A View From The Booth: Getting A Rivalry Defined By Commonality
Navy's John Howell enters, before re-defining his exit.
Dec. 11, 2012
By Bob Socci
A half minute earlier, Army head coach Rich Ellerson took the one timeout he'd left his team for the waning seconds of the 113th football encounter of West Point Cadets and Navy Midshipmen.
If only to delay the inevitable. And for half of the 69,607 at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, prolong the misery. During the stoppage, the stadium's massive video boards featured a close-up of the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy, which for the 16th straight year would belong to someone else.
When the break ended, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was about to be named most valuable player, took the game's penultimate snap. There was need for merely one more kneel-down to seal the Mids' 11th consecutive win in the series.
In that moment, as the final seconds elapsed, Ellerson's counterpart, Ken Niumatalolo, was compelled to do two things. The first involved one of his veteran leaders. The second, one of Army's.
As a sophomore, John Howell caught the longest pass in Army-Navy history, running the last of his 77 yards toward the same south end of The Linc where the Mids now aligned in victory formation. Howell had shredded the ligaments stabilizing his right knee in late September, suffering an injury sure to be career-ending. For weeks, he rehabbed from surgery mindful of a single goal: to recover enough to run out of the locker room with his Academy brothers one last time, in time for Army-Navy.
Howell made it. He was at the head of the line forming in the stadium tunnel, carrying a Marine Corps flag. Emerging into the open air of South Philly, Howell jogged -- as his teammates charged -- along the Mids' sideline.
That remained his vantage point for the football theatre ongoing into early evening. Howell had watched Navy rally for a late 17-13 lead, before seeing Army threaten to eclipse that advantage.
But 14 yards from possibly stopping their skid against the Mids and recapturing the CIC title for the first time since 1996, the Black Knights fumbled their chance away. In the sudden change of circumstances, Niumatalolo saw an opportunity to give Howell more than he could ever wish for.
Reynolds knelt twice, before and after Ellerson's last timeout. Then, for the final act of Army-Navy: Episode 113, Niumatalolo sent Howell onto center stage to stand over Reynolds' right shoulder.
In the third line of fine print in the game summary, as part of the Mids' participation report, "33-Howell, John" will always mark the time Niumatalolo helped a senior re-define the end of his playing career.
To the surprise of no one who knows him, it was a classy gesture by Niumatalolo. So was his next. Once Reynolds' knee dropped to the ground, Niumatalolo sought out Ellerson and went searching for Trent Steelman.
Steelman was Army's four-year quarterback and career touchdown leader. And in the eyes of the rival coach, an all-time competitor. When Niumatalolo finally got to Steelman, he said as much.
"To be honest, I don't really remember much, I was pretty torn up," an understandably emotional Steelman told reporters. "I think he said that I was one of the toughest players he's ever seen and just a great player, and I respect him for that. He's a great coach."
"We should all be proud as Americans that that guy is going to go protect our country," Niumatalolo explained in his own press conference. "They don't get any tougher than Trent Steelman. Four years starting at West Point, a military service academy. I know everyone in our locker room has nothing but respect for that young man."
This was Niumatalolo's 15th Army-Navy game. His first two ended as Steelman's last two, in absolute anguish over an excruciatingly close outcome.
In 1995, he was an assistant to Charlie Weatherbie, who eschewed a late chip-shot field-goal try that could have separated the rivals by two scores. The Black Knights mounted a goal-line stand and marched 99 yards to a 14-13 triumph.
The following season, again with Niumatalolo assisting Weatherbie, the Mids relinquished an 18-point lead and failed to score on two late, deep drives. They fell by a 28-24 final.
Fifteen years later, Niumatalolo's fourth Army-Navy experience as head coach ended with a six-point victory, thanks to a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in Landover. After his fifth, last Saturday, he expressed the kind of bittersweet emotions evoked only when Cadets compete with Midshipmen.
Brother of an Army colonel, Niumatalolo understands that while other rivalries are fueled by differences, this one is defined by commonality. He preaches humility and respect, for the competition and the game itself. As do his players.
"It's amazing because we have the utmost respect for those guys," senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel said, as a member of the eighth straight class of Mids to record a career sweep of their mirror images. "I tell them when I pick them up, 'I love you brother,' and I don't even know them.
"You can see it in their eyes that they go through the same things that we do. They are from the same backgrounds, the same families and they fight and claw the same way that we do. To beat those guys is a privilege and an honor. Nobody out there is going to give anybody an inch."
Per usual, Wetzel, an Academic All-American, is correct. Army earned every one of the more than 14,400 inches amounting to its 400-plus yards of total offense, including 203 more rushing yards than Navy. And the Mids earned what they got against a high-pressure defense, despite being frustrating into six punts and a fumble that led to the Black Knights' lone lead.
Navy also earned the win. It made more plays and fewer mistakes. In the end, performance equaled precedent.
The precocious Reynolds rallied his offense, exactly as he'd done at Air Force in early October. He prolonged the go-ahead drive with a throw to Geoffrey Whiteside -- freshman to sophomore -- converting a 3rd-and-8. Two plays later, he deked a pair of pass-rushers to escape up the right sideline for 11 yards. He then dropped a perfect pass onto the sure hands of Brandon Turner.
