had to truly believe they would upend the No. 15 team in America - was one of them.
"Mike's a kid we take on the road because he brings so much to the team from a leadership standpoint," Niumatalolo said, nearly a month after he and Walsh stood just a short distance apart on their visit to Wake Forest. "He's almost in a tizzy, standing there on his crutches, sweating like he's going to play. I have to tell him sometimes to relax."
On the other end of a phone line, you hear Niumatalolo smile as he describes Walsh's game-day intensity - perspiration and all - even when he won't be playing. Then, his words take on an almost reverential tone.
"I see him with this injury, working tirelessly to get back on the field, and I hurt for him," Niumatalolo says. "I've been so impressed by him, by his leadership and work ethic to do what's best for the team.
"I just feel strongly about (Walsh) as a leader. People look up to him."
They also listen.
"Mike's been put in a hard position," explains Clint Sovie, Navy's defensive captain and one of Walsh's best friends. "He's stepped up as a vocal leader."
Never more than on that early afternoon last month, when Walsh eventually hobbled into the locker room from out of the pre-game drizzle to address his teammates.
"Mike gave the speech before Wake Forest," Sovie says, "letting us know we were the only ones who believed we could win."
And, more importantly, reminding them that theirs was the only opinion that mattered.
"It's not about me," Walsh later said of the role he now embraces, at least until he rejoins the Mids on the field. "I'm just trying to help them play their best."
Taking their cue from Walsh, the Mids did exactly that against the Demon Deacons, staging a 24-17 victory - Navy's first over an opponent ranked in the Associated Press poll since 1985.
Forcing six turnovers, including four interceptions of veteran Riley Skinner, the Midshipmen spent most of the day pressuring the usually unflappable quarterback into mistakes. When Wake tried to run, it managed a meager 43 yards on 31 carries.
Unquestionably, it was one of the most dominant performances by a Navy defense in recent memory. And though he never rushed the passer or brought down a ball carrier, Walsh was as much a part of it as anyone else.
He's been at the fore of the Mids' defensive front since the start of his junior year, pointing the way for younger linemen. When healthy, he's shown them. Suddenly injured, he's told them.
At Wake Forest, he watched them.
Defensive end Matt Nechak, who like Walsh converted from outside linebacker, dropped Skinner for a six-yard loss on a sack. The other end, Jabari Tuani, penetrated the backfield for two tackles for loss. In between, the immovable nose guard Nate Frazier anchored Navy's run defense.
Backing them up, Ryan Griffith forced a fumble, while Billy Yarbrough recovered one.
They did all this and more with position coach Dale Pehrson directing from the press box and Walsh assisting him along the sideline.
"I just want to help out anyway I can, keeping their heads in the game," Walsh says. "I try to be the eyes for Coach Pehrson when he's up in the box.
"When you're out there playing, you're reacting to the situation. You don't have time to analyze the situation."
"Mike will watch the (offensive) tackle closest to the sideline and relay what he sees to (assistant coach) Joe Speed," says Pehrson, who weighs those observations when countering opponents' blocking schemes.
Walsh's insight and influence don't end there. He often pulls teammates aside, alerting them to the things he notices. Where's the block coming from? Are you too far off the ball? He both poses questions, and provides the answers.
"He offers encouragement, suggestions, observations," Niumatalolo says. "Mike's right, he is an extra set of eyes. He knows what Coach Pehrson is looking for."
For his part, as a 13-year assistant at the Naval Academy, Pehrson knows what he sees. And, in Walsh, it's someone like few he's witnessed before.
"Of all the kids I've ever coached, he's one of the best," Pehrson said. "He's always a leader in the room."
By room, he could have been referring just as accurately, whether talking about the 'film' room, the locker room or the weight room. Or, certainly, that very little room in which a defensive lineman operates, separated from his counterpart by the mere length of a football.
"Nechak wouldn't be close to where he is without Mike," Pehrson said of Walsh's impact. "He's taken Tuani under his wing, just as Nate has. A lot of it is the attitude he brings to the room."
It's exactly the same attitude that fueled Walsh's emergence last season.
Adjusting to a relatively new position as a first-year starter, he and his mostly-inexperienced line mates remained a work in progress for much of 2007. There had been individual flashes, like Walsh's 10 tackles in an October win over Air Force.
But consistency and chemistry seemed to elude them until the last third of their schedule.
