A Saturday All to Themselves
Dec. 10, 2010
By Bob Socci
For a change, he wasn't pacing a sideline somewhere before tens of thousands, wearing a headset over that white visor of his.
Nor was he shifting between stations on a practice field, under cover of a Navy blue jacket worn to break the cold wind off the Severn River. And he most definitely wasn't in the Twin Cities, Music City or anywhere else advertising a BCS university head coaching vacancy.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Ken Niumatalolo was one of about 2,500 sitting in a grandstand in Upper Marlboro, Md. Not so much as a college coach, he was there, simply and proudly, as a father to a high school senior.
Va'a Niumatalolo was playing in what would turn out to be the final game of his Broadneck High School career. His Bruins would fall to Henry A. Wise, 14-7, in a Class 4A semifinal.
However lingering the disappointment of that outcome, it likely won't outlast the fond memories of a holiday weekend unlike any other in Niumatalolo's previous 12 years on the Naval Academy staff.
"It was nice to be a dad," he said several days later. "It was great to just hang out with my wife and kids."
In seasons past, Thanksgiving was a working holiday for Niumatalolo, his Navy colleagues and their charges. Prior to 2009, Army was always around the corner, set for the first weekend of December. Therefore Turkey was on at the Naval Academy's King Hall, but only after a Thursday morning practice.
Last year, like this, Army-Navy was scheduled for the second Saturday of the month, as part of a new contract with television partner CBS. But Thanksgiving meal was served in Honolulu, where the Midshipmen where preparing for an extra regular-season game against Hawaii.
Now, three full weeks have come to pass, between Navy's home finale and its ultimate encounter, opposite West Point. The Niumatalolos and the rest of the Mids had their holiday break.
Extra family time - or for many players unable to return home over Thanksgiving weekend, at least a little down time - is a benefit of the new Army-Navy calendar. Another is the very reason CBS wanted the game pushed back in the first place.
Tomorrow afternoon, the nation will have all of one Division I football game to watch live; the 111th edition of Army-Navy, still an American classic. While many of us have always valued the rivalry as one that stands apart from all others, once again it's literally true.
Of course, three weeks off test both Mids and Black Knights. Such a long break leaves a very fine line between being well prepared and overly prepared. Both coaches, Niumatalolo and West Point's Rich Ellerson, have tried to make as efficient use of time as possible.
Shorter practices should lead to a crisper performance in Philadelphia. That's the idea, and the hope, to rise above the challenge presented by the longer-than-usual layoff.
A potential drawback of the timing of the game is an extra week of recruiting for Air Force. Rivals in Annapolis and West Point have been hunkered down, breaking down video. Meanwhile, Falcons' coaches have been out and about, knocking on doors.
Initially, Niumatalolo feared that this new Army-Navy reality might prove to be a setback for his program's future. But fear of losing traction on the recruiting trail was allayed last year, after the Mids beat the Cadets, 17-3.
He discovered that competing on a national stage, exclusively belonging to Mids and Black Knights, more than made up for lost time. Especially for the triumphant.
"It was amazing how many people saw that game," Niumatalolo said of last year's victory. "The volume of homes it helped get us into was far greater that we could have reached otherwise."
Army-Navy is back where it belongs. Always unique, it's now truly separate once again.
Tomorrow afternoon, anyone within reach of a remote will have one choice when it comes to watching college football. In time, it may go a long way in deciding where some choose to play college football.