A Win That Was Out of Sight, Not Yet Out of Mind

By George Solomon
Sunday, November 11, 2007

The message from Coach Paul Johnson to his players at Navy's football practice Wednesday was simple: Look forward to the next game at North Texas and let rest the euphoria from beating Notre Dame, 46-44, in triple overtime and ending an NCAA-record string of 43 consecutive losses to the Irish.

"We haven't been able to focus all week," Johnson said.

And in the chill of the early evening, Johnson merely was echoing the words of just about every football coach who ever had to bring a team down from the emotional mountaintop to the reality of the next game. (Did NASA officials face a similar task with the original moonwalkers, getting those guys ready for the next mission?)

Still, in conversations with several players after practice, I came away with the feeling these kids were not ready to shed their glorious moment in South Bend and move on with the rest of their lives. Why should they? Rarely do athletes accomplish something so memorable that their story will become legend for decades, despite Irish Coach Charlie Weis's gracious "what streak?" postgame pout.

"I'll never forget the night," said Zerbin Singleton, a senior who blocks, runs the ball, catches passes, plays on special teams and in his spare time majors in aerospace engineering, carrying a 3.14 grade point average. "To be on the team and in the class that got the monkey off our back is amazing. The number of people who have said thank you to me is truly special."

The quarterback, junior Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, by way of Kapolei, Hawaii, whose 25-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion throw to 5-foot-6 Reggie Campbell provided the winning points, had his own singular moment: "When the bus pulled into the grounds Saturday and the brigade came out to meet us."

His football future? "Growing up, I always wanted to win a championship or play in a game like the one last Saturday," he said. "I love football, but my future is getting an education, then serving my country."

For Ram Vela, whose leap over an Irish blocker to sack the quarterback late in regulation helped create the overtime, his highlight could have been dedicated to his father watching in San Antonio. "He was so excited," Vela said. Vela understands about overparenting, but said last Saturday night, "My dad lived that play with me" and "maybe he's living his dream through me."

And that's all right.

Shula vs. Patriots

So how does Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, the winningest coach in the history of the NFL with 328 victories and two Super Bowls, really feel about New England's Bill Belichick?

Not so great, is my read, after Shula responded to questions from Gary Myers of the New York Daily News about the NFL fining Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 and a first-round draft choice for using sideline video equipment on the Jets in the season opener. Shula said that transgression and the league's response were sufficient reasons to attach an asterisk to whatever New England accomplishes this season.

"That's a pretty significant," Shula said of the NFL's penalty in a telephone interview Tuesday. "It certainly diminishes their accomplishment, as Barry Bonds's records would be diminished if he's found to have used performance-enhancing drugs."

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