"None of them had ever been out there before," said Pehrson. "I saw them figuring things out. They started playing fast and things started to click."
Specifically, on a November trip to Northwest Indiana, and a journey into Navy lore.
By now, you should know the details of the epic outcome between the Mids of '07 and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Three overtimes; Navy 46, Notre Dame 44; end of a 43-game series losing streak.
More vividly, you should recall its seminal moments. They'll forever be replayed on the Mids' all-time highlight reel.
Among them is the touchdown by Chris Kuhar-Pitters, scooping a fumble off the grass and rumbling into the end zone for a fourth-quarter lead. Concluding them, always, is the climactic carry by Notre Dame back Travis Thomas, getting swallowed by a gold-and white wave of defenders.
Somewhat inconspicuous on both was a then junior who could be picked out by the number 38. He jarred the ball loose on that first play, and he was among the first to Thomas on that last play.
"I don't know what came over me," said Walsh, recently reflecting on that day in South Bend, where he swears he felt the earth shake. "I'm normally an intense guy, (but) that was a different level of intensity.
"I was just playing off adrenaline. I didn't feel tired. I didn't feel pain. I just kept playing hard."
Until - to borrow a coaches' refrain - the whistle sounded. It never did on the sack that left Kuhar-Pitters in the clear.
"I remember just coming up to the line and getting an extra burst of energy somewhere," Walsh recalled. "The whole game we knew we needed to force more turnovers.
"Nate (Frazier) had the quarterback (Evan Sharpley) wrapped up, so I shot past the (blocker) and went for the ball. All three of us stepped up."
Frazier got the sack, Walsh got the ball loose, Kuhar-Pitters got the score.
A little later, they all got the glory. But first, in the darkness of the third overtime, they had to stomach what seemed a gutless call.
In need of a two-point conversion to extend the game, Sharpley rolled right and threw to the short, right corner of the end zone. When his pass was deflected to the turf incomplete, the Mids started a celebration cut short by the sight of penalty flags. One, then another; pass interference; game not over.
"When that pass interference was called, I just got frustrated and mad," Walsh said. "I knew they weren't going to get in (to tie)."
After a Navy timeout, given a second chance at a fourth overtime, the Irish ran Thomas to the right. He was met by Walsh et al.
"It was the loudest game I've ever been in," said Walsh, his voice raised on octave or two. "It felt like the ground was rumbling."
Then the earth settled.
"Half the guys on defense just collapsed," he said. "I could barely move."
Like so many of his teammates, that Walsh was there in the first place - involved in two of the most significant plays in the 1,200-game history of Navy football - seems too good even for fairy tales.
In fact, if not for - get this - some other Notre Dame highlights, Sharpley might have held on to the ball and Thomas may have gotten in. The streak might not be over, after all.
That's because Walsh was once a member of the Irish. Albeit, the Notre Dame of Lawrenceville, N.J., a high school in the Colonial Valley Conference.
An all-league defensive end slightly more than 6-feet tall, he remained under the recruiting radar. Not even nearby Princeton, whose football camps he'd attended, showed much interest.
Sensing a call to service in the wake of 9/11, Walsh cultivated an interest in the Naval Academy.
"I knew I would end up serving the country, I just didn't know how or where," said Walsh, who visited Annapolis on a college tour with his mother, Susan. "Also, I knew I wanted to go to college and play football."
Walsh produced a video resume, featuring some of his best plays for Notre Dame - the Notre Dame in the light blue uniforms - and mailed it to the Mids' defensive coordinator Buddy Green.
There are hundreds of such videos sent to the Navy football office each year, according to Pehrson, who doubles as the team's recruiting coordinator.
"We get so many DVD's," he says. "We could bring in a thousand kids."
Instead, he and his colleagues pare the pile of would-be candidates to a handful. How does this player project here? Does he have skills we can use in our offense or defense? Are there physical attributes that offset his deficiencies? Is he serious about military service? Can he cut it academically? Will he have staying power?
These, and more, are the questions they ask. With Walsh, the answers revealed themselves.
"Coach Green ended up recruiting Mike," Pehrson says of Walsh, a player the Navy staff originally envisioned as a linebacker. "He did some things (on video) that made us take notice. He ran well and he was extremely tough."
In time, Walsh wound up in a program populated by good football players - many of whom failed only to meet height requirements or excite stop watches on other campuses.