The 49-yard strike set up one more Reynolds run, from eight yards out, with 4:41 to go. He slipped a hit and beat an Army cornerback to the pylon, angling right toward the Brigade of Midshipmen in the stadium's northeast corner.
On the ensuing drive, the Mids lived up to their defensive credo, to make `em snap it again. Freshman cornerback Kwazel Bertrand made the first of two touchdown saving tackles. Senior Tra'ves Bush delivered the other.
Bertrand slipped in pass coverage, yet lunged from all fours to trip receiver Chevaughn Lawrence at the Navy 40. Further downfield, at the Mids` 19-yard line, Bush reached out for a one-handed takedown of Raymond Maples. For the umpteenth time in his Navy career, he was the right man in the right spot.
After Bush's stop, the Black Knights had to snap it again, and again. The gritty Steelman picked up a first down at the 14-yard line. But on the next play, the 11th of the series and Army's 72nd of the contest, the Cadets dropped the ball.
Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon mishandled the mesh. The football squirted loose. And Barry Dabney, in his only rep of the day, got his hands around it, to help the Mids hold on. Army was undone again by a fumble.
It was the Black Knights' fifth of the game and third recovered by Navy. It was their eighth lost this season inside the opposition's 20-yard line.
Not long after, with little time to stop the tears that flowed from such a heart-wrenching end to his career, Steelman asked the press to pin the turnover on him. Dixon did the same. Filling the unenviable duty of answering for the indescribable, each `manned up' to spare the other of fault.
Then, you expect nothing less of a Cadet or Midshipman.
And what of Ellerson? In his post-game presser, he was succinct.
"It was a mesh fumble," he said. "It was a quarterback-fullback mesh; it's fundamental."
To a subsequent query about the Reynolds throw and Turner catch, Ellerson replied with his unhappy recap of what, in his view, decided the outcome.
"That wasn't the difference," Ellerson asserted. "The difference is the kicking game and turnovers. Those are the things that correlate with success; those are the things that are fundamental to the game. The scoreboard will reflect those things. It will reflect the kicking game; it'll reflect turnovers."
And it will reflect the fact that Navy ensured itself at least eight wins for the ninth time in 10 years and claimed its eighth CIC title in that same span. Already, the Mids had earned a ninth bowl bid in those 10 seasons.
It will also reflect a 2-10 finish to the Cadets' 12th season of four or fewer victories in the last 15 years. They are now 17-32 overall under Ellerson; 5-19 since posting their only winning record of the past 16 seasons (7-6 in 2010).
Yet in the weeks before, and minutes after the scoreboard went final, there was scant acknowledgement by Ellerson of what Navy's accomplished, remarkably, for so long. Already, as evidenced by pre-game comments Niumatalolo made to a radio audience, the Mids sensed a disrespect uncharacteristic of Army-Navy.
Shortly after Ellerson returned to his locker-room office, he gave them their first bulletin board pin-up for 2013. Speaking to reporter Sal Interdonato of the Middletown, N.Y. Times-Herald Record, here is some of what Ellerson had to say:
- "Give (Reynolds) some credit. He made some good plays and he's hard to tackle. But, he's not that hard to tackle...We were there. We have people in position to make plays in that game. If we do those things that are fundamental, we beat them by three touchdowns. We're better than that bunch. We lose the turnover by two.
- "We are playing a good football team. We have them right by the throat. We could have put them away in the first half. We didn't have to wait until the end...They are better than Air Force, but they are a touchdown better than Air Force. We are better than they are. It's (expletive). It's (expletive)."
You can be the judge of whether Ellerson's implications are an indictment of others, but not himself. On CBS, analyst Gary Danielson found Army's play-calling "questionable" on two crucial drives, when it appeared Ellerson was willing to put the onus solely on a placekicker in only his second start.
Ellerson's been steeped in Army-Navy his whole life. His father and two older brothers were West Point grads; one of them the captain of the '62 Cadets. He's also experienced it from the other side, as a Naval Academy plebe.
He's obviously a bright coach, good enough to go 56-34 in his prior stint at Cal Poly and smart enough to understand the fallacy inherent when comparing results. He should also beware of the hypocrisy of such analysis.
The Mids who faced Air Force on the road were 1-3, had yet to launch the Reynolds era and had to defend 200-yard-a-game Cody Getz on two healthy ankles. As for Army's win over the Falcons, the Black Knights have every right to relish every bit of their 20-point triumph -- even if, to borrow an Ellerson phrase -- Air Force lost the turnover by five.
Thirty years ago, Ellerson was an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of Hawaii, when he helped recruit a quarterback by the name of Ken Niumatalolo from Honolulu's Radford High. Ellerson had wound up playing for the Warriors, after transferring from the Academy.
Asked why he left Annapolis by New York Times writer Joe Drape for his book, Soldiers First, Ellerson replied: "I was nineteen -- I had no excuse, sir."
Assuming he returns for the 114th Army-Navy game, Ellerson will do well to remember that phrase. He'd do better to emulate the kid he once coached, and the young men he now coaches.
One points to himself in defeat, while thinking first of the players in victory. The others, as one of their own might say, fight and claw, never giving an inch.
And should they come up short, offer no excuse, sir.