Nov. 10, 2008
By Bob Socci
More than three hours had come and gone since the opening kickoff.
So too - or so most of us thought - had any chance of a Navy win. So what - many seemed to be saying - if there were still seconds yet to elapse off the scoreboard clock.
Any glimmer of hope appeared to go the way of the brilliant afternoon sunshine and the succeeding gloaming. It was ominously dark in Annapolis. And the brightest lights shined not from stadium towers, but from the rear of all those cars crawling toward Rowe Boulevard.
Whoever was in those vehicles, who could really blame them? Temple had the lead, the ball and time on its side. Temple had everything, except for the obviously imminent - a victory celebration.
Watching from the sideline, under the lights of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and oblivious to the distant red lights of those seeking an early start to their Saturday night, Jarod Bryant wasn't about to turn his back on his teammates.
"Really, I was just thinking about how much time we would have when we got the ball back," Bryant recalls.
As offensive captain of the Midshipmen, he shared at least one assumption with anyone else still looking on. The Owls would take a third-down snap and then take as much time as possible, before punting possession back to Navy for one - at most, two - last-gasp attempts at a miracle.
Just as surely, they'd order their quarterback, Adam DiMichele to take a knee. Only they didn't. DiMichele stayed on his feet as he pulled away from center and handed the ball to freshman running back Kee-ayre Griffin.
Almost 7 p.m., Temple was ahead, 27-20, and on the verge of spoiling Senior Day for Bryant and his classmates. Suddenly, for these anything-but-nocturnal Owls, it was midnight. Beneath a full moon.
"It was unreal," Bryant says of what he then saw. "I was just as shocked as anybody else."
In a change as abrupt as any in recent Navy memory, Wyatt Middleton got to Griffin, Ross Pospisil stripped him of the football and Clint Sovie recovered the fumble on the run to improbability. If not, immortality.
Sovie covered 42 yards in reaching the end zone with 37 seconds left, leaving it up to his fellow co-captain, Bryant, to perform one of the game's most underappreciated duties.
For the Mids to tie and, consequently, force overtime, Bryant would have to handle the snap from Scott Reider and keep the football in place for Matt Harmon to convert the extra point. He'd have to do it by extending his right hand, reaching out from an ailing right shoulder.
"I didn't talk to Matt," said Bryant, still mindful of a similar situation in 2006, when an overtime loss to Tulsa ended on a missed extra-point attempt. "Scott and I made sure we got in rhythm (practicing on the sideline) as long as we could before it was time for Matt to kick."
An official's replay review of Griffin's fumble allowed a few extra practice snaps. Then, it was finally time to drop to a knee in the center of the field. At no time, Bryant says, did his shoulder bother him.
Had there been the slightest discomfort, no way would it linger any longer than the time it took for Harmon to strike his game-tying kick through the stadium's south uprights.
Minutes later, the Mids to a man were feeling no pain, intoxicated by the events of overtime. Temple missed its opportunity, dropping a would-be touchdown pass on fourth down. Navy seized its chance, scoring on a 1-yard run by Ricky Dobbs.
The Mids, who trailed by 20 points when the exodus in Annapolis began early in the fourth quarter, had recovered to beat the Owls, 33-27, and clinch a sixth-straight postseason appearance.
"We put ourselves in that position," Bryant said days later. "We didn't quit. It paid off in the end.
"It's expected of us to find a way to win. We've been down in a lot of games, we've been up in a lot of games. There wasn't any point in that game that we thought we were out of it."
Not even when senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada re-aggravated a hamstring injury, with Bryant, who directed the most memorable rally of 2007, unable to replace him. And not when Dobbs, a third-string sophomore when the year began, was intercepted to set up a Temple touchdown.
"Right after (Ricky) threw that interception, I said, 'Look, we're still in this game. You can still do this,'" says Bryant, who dismisses any suggestion that his teammates drew their willpower from their captains. "I wouldn't say it's something we did. It's something that developed over our four years here."
His head coach doesn't quite agree.
Ken Niumatalolo has watched Bryant face the shifting winds of fate and fandom. He's seen the transformation from one season to the next, how the junior star of someone else's Senior Day can be overshadowed on his own.
He also understands as well as any just how flimsy the fortunes of a backup quarterback are. One day you're hailed a hero - as Niumatalolo was nearly 20 years ago at Hawaii, riding off the bench triumphantly against San Diego State and UTEP, like Bryant last season against Duke and North Texas - and the next you're back to holding a clipboard. If you aren't holding for the kicker.
