Nov. 14, 2013
For as long as he has worn shoulder pads, Navy senior wide receiver Matt Aiken has been known as a tough, smart, sure-handed player with no trace of fear in him.
He is essentially the same kid whom Doug Aiken, Matt’s father, remembers as a restless spectator at the recreation football practices of Matt’s older brother, Danny.
“When Danny was five and playing football, I got Matt a uniform when he was three, and started letting him come to practice to watch,” Doug Aiken said. “I would tell Matt to stand way back from the action. He was only allowed to tackle anybody if they came into his area. I’m figuring there’s no way that would happen. Then, there would be a pileup, and somehow Matt would end up on the bottom of the pile. Then, we’d run another play, and there’s Matt at the bottom of the pile again.”
At 6 feet, 195 pounds, Aiken is a grown man now, preparing to serve his country after being commissioned a military officer upon his graduation from the academy next spring. But he remains addicted to competition in general and the game of football in particular, and everything about his history at Navy reflects that. Just ask his teammates, who elected Aiken, the quiet, unassuming guy from Roanoke, Va. with the hard-driving work ethic, as a co-captain of this year’s team.
“Best teammate you could ask for,” said Brendan Dudeck, Navy’s junior wide receiver. “Matt pushes every one of us day in and day out. He gets it done on the field and in the classroom. He’s helped me get adjusted to everything around here.”
“Matt just has that presence. He doesn’t say a lot, but he says what needs to be said and people listen when he says it,” added Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. “I know he’s going to be there for us. I know he’s going to run a crisp route or make a good block or make a play when we need him. I’ve never heard him whine or complain about anything. It takes endless hours of study to be successful. He always puts in the time. I think that kind of encompasses why he became a captain.”
In hindsight, Aiken had been auditioning for such an honor for years. Following a decorated high school career during which he was a three-time, first-team, all-state (Va.) selection as a receiver, Aiken was dealt an unpleasant dose of reality. He wasn’t good enough to draw interest from Division I football schools – until Navy appeared in the picture during his senior year at Hidden Valley High School.
“Football has been my true love. I was always pretty good at it. The game came naturally to me,” Aiken said. “My dream was to play Division I football. I was doing everything I could to get noticed. I sent out letters and video to all kinds of schools. But I never got that first offer until Navy called me late in my senior year. At that point, I felt like my pride was on the line.”
Aiken pieced together the big picture – the chance to play at college football’s highest level in a well-established, successful program, the opportunity to get a government-funded education, serve his country and pursue a future with a good job in or out of the Fleet – and Annapolis looked very attractive.
Aiken, the leader of a productive corps of Navy receivers in 2013, has paid his dues to get to this far. After spending a year at Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., where he played and bonded with teammates and fellow senior wideouts Casey Bolena and Shawn Lynch, Aiken has been good enough to get onto the field throughout his time as a Midshipman.
He also has had to overcome two injuries to his right knee, the second of which tested his resolve by knocking Aiken out of the first four games of the 2012 season.
To watch Aiken as a senior is to witness a player who was never going to be denied. Not last fall, when he put himself through a demanding rehabilitation to return to action for the last nine games and went on to catch two TD passes. Not this year, when Aiken has shined with his command of his assignments and the Navy offense.
“You have to be a special kind of person to play wideout at the Naval Academy,” said Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, alluding to the triple option attack that demands receivers to be effective blockers first and foremost. “We were excited to get Matt here, because he was a really good player with a great feel for the game in high school – a tough kid who wasn’t a burner but could get open and catch the ball. “
Watch Aiken’s grasp of the fundamentals, from his excellent blocking technique to his precise route-running to his unflappable ability to catch the ball in the clutch. Watch him talking with Reynolds or Navy’s other receivers on the sideline, where Aiken dissects opposing defenses with a quarterback’s eye. And watch him make plays.
In South Bend against Notre Dame on November 2, Aiken nearly won the game, on a day the Mids ending up swallowing a wild, 38-34 defeat to the Fighting Irish. Midway through the fourth quarter, there was Aiken, slipping past a Notre Dame defender while avoiding a bump coming off the line of scrimmage, cutting diagonally to his right while getting behind the defensive backfield, and catching a Reynolds pass in stride before completing a 34-yard scoring play that gave the Mids a 34-31 lead.
“Matt recognized the defender was looking to collide with him, but he released [from the line] seamlessly, dipped his shoulder to create some separation and ran a perfect route. Whatever he’s required to do, he just does his job,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “That might mean blocking a cornerback, cracking back on a safety or down-blocking a linebacker or defensive end. Matt gets it done. He’s not the biggest kid. But he knows the game, he thinks on the run and he doesn’t get caught up in the big moments when guys sometimes make mistakes.”
Aiken has been that way since he showed up at NAPS, where then-coach Mick Yokitis – now Navy’s receivers coach – ran the team and saw the immediate potential in Aiken.
