By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; W18
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.
"I was anticipating my father buying me a car, and he wouldn't buy me one," Clarence Dobbs recalled recently. "So I went out to try to take one from someone."
Combs opened the front door and told Dobbs she had no money, so the teenager -- who had dropped out of 10th grade three days earlier -- forced his way inside. He severely wounded Combs, cutting her throat and hitting her several times in the head with a 2.5-pound glass ashtray. Dobbs left with $15 and the keys to Combs's Chevrolet Malibu.
Dobbs spent the next eight years in prison. When he got out, he reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Cobb, the woman who "understood me better than any other woman that has been in my life."
In 1988, the state pardoned Dobbs and reinstated all his civil rights. That same year, he and Cobb had a son. They named him Clarence Ricky Dobbs Jr.
"Everybody loved Ricky when he was a baby," Cobb said. "When I had him, I looked at him and I said, 'Man, this is a special baby.' There was just something special about him. People used to fight over him. They would get him and want to spend time with him and keep him for me while I worked. Everybody just loved him."
When Ricky was 2 years old, his parents divorced, an event that Cobb says sent her into a drug-induced spiral that spanned the following decade. Dobbs Sr., who became an electrician, remained in the area and raised three children as part of another family. "He wasn't the father figure," Ricky said years later. "But he was always there when I needed stuff."
Cobb turned to crack and alcohol but says she never used or drank in front of Ricky or her oldest child, a daughter named Killairay, from a previous relationship. Cobb routinely wouldn't pay December's rent so that she could move her two children into another Douglasville apartment, where the first month's rent was free. This also helped her afford their Christmas gifts, such as the Doug Williams No. 17 Washington Redskins jersey Ricky requested at age 4.
Several times a week, Cobb would head to a friend's house in the evening to get high and would not return until the following day. She called herself a "functional drug addict," one who continued to work her day job as a hair stylist as she combated the nighttime loneliness that stemmed from her divorce. "You felt all right being around people," Cobb said. "I hated being by myself."
Killairay -- who is 10 years older than Ricky -- was left to care for Ricky, who knew nothing of his mother's addictions until he was in eighth grade. Killairay said Ricky rarely let the anxiety he felt over his mother's absence rise to the surface. His perpetual smile belied any unrest that lay beneath.
His mother "used to always tell me she would come back, but she never would come back that night," Ricky said. "She'd say, 'I'll be back. I promise,' to get me to stop crying and stuff. Then she wouldn't. My sister would say, 'She's not coming back.' But my mentality was, 'You can't tell me my momma's not going to do what she say.'"
But Cobb's refusal to use around her children did not spare them from exposure to drugs. Ricky Dobbs frequently interacted with neighborhood addicts. He said they imparted wisdom that became guidelines for the way he lives his life.
One drunk called Arthur discussed with Dobbs the value of networking, though the old man and the child put the lesson to use in very different ways.
"He told me it ain't always about what you can do; it's always about who you know, so get to know as many people as you can," Dobbs recalled. "That's why I am more so the person I am today, as far as meeting new people, because you never know whose path you may cross one day and if they'll remember you."
Cobb slowly began to curb her addictions around the time her son entered Douglas County High. She finally acknowledged her drug use to him -- "a relief," his sister said -- though he'd long had his suspicions. Throughout Cobb's spiraling dependence and subsequent recovery, Dobbs never let familial tension cloud the responsibility he felt toward his mother.
"I think that made me tough, made me deal with a lot as a child growing up, being able to take stuff and not let a lot show," he says. "I don't know if that's a strength or a weakness."
A little more than an hour before the Ricky Dobbs Day ceremony, Dobbs sat at his uncle's kitchen counter and debated whether to begin writing the 10-minute speech he was scheduled to give.
Thomas Cobb, the proprietor of a concrete business, built his house in 1999 and finished off the basement with a bedroom for Dobbs, who was then 11. Before then, Dobbs had been Douglasville's most charming migrant. With his mom in and out of housing, Dobbs often stayed with his grandparents, Lewis Sr. and Louise Cobb. The rule in Louise Cobb's household was that Dobbs could ride his bike up and down the street, but he could not deviate from Upshaw Mill Road.
"Everybody kind of wanted to be around him at 7, 8, 9 years old, and at that age that can be good, and that can be bad," Thomas Cobb said. "He'd be on the bicycle and take off riding, and you'd have certain boundaries of where you were supposed to ride and where you weren't. And we'd look up and see seven or eight [kids] following Ricky way past the boundaries that he was supposed to be riding his bike on."
Dobbs's uncles delivered discipline in several different forms. There was Lewis Cobb Jr., a gospel singer and minister who stood 6-foot-2, 290 pounds. He handed out the whippings when Dobbs stayed out past the time when the street lamps turned on.