"The backup quarterback is always the prettiest girl at the dance," Niumatalolo joked earlier this year. "I went in, and then they wanted the other guy."
In Bryant's case - and in the spirit of Niumatalolo - there were times when he was Grace-Kelly or Scarlett-Johansson good. Never more than when the 1-and-2 Midshipmen were playing to save their '07 season, trailing Duke, 43-32, into the final period.
Bryant entered in place of Kaheaku-Enhada, just in time to spark a 16-play drive that led to a field goal, before his next series under center presented third down from the Blue Devils' 5-yard line.
He pitched the ball to his right, to Bobby Doyle, and ran to the left, eventually making a sliding touchdown catch on Doyle's option pass. The difference at 43-41, Bryant followed his grab with a two-point conversion run, tying the game with 2:51 remaining.
The next time he touched the ball, following Ketric Buffin's interception that gave Navy possession at its 26-yard line with 38 seconds to go, Bryant weaved his way up field for 35 yards. He carried four more times, allowing Joey Bullen to deliver his last-second field goal for a 46-43 win.
By November, Bryant was feeling less like the belle of the ball than a stopper out of the bullpen. More like Mariano Rivera than Michelle Pfeiffer.
"I felt like a closer at some points," he says with a laugh. "Someone told me last year that I was a closer."
At North Texas, he inherited a third-quarter drive from an injured Kaheaku-Enhada, gave the Mids their first lead with a 6-yard touchdown rush and sealed the deal in a historically-prolific, 74-62, win.
The following weekend, before 34,517 in Annapolis, Bryant was given the ball as a starter. He wound up with a team-high 139 yards rushing, as Navy beat Northern Illinois, 35-24. On Senior Day.
But in the months since, between then and his own Senior Day, Bryant's gone through a move to and from a different position, come under the intense scrutiny of others, as well as the weight of his own expectations, and gone down to injury.
Through it all, he's regained his footing to stand much taller than his listed 5-foot-10, exhibiting what his head coach consider a saving grace.
"I feel for the kid," Niumatalolo says. "Being the backup quarterback is always hard. Last year he came in and did some great things. This year he's taken a lot of criticism, unfairly. I've been very impressed with the way he's handled it. Jarod's never complained about it.
"It could have been very divisive. But the way he's handled (his situation), it hasn't been divisive at all. Being named captain tells you what people think about him. Guys have seen what leadership he brings."
"Clint and I have a really good relationship," says Bryant, referencing his fellow co-captain, Sovie. "Our main deal is, whatever happens, we have to be the leaders of this team. That's what we're gonna do."
It's what Bryant has done, even before his teammates voted to give him any official title as their spokesman and leader. Starting in the offseason, at the first mention of a potential position change.
"Last year he came in and gave us a spark and won some big games for us," says Ivin Jasper, Navy's offensive coordinator. "We wanted to find a way to get Jarod out there (on the field)."
With the experienced and talented Kaheaku-Enhada expected to return for his third year as starting quarterback, the plan was to put Bryant at slot back - a position that marries the skills of running, receiving and blocking.
"He's a tough, smart player who could block," Niumatalolo explained. "He's what we were looking for in a slot back, a complete back able to do everything we were looking for."
Jasper concurred, though he also understood what such change meant for Bryant - mentally, perhaps more than physically. He dealt with the same transition during his own career, like Niumatalolo, at Hawaii.
On common ground, Jasper could see eye to eye, and speak heart to heart.
"We share a special bond," Jasper says. "I've told him I did the same thing he did. I played slot back my senior year. I knew it was rough for him.
"It's tough to go back and forth. I know that deep down he wanted to play quarterback. But he said all the right things and didn't rock the boat."
What did was an early-August and recurring injury to Kaheaku-Enhada. His pulled hamstring forced Niumatalolo and Jasper to pull their plans for Bryant. He was a quarterback once again.
But the offense he inherited faced significant challenges. Up front, only Anthony Gaskins and Andrew McGinn had started before. At slot back, Shun White no longer had graduates Reggie Campbell and Zerbin Singleton to complement him. Adam Ballard also graduated, leaving fullback to Eric Kettani alone.
Much thinner and much less experienced, Navy's offensive cast had to contend with a schedule far more rigorous than any in recent memory. Four of the first six games were on the road. Three of the first seven opponents wound up in the national rankings.