"If I could do it all over again, I would," says Walsh, an economics major. "My experience is one words can't describe."
Navy proved the right fit - in part, because others deemed Walsh too small. How times had changed.
As a young child, Walsh was a big boy. Too big, it turned out, for the other kids in the Pop Warner Football program in Newtown, Pa. He wasn't allowed to play until he reached the age of 10.
"I couldn't play until the fifth grade," Walsh says. "Even then the coaches would make me run like five laps around the field and go to the bathroom to make weight.
"To me there wasn't a difference between playing in the back yard with my friends and playing the game in full pads. I didn't know what I was missing."
Sadly, by the time Walsh found out, what was missing from his life was the best football role model a boy could ever have.
His father, Thomas Walsh, was a three-year letterman at Villanova, an offensive tackle who earned enough respect to be named team captain as a senior. That fall, in 1977, he was good enough to earn All-East honors, protecting the Wildcats' quarterback and ECAC Rookie of the Year, Pat O'Brien.
For Michael, his youth would be marked by trips to Villanova Stadium, glimpses of his dad from old game films and stories from Thomas's career on Philadelphia's Main Line - stories, for most of his life, told by someone other than his father.
Thomas died of Leukemia before his son turned 10 years old. He never got to see Michael put on those shoulder pads in organized football.
Michael, at least, has the grainy video from the mid-to-late 1970s to see the kind of player he'd like to be.
"One thing I try to strive for is to give everything I have every time I play," he said. "My father made plays in clutch situations. He was always playing hard non-stop.
"That's the main thing that stood out to me. He played exactly the same way every game. I can't remember watching any tapes and not seeing him run over guys. That's how I want people to know me as well."
Ostensibly, they do.
"Mike's got an attitude of never quitting," says Sovie, whose campaign was cut short a year ago, also by an injury suffered against Rutgers. "He'll fight for anything."
"He's an extremely tough kid," adds Pehrson, who started tutoring Walsh when he moved to defensive end after his sophomore season. "One of the toughest kids I've seen here."
As much as a younger Walsh gained his toughness from his late football-playing father, Susan, he says, refined it.
"She wasn't one of those moms who would fix every boo-boo," said Walsh, whose mother eventually remarried, to the man he considers a second father, David Long. "She wanted me to figure things out and be my own person.
"She's a very tough woman. She's been through a lot."
Susan's son has also endured a lot - including injury and the arduous effort to rehab from it. Ultrasound treatments at 6 a.m., followed by other multiple visits to the trainer's room and untold hours in the weight room.
Soon, he'll even add swimming to his daily schedule. All with intent to complete the most meaningful autumn of Walsh's career. It's his last in Annapolis, and it's meant it to be a tribute to his late father.
"Last year, after the season," replies Walsh, asked when he first thought of changing his number to 78, the same as his dad. "I knew this was going to be my final season."
Walsh first discussed his intentions with Greg Morgenthaler, Navy's assistant athletic director for equipment operations. Check with Richard Marshall, he was instructed.
Seventy-eight belonged to Marshall. But, like Walsh, he sought a different number - also in honor of a family member, his older brother, a former college player.
A prior-enlisted Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq, Marshall obliged Walsh and adopted No. 48, fulfilling his own wish. This way, each could pay homage to a loved one.
"It means the world to him," says Sovie. "(Mike) was nervous about taking someone else's number. Richard showed that everybody (here) understands and is willing to give something up for a greater cause."
Identified by the same 78 his father wore, Walsh is proud to don a jersey that also belonged to someone who understands far better than most the concept of a greater cause, as a combat veteran.
"I've never heard most of the stuff he's gone through," Walsh says of Marshall, his teammate today and, he hopes, tomorrow - in the Corps.
"It doesn't surprise most people when I tell them that," says Walsh, discussing his post-graduate ambition. "Being here and on this team got me used to a brotherhood. Being a Marine is the best thing I can find to experience that same kind of brotherhood."
"He'll be a tremendous officer," says Pehrson, who's coached a dozen previous classes of Academy seniors commissioned as such.
An officer and, Sovie asserts, a gentleman. As Walsh's football brother, he knows what lies beneath his surface.
"Mike's got a heart of gold," Sovie says. "Behind all his toughness, he's got some softness to him. He's one of the guys you really can rely on.
"I can't say enough good stuff about Mike."