Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. This version has been corrected.

The run of Ricky Dobbs: Navy's quarterback in Annapolis has come to represent something larger than football

Ricky Dobbs has overcome a chaotic childhood, reinvented the way he plays quarterback, and has been hailed as a leader for the Naval Academy.
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The pride of Douglasville, Ga., began his day in the seventh row of the middle pew section at Golden Memorial United Methodist Church. In a few hours, more than 500 people would pour into a community center on the north side of town to celebrate Ricky Dobbs, but first, the young man, dressed in his Naval Academy summer whites, listened to the good word.

On that particular Sunday in mid-June, a pastor visiting from Chicago was providing the sermon. He did not know Dobbs, was not aware that the Naval Academy's starting quarterback -- and de facto archetype -- sat among the congregation and could not have anticipated that his message, like everything else that day, seemed crafted specifically for Dobbs.

"Is there anybody in here that's ever been dropped, dropped by someone who should have cared for you, but they dropped you? Dropped by someone who should have been attentive, but they didn't know what they had?" the Rev. Trunell Felder said. "Has anybody up in here been dropped, and it wasn't! Your! Fault!?"

The crowd bellowed affirmation as the fervor in Felder's voice ascended. A woman seated behind Dobbs appeared to be speaking directly into his ear as she repeated "Amen" each time Felder began to transition from one anecdote to the next.

Dobbs's right arm extended along the back of the wooden pew; his left arm rested atop his thigh. A piece of jewelry adorned his left ring finger, and the golden oval had two holes: one for the finger to slide through, the other where a black onyx once was affixed.

"My God says, 'I don't care how far you've been dropped. I don't care how far you have fallen. You still have favor,'" Felder said. "See, 'cause when you got favor, favor impacts you personally. ... When you got favor, the first thing He does is restore your identity. See, some of us don't walk strong because we don't know who we are. When you are royalty, you walk different. It ain't about being arrogant. It's about knowing who you are."

Dobbs is a black midshipman in a high-visibility position at the Naval Academy, which recently embarked on a campaign to increase its diversity, an element of consternation throughout its 165-year history. And Dobbs's success serves as a better promotional tool than any pamphlet or commercial.

An array of flattering synonyms was offered on Dobbs's behalf later that day in Douglasville, 20 miles west of Atlanta. During an evening ceremony that lasted nearly three hours, 16 speeches, four proclamations and one key to the city were given in his honor. On Ricky Dobbs Day, compliments were in ample supply.

Dobbs's high school offensive coordinator called the 22-year-old "an old soul in a young body." His high school's head football coach deemed Dobbs "a people magnet." A Douglasville community activist described Dobbs as "an inspiration."

Parented by an assortment of relatives while his mother fed her drug addiction and his father raised a separate family, Dobbs dealt with considerable adversity throughout his childhood, and yet he found that he thrived off all kinds of people. Though the degrees of their fascination may vary, many who have met the quarterback with the cherubic visage and the endearing smile agree: Ricky Dobbs most certainly has favor.


A few minutes after 2 p.m. on Feb. 3, 1975, a 16-year-old named Clarence Dobbs stepped onto the front porch of a house belonging to Mary Pierce Combs, a 67-year-old kindergarten teacher who had taught Dobbs's younger siblings. In one hand, Dobbs held church raffle tickets, his ruse of choice that afternoon. In the other, he held a pocketknife, the blade of which was broken off at the tip.

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