He also engrained the spirituality that remains Dobbs's core. When Lewis Cobb and the Douglas County community choir would travel around the state to perform, Ricky tagged along. Dressed in a suit jacket, shorts and long black socks, Dobbs played behind the curtain with other children while the choir sang. They called him Preacher Man back then.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo wasn't sure what he was going to call Dobbs at halftime of the Midshipmen's game Oct. 17, 2009, at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, but it wasn't going to be pleasant. Dobbs had fumbled once and nearly caused another fumble on a bad pitch. Navy trailed by 14.
"For lack of a better term, I was pissed," Niumatalolo said. "I go into the locker room, and I'm looking for Ricky, and I'm just going to give it to him. My blood was boiling, and my head was about to explode, and I'm yelling, 'Ricky! Where are you?' I get to his locker, and I go, 'Ricky!'"
What Niumatalolo wouldn't discover until the following week was that Dobbs had cracked his right kneecap, inflaming an old injury, on the second play. Each time Dobbs went to the sideline, he rode a stationary bike to keep his knee loose. The team's doctors thought he was trying to stay warm.
As Dobbs entered the locker room at halftime at SMU, he knew he'd suffered a serious setback. As he sat at his locker, he told right guard Curtis Bass he didn't know how he was going to make it through the game. Dobbs picked up the New International Version Bible he always kept with him and turned to the index to find a reading that dealt with strength. One passage caught his attention: Isaiah 41:9-14. Verse 10.
So do not fear for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.
Dobbs solemnly looked up and saw his brooding coach standing over him. "Yes, Coach?"
The fury Niumatalolo had prepared to unleash suddenly subsided, because it seemed wholly improper to scream at someone holding a Bible. "Well," the coach stammered, "try to hold onto the ball, will you?"
Dobbs did not miss a snap the rest of the game. In fact, he finished with 89 yards on 26 carries and led Navy to a 38-35 overtime victory. And though Dobbs sat out most of the next two games with the injured knee, he finished the season with a school-record 27 touchdowns and set an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season. He did not undergo surgery to mend the knee until after Navy's 10-4 season -- tied for the best mark in school history.
"People believe in Ricky, and a lot of it is the way he carries himself," Niumatalolo said. "He's a person of strong faith, and I think he believes that he can accomplish anything. It rubs off on other guys. ... If you don't like Ricky Dobbs, something is wrong with you."
At one point during his ceremony, Dobbs told the story of the ring with the missing stone that he wears on his left hand.
It was a gift his Uncle Lewis had given him in January 2007, just before Dobbs left to return from winter break to the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I. Back then, the black diamond onyx still was attached to the gold ring. Dobbs had since accidentally knocked it out.
"The diamond itself had a shine to it, but the light goes straight through the diamond," Dobbs said. "And then the gold crest is the accent to that diamond to help, because when the sun comes in, it goes through the diamond and it reflects back off the golden crest. So the diamond gets its shine from the gold crest. And [Lewis] said the gold crest was God's hands protecting me. So what he really meant for me to do was keep my relationship right with God. Therefore, God's light can shine through me."
Cobb died in September 2007 after a decade-long battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma and diabetes.
When Dobbs made his college decision, he chose Navy in part because he knew it would provide stability for him and -- one day -- his family. But he also chose Navy because it was the only Division I program that recruited him to play quarterback. He got looks from Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, but they saw his frame, which then was 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, and projected him as a wide receiver.
"I like being in control; I like the pressure," Dobbs said when asked why he preferred to remain a quarterback. "I feel like I thrive under pressure. I kind of get that from my mom and my uncle [Thomas]. Especially as much pressure as I've seen her under, it's kind of like a natural state for me."
But when Dobbs arrived at NAPS, he had to bide his time behind another quarterback named Jason Brown, who coaches felt was better suited to orchestrate the program's triple-option offense. At 5-foot-8, Brown had an average arm, but, according to Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, "when [Brown] pulled the ball down and ran with it, it was like, 'Wow.' He was the one we were all excited about."
One day later that fall, NAPS Coach Mark Williams called Jasper with an update on the two quarterbacks. Williams said Brown was a legitimate quarterback with all the tools needed to succeed.
"But you know, there's something about that kid," Jasper recalled Williams saying. "When he's in the huddle, the kids just don't respond to him. When Ricky goes in there, for some reason, those guys get jacked up. They perk up. The fire comes out of nowhere."
Still hesitant to fully engage in Navy's triple-option offense, Dobbs did not play a single down his freshman year at the Academy. Throughout high school, Dobbs was known as a throwing quarterback who could run. He tossed 28 touchdown passes in 12 games his senior year at Douglas County High. But at Navy, his objectives were reversed. On each play, Dobbs is asked to make reads based on how the defense attacks and then make a decision: run, hand-off or -- most often as a last resort -- throw. He had to become a running quarterback who could throw.
