'More Than a Football Game'
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Ken Niumatalolo walked into the crowded interview room inside RFK Stadium yesterday afternoon, his Navy team having just lost to Wake Forest, 29-19, in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl, with eyes that were red and rimmed with tears.
The coach wasn't upset by what took place on the field in front of an announced crowd of 28,777: the Demon Deacons rallying from an early 13-0 deficit, the Midshipmen coming up empty on two late possessions when they had a chance to either tie the score or pull ahead. Rather, Niumatalolo was affected by what he had felt in the solemn Navy locker room as the team's 32 seniors -- 12 of whom started -- pulled off their jerseys for the last time.
"It's more than a football game," said Niumatalolo, who spent 10 years as an assistant at Navy before being promoted to head coach last December. "These tears that I have, I could've cared less if we had won by 70. To see these guys in the locker room at the end of the game, taking off their pads and not knowing where they'll be next year? These are young men that have joined a voluntary armed service to defend us, so we can sit in this room and have the luxuries that we have. I have the utmost respect for them."
Navy's senior class, much like its counterpart at Wake Forest (8-5), will rank among the most successful in program history. The Midshipmen seniors were a perfect 8-0 against rivals Air Force and Army, claimed four straight Commander-in-Chief's trophies, and played in four bowl games (winning the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl). They beat a ranked opponent earlier this season -- this Demon Deacons team was 16th in the country and undefeated when Navy beat it, 24-17, on Sept. 27 -- and ended a 43-year losing streak to Notre Dame last season.
The Midshipmen (8-5) viewed yesterday's bowl game -- the first (American) football game played at RFK Stadium since 2001 -- as a reward for all that they had accomplished this season. And for the first 20 minutes, it appeared as if they were going to celebrate one last time. They built a 13-0 lead, behind two of their stalwarts this season: their reliable place kicker and their opportunistic defense.
Senior Matt Harmon, whose service assignment is surface warfare, converted two field goals (40 and 47 yards), and set a school season record for field goals with 19. Sophomore safety Wyatt Middleton stripped Wake Forest's Alphonso Smith of the ball, and senior cornerback Rashawn King (Marine Corps ground) picked it up and ran 50 yards for his first career touchdown.
King missed last week's Army-Navy game following the death of his father, Drexel. His mother, Robbin, was in the stands, and he made sure to find her after he scored.
"Just being back with the guys was the biggest thing. Coming out of the locker room for the last time, that was really exciting, just a heartfelt moment," King said. "Especially since this was the last time. Getting a fumble, just being able to contribute, was huge. . . . I'd never been in the end zone before, so I feel what [slot back] Shun White feels. It was a good feeling."
The Midshipmen were driving for another score late in the second quarter, but on second and eight from the Wake 27, Smith stepped in front of an underthrown pass that was intended for wide receiver Tyree Barnes (surface warfare). Only moments before, Barnes and quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada (Marine Corps ground) had connected on a pretty 26-yard pass play.
The Demon Deacons took over at their 2-yard line, and behind fullback Kevin Harris (136 yards) and quarterback Riley Skinner (11 of 11, 166 yards), marched 98 yards for a touchdown just before halftime.
"That was a turning point," Niumatalolo said.
Navy took a 19-14 lead with 12 minutes 30 seconds remaining on a two-yard run by Kaheaku-Enhada. But Wake Forest answered immediately, with Skinner (the game's most valuable player) completing two key throws on third and long under scant pressure: a 44-yard bomb to a wide-open Chip Brinkman, and an eight-yard touchdown pass to Ben Wooster.
Afterward, as senior fullback Eric Kettani (surface warfare) walked through the bowels of the stadium, dragging two suitcases and carrying a gold helmet covered with the blue ink signatures of his now former teammates, he took stock of what he -- and the rest of the Navy seniors -- has done over the past four years.
"I look back, and it's been fast," said Kettani, who ran for 50 yards, finishing 18 shy of 1,000 for the season. "I've done a lot of things: I've been to the White House three times, about to be four times [as the winner of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy]. I'm about to meet my second President. Four bowl rings. Not many kids get the opportunity to do that. It's an honor."
Midshipmen Note: Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper and defensive coordinator Buddy Green are expected to interview with Army Athletic Director Kevin Anderson for the Black Knights' vacant head coaching position, according to a report in the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y. Anderson is reportedly in D.C. this weekend, and will meet with as many as seven candidates to replace the fired Stan Brock.
Box score, D11