SAN FRANCISCO — Navy senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel was sitting at a table during a news conference at AT&T Park on Wednesday talking about playing Arizona State in the Fight Hunger Bowl this weekend when he glanced away momentarily and spotted teammate Bo Snelson also addressing several media members.
Wetzel then began comparing Snelson’s journey at Navy to that of the team this season, saying how the senior slot back plays each snap with a grudge — intent on reminding every Football Bowl Subdivision program that passed on him how much they had miscalculated.
At 5 feet 7, 170 pounds, Snelson wasn’t exactly a blue-chip recruit, and every major college program except Navy decided he wasn’t for them. Four years later, Snelson is the emotional barometer for the offense, pushing teammates with impassioned speeches in the locker room and determination on the field that belies his diminutive physical measurements.
“I know Bo Snelson talks about it a lot,” Wetzel said of Navy’s underdog mentality against the Sun Devils. “He didn’t have any other division I offers, and he wanted to play division I football, and he was going to come here, and he takes it personal every team he plays against that they didn’t offer him.”
Snelson’s role expanded that much more when senior slot back John Howell, one of the most popular players on the team, had his college football career end abruptly with a knee injury on Sept. 29 against No. 24 San Jose State. The Midshipmen lost, 12-0, and were at their lowest point with a 1-3 record and Air Force next.
Snelson was among the seniors who made sure there was no pity in the locker room.
Having faced his share of self-inflicted adversity early in the season, Snelson continued to stay positive in spite of having had his captaincy stripped for violating academy rules.
Senior linebacker Brye French also had his captaincy stripped for academy violations, but neither player lost respect within the coaching staff nor from teammates who had voted them captains at the conclusion of last season.
“My playing style is I’m an emotional guy,” Snelson said. “Whenever I say I like to take it personal, it’s obviously nothing against any other team or anything like that. I feel that if I don’t play with that chip on my shoulder, that if I grow complacent, then I’m not the same type of player I was before. This goes for everyone. As soon as you feel like you’re owed something, you’ve lost everything.”
That thinking was reinforced on Christmas Day when Navy players served meals to those in need at St. Anthony’s Dining Room, a charitable organization in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo called it the most humbling and meaningful experience for him and his charges during any bowl week, and players echoed those sentiments.
Navy players and coaches, who arrived in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, loaded trays with sliced ham, sweet potatoes and orange Kool-Aid as part of an effort by bowl officials to curb hunger in the Bay Area and raise awareness to some alarming statistics, most notably that one in five residents here are unable to provide food for themselves or their families.
Part of that initiative also includes the Fight Hunger Bowl, sponsored by Kraft, donating a meal to three charities for each ticket sold. Bowl officials anticipate selling up to 35,000 tickets for Saturday’s game at AT&T Park, which seats approximately 40,000 for football.
“Some people call bowls games a vacation. I definitely don’t think it’s that,” Wetzel said. “It’s a business trip. [Arizona State] is a very good team, on the same level when you watch Penn State and Notre Dame. The same caliber athletes, so it’s really going to be about who comes out there and who’s ready to play on the 29th because people do get caught in the bowl game festivities a little bit.”