“If he was a step faster and a couple of inches taller, Matt might have had a chance to play in the NFL. But he still had that football IQ that allowed him to play the game fast and smart,” Yokitis recalled.
“When he scored three touchdowns against Army Prep that year, he showed he was a natural playmaker. But he made the adjustment to a block-first mentality very well, which is what we need here [running the triple option]. It was obvious that his football savvy and understanding of the game was exceptional. He grasped the entire offense, which gave him a competitive advantage over the other [receivers].”
Although he didn’t catch a pass in his first year at Navy, Aiken played in 12 of 13 contests in 2010, proving he was too valuable not to earn a letter. He also had a 61-yard touchdown reception from former QB Ricky Dobbs called back by a holding penalty.
By his sophomore season, Aiken would win a starting job and become a young leader with the Mids. He returned 10 punts for 50 yards and became the team’s second-leading receiver (13 receptions, 201 yards, two TDs) by averaging 15.5 yards per catch. During a late-season loss to San Jose State, he injured his right knee. He played through the pain in a season-ending win against Army.
By January of 2012, the problem had been diagnosed as a torn meniscus, and Aiken had it surgically repaired. After a diligent and successful rehab that spring, he was on schedule to start the season opener after a strong training camp. But less than two weeks before Navy’s much-anticipated opener in Ireland against Notre Dame, Aiken caught a pass and got hit directly on that right knee again, before crumpling to the ground.
“I thought it was a season-ending injury. I remember just putting my hands on my head. I couldn’t believe it,” said Aikens, who was relieved to discover that the injury would not sideline him indefinitely and would only require more rehab. “Then I got way too familiar with ice bags and ice baths.”
Behind the initial good news was a bittersweet realization. Aiken definitely would have to miss the Ireland trip, as well as Navy’s visit to Penn State in mid-September.
“I was definitely excited that I was going to get back on the field in a few weeks, but missing Notre Dame and Penn State really hurt,” he said. “Those games were part of the recruiting pitch to me. You dream about playing in games like that. I had no choice but to make sure that more hard work would pay off. I couldn’t wait to get back.”
With Aiken out of the lineup, Navy struggled early, losing three of its first four games. Then, the season changed at Air Force. That day, Reynolds took over behind center, while Aiken rejoined the fray and caught a big, 16-yard pass in fourth quarter. Navy came from behind to win in overtime, 28-21.
Two weeks later, with the game on the line against visiting Indiana, Aiken made his presence known by catching the game-winning pass from Reynolds, a four-yard toss in the face of an all-out blitz by the Hoosiers. Aiken’s savvy was on display, as he crossed the line of scrimmage into an open area and turned around immediately to give Reynolds an easy target.
Aiken wore a knee brace throughout the 2012 season, as he helped Navy finish 8-5 and regain the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy by catching seven passes for 61 yards and two scores. The huge catch at Notre Dame was his first touchdown of what has been a strong senior year.
Hundreds of miles to the north in the Boston area, Danny Aiken said, “I was running around my apartment after Matt made that catch [at Notre Dame].”
The Aiken brothers talk to and text each other often from their entirely different football worlds. Danny is in his third season as the long snapper for the New England Patriots. A classic, late bloomer, Danny was a junior varsity center at Caves Spring High School in Virginia, before a growth spurt happened. He eventually became a high school quarterback, but needed to attend Fork Union Military Academy for a year. At Fork Union, he put to good use his knack for snapping the ball accurately to punters and placekicking holders, and it earned him a football scholarship to Virginia.
Danny eventually made it in the NFL as an undrafted free agent and got to live an amazing dream by playing in a Super Bowl with the Patriots as a rookie. Matt, who watched him play numerous games at Virginia, was there in person to see Danny represent the AFC champions.
“When they were growing up, Matt got most of the accolades as a football player. Dan was behind. But then he grew into his body and got much bigger,” Doug Aiken said. “Matt was always driven. Dan was more easygoing. But they have always been best buds and they are still that way. I had an older brother and we fought all of the time growing up. I can think of maybe one fight Matt and Dan have had.”
Growing up in Roanoke, where Doug works as an auditor and his wife, Vicki, owns and operates a landscaping business, the boys spent much of their youth either playing ball, hiking, camping or fishing. Some of their testiest moments came during one-on-one basketball in the driveway or in backyard football games. But those were the only moments that marked any sibling rivalry.
The two actually hooked up on the football field at Caves Valley. As a senior quarterback, Dan completed a pass to a freshman receiver who happened to be his little brother.
“Our personalities are so much alike,” Matt said. “We’d get after each other in the backyard, but we never got so mad that we weren’t good friends again five minutes later.”
Danny agreed. He remains a huge admirer of Matt’s. Since New England had a bye last week, he traveled to Annapolis to see his brother play against Hawaii. That was a no-brainer.
“I could not be more proud of [Matt] and the decision he made to come to Navy,” Danny said. “In the end, he’s going to fight for me and my country. He’s become a great role model and a real leader. It’s been a pleasure to see.”