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D.J. Palmore: Navy's Servant Leader

Nov. 5, 2017

Darren Palmore already was quite familiar with the precocious nature of his oldest son on that memorable day, nearly seven years ago.

As a freshman at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, D.J. Palmore had just gotten established in the football program as an undersized linebacker on the freshman team. He also had decided to whet his curiosity by giving organized wrestling a try for the first time.

At that point, Palmore was a raw athlete in a gangly, 170-pound frame, barely 14 years old. He had taken quickly to the tutelage of then-wrestling coach Chris Lewis, and had shown enough ability and potential to earn a roster spot and a chance to wrestle in a match.

Palmore approached his first encounter with nervous excitement. The older Palmore also looked forward to that debut match with lots of apprehension.

How would his son, who had barely been schooled on the mat and would be squaring off with a more experienced opponent, hold up in his competitive opener? In the end, the father could not stay put and watch.

“It looked like [D.J.’s opponent] was bigger and better than him. I had to walk out of the gym,” recalls Darren Palmore, who was unable to stomach the idea of watching his son lose badly, or maybe suffer a possible injury.

The father later returned to the gym to find his son grinning, as he delivered the news to his father. Yes, D.J. had won the bout.

“D.J. doesn’t surprise me with anything he does anymore,” says Darren Palmore.

The story of Navy senior outside linebacker D.J. Palmore, Navy's outstanding, 6-feet-3, 236-pound “raider” and this year’s defensive captain, is essentially a reflection of that fearless, fast-learning wrestler – who, by the way, would go on to be part of two state-title teams and, as a senior, would overcome a shoulder injury to become a heavyweight state champion.

Over his four years in Annapolis, Palmore again made his mark as a quick study. For the past two seasons, Palmore, a three-year starter, has set a standard by leading the Mids in sacks and tackles for loss.

With his relentless hustle to the ball, his ability to shed blocks and the aptitude to read a play quickly and disrupt it, Palmore has a flair for making big plays at opportune times.

Check out his two, key fumble recoveries in Navy’s thrilling, 48-45 victory over Air Force last month.

Consider his beginning in Annapolis. Palmore, who passed up offers from Wofford, Tennessee-Martin and – most importantly – Air Force, came to Navy direct from his hometown of Bartlett, Tennessee. No prep school year was deemed necessary.

When Palmore reported to the academy on Induction Day in the early summer of 2014, he was nearly three months shy of his 18th birthday.

Palmore did not go the way of most plebe football players, who battle mainly to survive the sleep deprivation and fatigue that define their grueling, inaugural summer of military indoctrination, not to mention the extremely demanding school year that lies ahead.

Instead, Palmore managed to thrive and become part of Navy’s short- and long-term football plans.

“I had days when I didn’t think I could make it through four years of this. Everybody here struggles,” Palmore says. “When you’re living in it, you don’t see the reasons why your first year [as a Midshipman] is so hard.

“But after you get through it, you start to realize what you’ve learned from it. Plebe year is designed to get you. It humbles you,” he adds. “No one who comes here is used to asking for help, but you learn to do that. You realize that later on you’re going to be the one that has to help [younger] people around here.”

Palmore didn’t just make the travel team as a plebe. A year after he capped a three-year run as a starter at Christian Brothers by earning first-team, all-state honors as a defensive end, he battled his way into Navy’s linebacker rotation. He contributed on special teams and appeared in five of the last seven games of the 2014 season to earn his first letter – another rarity for a plebe. Palmore is one of just five seniors on the Navy roster to have entered the season with three varsity letters under his belt.

“D.J. came here as a man. He’s one of the few guys who has never been on the scout team,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo says. “D.J. had that ‘it” factor we saw from the time we started recruiting him. The game just made sense to him and he’s worked super-hard at it. He has never gotten rattled by the moment.”

As a sophomore, Palmore began to take off as the raider in Navy’s 3-4 defensive alignment by starting all 13 games and making 36 tackles, including five for loss and two sacks. He punctuated his year by going back to Memphis and helping the Mids upset the 15th-ranked Tigers (and hold Memphis to a season-low 20 points) by making seven tackles.

Coming into his junior season, Palmore was primed to do special things. He was stronger than ever, one of Navy’s surest tacklers and adept at giving blockers fits on the edge, rushing the passer and dropping into pass coverage. His 56 tackles last year included 11.5 for losses and five sacks.

“D.J. consistently finds ways to be in the right position to make plays. It’s not luck that he has recovered three fumbles this year,” says Justin Davis, Palmore’s position coach. “That’s about playing fast and going hard to the ball.

“When we go to our four-man front, [Palmore] is a really good pass rusher at defensive end, and he’s good at dropping back to cover in our zone-blitz,” Davis adds. “D.J. is good at self-correcting and picking his spots in situations – when do I try to strip the ball or just get the ball carrier on the ground? He does things the right way in the [Bancroft] hall, the classroom, the weight room and the locker room.”

Senior slot back Josh Brown, who bonded with Palmore during plebe summer, rooms with him and remains one of his closest friends on the team. Brown says Palmore’s “unstoppable motor” defines him as a competitor and teammate.