There's also the specter of playing against the past - the constant comparisons to earlier Blue and Gold scoring and rushing machines - and weekly uncertainty. Was Kaipo-Noa healthy enough to return? If so, would Jarod play any slot back?
After rolling over Towson, the Mids fell to still-unbeaten Ball State and much-improved Duke, in a game started by Kaheaku-Enhada and completed by Bryant, whose performance was being dissected in chat rooms and on the radio.
No longer in this not-so-brave world of athletics is the question asked, 'What have you done for us lately?' Instead, it's, 'What are you doing, right here, right now?'
Bryant was doing his best, which to others and, admittedly, himself, didn't seem quite good enough.
"I want to do something the best and do it perfect every time," he said. "There were a couple of games I probably put too much pressure on myself.
"I don't think I've had a complete game and played as well as I should. I'm pretty critical of myself."
"Without a doubt," says Jasper. "The look in his eye was different. He had the weight of the world on him."
Bryant was quarterback, essentially, for all but eight quarters of the first seven games. The Midshipmen were 4-3, their losses to teams who entered last weekend a combined 19-6. He'd followed up the clinching score at Wake Forest with 100-plus yards rushing in a win at Air Force.
Maybe he wasn't as fluent or fluid in the triple option as the quarterback he was being asked to relieve. But Bryant was tough as nails. Inside and out.
"Don't be deceived by his good looks and nice Southern accent," Niumatalolo says of Bryant, his choir-boy appearance and Alabama dialect. "He's a tough resilient young man."
Reinforcing his point, Niumatalolo recalled Bryant's instinctive reaction to a field goal try blocked by Temple.
"On the blocked kick and run back," he says, "I'm watching (Jarod) and he's trying to defend (the return), trying to ward off a guy with one shoulder."
"He's the kind of kid you want to go to bat for, you want in the foxhole with you or in the back alley backing you up," adds Jasper. "Jarod was voted the toughest kid and the 'foxhole' kid in spring practice."
Bryant showed why, yet again, in the season's eighth game, on October 25 opposite SMU.
That rainy, windy day is best remembered for Dobbs' 42-carry, 224-yard emergence in a 34-7 rout of the Mustangs. Yet, it was Bryant who staked the Mids to the early lead and helped set the tone.
His six carries overall netted 48 yards and an extraordinary average of 8.0 yards per rush. On his second-longest run of the day, covering 20 yards to convert on 3rd-and-4, Bryant was injured. Diagnosis was a sprained acromioclavicular (AC) joint, his scapula was separated from the clavicle. Bryant and training staff retreated to the locker room.
Diminutive even by Navy football standards - so small he's often mistaken by Academy professors as a member of the Mids sprint (lightweight) team - Bryant soon returned.
Not satisfied simply to watch, he went back into the game and, confronting 3rd-and-11, galloped 23 yards. It was the most important run of a scoring drive he couldn't finish. Three plays later, Bryant gained another three yards, started toward the sideline and toppled to the turf in pain.
"He suffered an A.C. sprain and had it fixed up and tried to play again," says Niumatalolo. "That shows his toughness."
His inner fortitude has been revealed more fully in the days since, as the youngster Dobbs has become the object of adulation and Bryant has faced injury's frustration.
"Jarod's stayed upbeat. I don't think there's any envy or jealousness," Niumatalolo says. "I know he's a competitor. I've seen him on the field for four years. I know he'd like be in there (at quarterback) too. But he's still a team guy when it's all said and done."
"Of course, I want to be the quarterback, but I do what I can to contribute to this team," says Bryant, a young man rich in faith. "I've spent a lot of time praying, asking God to use me how He needs to use me.
"I've been able to do a bunch of different things, on (special teams) and playing quarterback. You check your ego at the door. At the end of the day, I care about winning."
Much to the appreciation - and admiration - of Niumatalolo.
"I see the selflessness," he says. "Jarod put himself on the back burner for the betterment of the team."
"You can only control what you can control," says Bryant, a 22-year-old philosopher. "You can control your work ethic and how hard you practice. I tried not to let things discourage me. Going out and practicing every day and working hard every day is something (I) can control."
And while Bryant can't control the messages from those who follow or cover the Mids, he's always willing to accommodate questions that aren't so easy to ask, let alone answer.
"Answering questions from the media, I obviously started to realize that there are some people who aren't my biggest fans," admits Bryant, who says he's "happy for Ricky" and considers Dobbs "a good kid and a good quarterback."