"The triple option, I was like, 'Man, I cannot do this because we run the ball all the time, barely throw it, if at all. I don't like it. I hate this offense,'" Dobbs said. "I felt like I couldn't be me in this offense."
He made one start and played in seven games his sophomore year, a time during which Navy fans were finally introduced to Dobbs's abilities. Dobbs entered against SMU midway through the second quarter and compiled 224 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on 42 carries. The following week against Temple, Dobbs entered with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter and conducted a 20-point comeback victory. He nearly engineered a comeback of the same margin two weeks later against Notre Dame.
"We were surprised with how physical a runner he was," Jasper said. "But we had to be smart. We can't make that kid into a bowling ball. ... We knew we had something special."
But as Dobbs became the starting quarterback during his junior season, as he gathered acclaim for his rushing yards and touchdowns -- and the wins that Navy was piling up -- his significance at the Academy began to transcend football.
"In the bigger scheme of things, Ricky represents the outreach and the recruiting that, 'Wow, I can go play football and get a good education. I can serve,'" Cmd. Master Chief Evelyn "Vonn" Banks said. "Part of our development is to develop good American citizens as well, so Ricky represents so many more things than the quarterback for football."
One area in which Dobbs has not always excelled in Annapolis is academics. Dobbs, who is majoring in general science, has struggled at times with his coursework, and his academic standing ranks near the bottom of his class, according to several USNA teachers who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the topic.
Nevertheless, Dobbs is a black midshipman in a high-profile position. As such, the sensation he has created also carries a hefty impact.
The Naval Academy's entanglement with racial discrimination dates back to the school's birth. Founded in 1845, the academy admitted six black midshipmen during its first century of existence. All six were hazed mercilessly, and five left the academy as a result. The sixth, Wesley A. Brown, became the first black midshipman to graduate from the academy in 1949.
At a lacrosse game between Navy and Harvard in April 1941, the academy's superintendent, Rear Adm. Russell Wilson, told Harvard's coach and athletic director the Midshipmen would not compete against a racially integrated opponent. Harvard's lone black player, Lucien Alexis Jr., was sent home, and the game commenced. Navy won, 12-0.
The General Accounting Office released a report in 1992 that found black midshipmen were treated more poorly than any other racial component at the academy. The report also found that stereotyping committed by white midshipmen and a deficient sense of belonging at the academy engendered stress in all non-white midshipmen.
Even in recent years, the Academy has at times been clouded by alleged racial improprieties. On April 13, 2007, then-Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter expelled former Naval Academy quarterback Lamar Owens for behavior deemed "unsatisfactory" after Owens had been cleared of raping a female midshipman but convicted of misconduct. Owens was discharged from the Naval Academy and naval service.
Part of the immediate backlash from Academy alumni against Winter's decision focused on Owens's race. Several graduates said the Academy's prosecution of Owens, who is black, was an example of discrimination.
Peter Optekar, a former Navy football player who graduated in 1963, told The Washington Post in 2007 that such treatment of a prominent black midshipman likely would severely hinder the Academy's ability to recruit capable black leaders for the following decade.
With Dobbs as Navy's quarterback, Optekar now believes the Academy has someone it can build its recruiting effort around. There's a certain aura that surrounds Dobbs, Optekar said.
"The fact that he is also black and that he has succeeded so well in spite of the disparity with regard to the percentage of [black] midshipmen there, I think it probably lets the black community know that in spite of a residual racism that exists there, you can succeed," Optekar said.
Maryland Civil Rights Director Carl O. Snowden, whose father was a butcher at the Academy and who has been critical of the Academy's approach to race relations, also sees Dobbs's role as a positive. "The symbolism that [Dobbs] represents cannot be overstated. The fact of the matter is that his presence and his high profile will do more to lift up the public relations and good will for the Academy than anything that they could hope to create."
The Academy recently has focused on making progress. In August of 2008, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, then the Naval Academy's superintendent, initiated a recruiting campaign directed at minority students. Fowler called diversity his No. 1 goal and said he wanted the racial makeup of the Academy and its future officers to eventually more closely mirror that of the Navy's enlisted force.
In the naval fleet, 44.8 percent identify themselves as minorities. African Americans make up 17 percent of the fleet. As of the end of the 2009-10 school year, 26 percent of Naval Academy students identify themselves as minorities, according to a self-reported survey conducted by the school. African Americans constitute 4.9 percent of midshipmen.