It shows in the locker room, where the soft-spoken Palmore mingles easily with players of any class, sometimes just to socialize or joke around, sometimes to detect a problem he senses is affecting a player’s performance. That’s part of a captain’s responsibility. It’s also a big part of Palmore’s natural charm. He refuses to carry himself like anybody special.

“People have gravitated to D.J. since his sophomore year. Even the older guys did. He has the gift,” Brown says. “He walks into a room and has the ability to connect with anybody. He loves to have fun, but he has this on-off switch, when to goof around and when to get serious. That kind of self-control isn’t something a lot of people our age have.”

“Being a captain has definitely pushed me more to know about our guys, especially the younger ones,” Palmore says. “I have to be aware of situations and be able to see things before they happen. [For example] if I catch someone slacking off uncharacteristically, my job is to find out what’s going on. Is everything all right?”

While watching Palmore take to the wrestling mat so impressively for a beginner – and be part of a program that was nationally ranked for two years – Christian Brothers head coach Chris Lewis says Palmore was mature beyond his years.

“One of the most straight-up young men I’ve ever met,” Lewis says. “D.J. was just a hard-working kid going about his business. He didn’t say much. I wasn’t sure if wrestling meant that much to him. But he enjoyed the science and study of it. By the end of his sophomore year, he could take you down seven different ways. You knew he was going to be something special.”

Besides winning the Division 2 state heavyweight wrestling crown in 2014, Palmore was a two-time, state duals champion. And he took a similar path in track and field at Christian Brothers, where Palmore decided to join the team and try his hand at throwing. He lettered twice and made it count as a senior by winning the Division 2 regional title in the shot put and finishing as the state runner-up.

“[Palmore] could accomplish anything we asked him to do because of his drive and commitment,” says former Christian Brothers football coach Scott Vogel, who recalls how Palmore took a dramatic developmental step after his freshman season.
Palmore had started to fill out physically, and weighed about 180 pounds as a sophomore looking for a linebacker role on the varsity. He lacked the explosive quickness that would come later.

But there was something about Palmore’s discipline that told Vogel he could fill a glaring need on the defensive line, specifically as a tackle in the team’s 3-4 defense. Palmore happily took up the challenge, became obsessed with linemen technique, and enjoyed sacrificing his body so that linebackers behind him could make plays.

“We weren’t sure how D.J. would react. Guys often don’t like being moved that close to the line of scrimmage,” Vogel says. “It went from, ‘Ok, we’re going to play him,’ to ‘Ok, he’s going to start,’ to ‘Ok, we can’t get him off the field.’ Three weeks later, D.J. is a starting lineman for a team that would get to the state semifinals.”

Palmore kept growing and filling out and stayed put at defensive tackle. As a junior, he became the best player on Vogel’s defense. The following year, Vogel became head coach and played Palmore both ways. He earned all-state honors on the defensive line and played in the Liberty Bowl All-Star Game.

Palmore finished those three seasons with a team-best total of 249 tackles, while producing 21 sacks, six fumble recoveries and two interceptions. As a tight end in his senior year, Vogel says Palmore was the best in the league at that position.

What made Palmore especially endearing to Vogel was how goal-oriented he was and how good he was to others.

During Palmore’s senior season, Vogel recalls how he spotted a sophomore teammate riding his bike to school along the same route Palmore was driving to school. Palmore offered to drive his teammate anytime he called in the favor.

“[Palmore] is as good as it gets, so unselfish. He believes in servant leadership, which is what Navy preaches,” says Vogel, who relishes the memory of Palmore, showing up at school at 6 am during wrestling season to lift weights every day but match day.

“D.J. liked being part of something bigger than him,” he adds. “I’m only 36 years old, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never coach another one like him. Once Navy started reaching out, we couldn’t see him anywhere else.”

That same impressive kid is now barely 21, six months away from graduating with a degree of economics and being commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps if he gets his wish. And Palmore is still turning Niumatalolo’s head with his obsessive work ethic. 

During a recent bye period, with 12 week exams dominating the days and players’ rest being a top priority, there was Palmore, requesting extra lifting time and requesting permission to call players’ meetings.

“I was like, ‘D.J., get out of here and get some rest,’” Niumatalolo says. “I’m amazed at the guys who just excel everywhere and have his kind of energy. I need time to decompress. D.J. is just a highly motivated kid with a high maturity level.”

When asked about his place in the team’s hierarchy, Palmore defers to teammates such as Brown, who has overcome several injuries that have deprived him of two years of playing time, just to play as a backup slot back in 2017 in his final season.

“Guys go through so much here – get injured, come back, get injured again, come back again or never make it back,” says Palmore, who after eight games ranks third on the team with 47 tackles and leads the Mids with 9.5 tackles for loss. “The guys who stick it out and are just getting a chance to play, they won’t get the credit they deserve. But that’s the kind of people Navy football is based on to me. I’ve had it easy.

“You sometimes have moments when you’re thinking, ‘What might I be doing if I wasn’t doing this?’” he adds. “Now that I’ve been through what I’ve been through, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. It’s really been a blessing.”

 

 

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