Always gracious, because it's the right way to be.
"I try to tell myself to remember that people are watching us," Bryant says. "They even make judgments about you as a person because of the way they see you as a player.
"You can look at people and how they handle bad times. It's easy to do the right thing or act right when things are good. You can tell a lot about a person in times of adversity or when people doubt you."
Niumatalolo says, "The way he's handled things have made him a better person."
And exposed Bryant as a bigger person. Despite the doubts of others.
"Maybe if I was 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2, I wouldn't have worked as hard or done the things to put myself in position to play college football," he says. "Maybe God uses me and my size to reach other people. I don't think a lot of people would look at me and think I'd be a college football player."
But if they look closer, they'll see someone short in stature, yet tall enough to meet the most important measure of a Navy football player.
"A lot of guys that played here before, I just looked up to them and how important the (Midshipmen) 'Brotherhood' was to them," Bryant says. "I just hope people look at me and, despite how I played, realize what I put into this place. Hopefully, they'll see (I) wasn't all about Jarod Bryant. (I) was about this team, that (I) cared about the Brotherhood."
That connection, it's what helped make the incredible win over Temple so indelible.
"It was a pretty cool day," Bryant says with a sigh. "The last time we played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"I remember my freshman year, talking to (ex-Navy quarterback) Craig Candeto. He said that returning to the stadium gave him chills. Now, I understand where he's coming from. A lot of people have grown up a lot at that stadium. It's been a big part of my life, being in the Brotherhood."
As they've grown up, we've watched them. Particularly Bryant.
Dr. Bill and Konie Bryant's youngest son, one of four children, came to Annapolis out of Hoover High School, a national football power near Birmingham. But after playing for a three-time Alabama state champion, most of his plebe season was spent in anonymity.
Until the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. The Mids were in the process of defeating Colorado State, 51-30, when then head coach Paul Johnson summoned Bryant to make his varsity debut. He rushed three times, totaling 26 yards.
With each carry, the Navy sideline erupted in excitement, players and coaches alike imagining how much Jarod's appearance must have meant to Bill, who was watching from stands.
"It was just a great weekend," Jarod remembers. "My brother (Justin) and my dad got to hang out with me. I just remember him being so excited. I didn't expect to play. I remember him saying something like he just wanted to see me run out in my gold helmet. It didn't quite register at the time."
Bill, an orthopedist and fixture in the Hoover community, had been battling lung cancer since the spring of 2003. Two years later, three days before Christmas, he was at Qualcomm Stadium, watching his son play football for the last time. He died the following June.
"His dad wanted to see Jarod play," Jasper recently said, speaking into his cell phone from his own son's basketball practice, and pausing to collect his thoughts. "We didn't know about his situation when Jarod visited here (as a recruit).
"You would never have known what the kid was going through. We talked about it as a staff, and Coach Johnson wanted to do play him. It (still) touches my heart."
As you'd expect, Bill's influence on Jarod was profound. So was, and is, that of his oldest son.
"Justin was never the best athlete, but he was my role model," Jarod says of his brother, a nurse in the Birmingham area. "I always thought he hung the moon. Just the way he handled everything in his life."
Unfortunately, his big brother couldn't make it to Jarod's home farewell with the Midshipmen. Among those on hand were his sister, grandparents, local sponsor Penny Vahsen and family friend Tony Franklin, a former coach at Auburn University.
And, as always, Konie Bryant.
"My mom's been to every single game," Jarod says. "It's crazy. I don't know how she does it."
Already, he jokes, his mother is planning to join the Mids next year in Hawaii, even after Bryant graduates - likely to become a Marine Corps pilot. Much more immediate is this weekend's visit to Baltimore.
Hopefully, less than a month after injuring his shoulder, Bryant will be under center. There is precedence for such a prompt return.
"They said John Elway did it," Bryant says laughingly of the example invoked by team doctors and trainers, referring to the Hall-of-Fame quarterback's recurring shoulder problems in 1991-92. "He had a lot more arm to spare."
Bryant may not have the arm, but he's certainly got the heart. Contrary to what he'll concede, more than enough to go around. As the Mids proved two weeks ago.
"It's why you coach here," says Jasper. "I don't think you'll find kids like ours anywhere else."
"Everybody pretty much plays with a chip on his shoulder," Bryant says. "We're out to prove something. It's amazing, just inspiring.
"If you put a lot into something, you get a lot out of it. I don't know how much I've punt into it, but I've taken a lot out of it."