While the outreach plan, which included the use of glitzy television commercials and a comic book, has yielded positive results thus far -- the class of first-year students that entered the Naval Academy during the summer of 2009 was the most racially diverse class in the institution's history -- real-life examples can serve as the most enticing draw.
"There are many folks who think the Academy will be sacrificing quality if it pursues minorities too hard," said retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Wilkerson, a 1967 Academy graduate who now serves as chief executive of the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent think tank. "Ricky proves that's not true.
"And if the Academy sticks to its knitting, like it should, which is to say they bring the strongest potential leaders, as it says in their mission statement, then the Ricky Dobbses of this world and others like him will feel compelled to apply to become Naval officers, sailors or Marines. And that's a good thing."
Fowler, who retired this summer, declined an interview request for this story. For his part, Dobbs -- who was elected vice president of the USNA Class of 2011 -- said he is proud to be able to send a message to other minorities that, like him, they can thrive at the Naval Academy.
Dobbs views himself as a conduit for human interaction. He's placed in certain roles and situations, he believes, so that he can draw people closer together. In that respect, what Dobbs means to the Naval Academy as far as racial symbols go is neither a burden nor a duty to him. It's a habit.
Even as a child, Dobbs's race served as a tool with which he tried to build bridges. "A lot of my [hometown] friends are rednecks. I think most of them were racist. But they kind of, like, made an exception. They didn't like all black folks, but they liked me. ...
"It's just that they didn't know a lot of [black] people, so they judged. But I made myself known to them, because I ignored it. And part of the reason was I wanted to get to know them better."
Dobbs has publicly stated his plan to run for president of the United States in 2040, a thought bemusing to friends and strangers alike. Until then, he has his sights set on the NFL. Naval Academy graduates are required to serve five years active duty upon their commission into the fleet. However, after two years, they can turn their remaining three years active into six years in the reserve. Instead, Dobbs would like to switch his service requirements so that he could initially serve in the reserve while trying to make it in the NFL and then fulfill his time on active duty. He hopes to meet with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to discuss his idea.
But such permission is unlikely to be granted. In a November 2007 memo, then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter forbade sailors from being released early from active duty for the purpose of pursuing professional sports. A Navy spokesman said Mabus has made no change to the policy, and multiple sources within the Navy and at the Naval Academy said there is "no chance" Dobbs will be able to postpone his first two years of active duty. A NFL team could draft Dobbs, though, and maintain his playing rights until he becomes available.
Dobbs's NFL draft stock is dependent largely upon his performance during a senior season in which he could become a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, college football's most prestigious individual award. For that to happen, Navy must build off its last campaign and etch its way into the national top 25 rankings for the first time since 2004. As the Midshipmen's focal point, Dobbs will play a significant role in determining how far they can go.
Jasper, Navy's offensive coordinator, said the coaching staff worries sometimes that a player such as Dobbs -- who has already realized so much success -- may lose the drive that propelled him this far.
"When a kid starts for the first time, he has that look in his eye," Jasper said. "He just plays with this look in his eyes that he plays like he's scared, so he's going to do everything that he can to win."
Jasper paused and relived the highlights of some of Dobbs's first few collegiate starts.
"That kid," Jasper said. "I want to continue to see that kid play as a senior."
As Dobbs gave his speech, his father sat at a table just to the right of the stage and beamed.
"Everything that I didn't experience in my life, I'm experiencing with my son," the elder Dobbs said earlier that day. "So that has been a blessing to me more than words can say."
Barbara Cobb sat next to Dobbs Sr. After suffering four heart attacks, flat-lining twice and undergoing open-heart surgery, she's been off of drugs since 2007. It was she who had put in motion the idea for an event to celebrate her son.
"It means the world to me that he [turned] out the person that he is," said Cobb, who runs a hair salon in Douglasville with two of her sisters.
Divorced for nearly 20 years, Barbara Cobb and Dobbs Sr. are back together again. Both said the time they've spent together traveling to Ricky's games reminded them of the bond they once shared. They plan to remarry sometime in 2011.
Ricky Dobbs acknowledged midway through his speech that "all of this right here today is bigger than me." He believes his day -- Ricky Dobbs Day -- was just another mechanism for bringing people closer together.
Dobbs hasn't even graduated from college, yet the weight of the responsibilities on his shoulders increases with every person he meets, with every hand he shakes, with every smile he shares. And so he told his audience a story.
A month before the ceremony, Dobbs picked up a guitar that belonged to his roommate in Annapolis and ended up writing a song. He titled it "Freedom" and fine-tuned the lyrics with his Uncle Thomas. The song, Dobbs said, speaks to his walk in life.
There's so many people around,
But lonely I find myself.
Searching for a peace of mind,
Will somebody help me find freedom?
Steve Yanda is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.