On Tuesday of this Army-Navy week. Mike Galpin was asked to make a telephone call. Galpin is a sfaetypman, a co-captain on the Navy football team. "Call Elizabeth Wheeler of the Los Angeles Times," said Tom Bates, the academy's sports publicity man.
Joe Gattuso heard that, "E-LIZ-abeth, huh?" Gattuso said to Galpin. Gattuso is also a Navy co-captain, a running back who set an all-time academy rushing record this season. He loves make Galpin blush. So he went on.
"E-LIZ-abeth? In California? Yeah, I heard you were on the phone to California past midnight last night. And you're calling her again?"
"This is a newspaper reporter," Galpin said, blushing.
"Oh, sure," Gattuso said. "Sure it is."
For Gattuso today's Army-Navy game at Philadelphia is his last.It is the last time he'll play football with "the best friends I'l ever have in my life, guys like Mike Galpin." It is the last time and he's not sure if it's the best of times or the worst of times.
"Some days you wonder why you're going through all this to play football," Gattuso said.
He looked at Galpin for an answer. "Before a game, you get so nervous," Galpin said.
"You say, 'Is it worth it?'" Galpin said.
Galpin laughed and told a visitor, "Sometimes we talk about when we get married and have kids, they'll play tennis or golf."
And Gattuso nodded. "Right."
And you knew he didn't mean it.
From fifth grade on, Joe Gattuso Jr., the son of a Navy running back who set records 22 years ago, has been a football player. His last game is today and if he says his son will be a golfer, not a running back, we may say, Oh, sure, Joe, right. It's not easy to play big-time football at a place that demands scholastic excellence. And Gattuso is tired from the years of practice, hundreds of games, thousands of aches, the long nights with books when sleep tempted. It's his last game and he says he's glad.
And you know he'll change his mind come Sunday morning.
You know it because you can hear it in his voice.
Ask him if it pleased him two years ago when he was moved from wingback, where he seldom touched the ball, to running back.
"Oh, man, I always wanted to run the ball. But I was too slow and too small. I was super-ecstatic. If they gave me the ball, I'd love to run it. That's where the action is. You have to make split-second decisions and you have to be right. You're taking the ball from the quarterback and you're scanning the blocking, looking for somewhere to go. If you see some daylight, you go for it. If you don't, you put your head up in there and get what you can."
Gattuso's running is distinguished by his unwillingness to be stopped. The coaches call it second effort. Ask him about that. Ask him how that determination came to mark his style.
"I'm too slow and too small to run any other way." He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, which is good for monster linemen but considered fatal for ball-carriers, and weighs 180. "And you better want it, you better really want it, if you're slow and small."
Gattuso has carried the ball 242 times this season, gaining 1,167 yards, both records. Ask him how a slow, small running back could do that.
"The offensive line. Without them, let's face it, I'm a mediocre back. But, my God, to put a mediocre back over 1,000 yards, that take's a hellacious offensive line. They're not the biggest guys you've ever seen, but they're tough."
And then he named them: tackles Jim Lippard and Kevin Ryan ("We run the 32-wham off those guys"), guards Steve Kremer and Rick Bott ("Two strong, silent types who block their butts off"), center Ray Fritsch ("An outstanding center who'll take any nose-guard any direction you want him taken"), and tight ends Rich Cellon and Car Hendershot ("Doing hellacious jobs").
Navy has beaten Army four straight years.It was 38-10 last season when Gattuso carried 29 times for 128 yards and three touchdowns. Ask him what Army-Navy means and this guy who says he'll be glad it's over becomes positively lyrical.
"You've got 22 guys on the field and you're looking around at 80,000 or 90,000 people in the stadium. There's this big sea of gray, the cadets, on one side, and this big sea of blue, the midshipmen, on the other side. There are floats and pretty girls and balloons. And that's all fine and good and then it dissolves and you play football.
One last time he'll play football. It has been dream. Gattuson's father was Navy's leading ground gainer in 1953 and 1954, and was named the outstanding player in the 1955 Sugar Bowl. "He didn't push me into football at all," the son said. "If I wanted to play, fine; if not, fine." Then, last season, he scored three touchdowns against Army. And tonight it will be over. Ask him what he'll remember 10 years from now.
It won't professional football. He says he isn't good enough. He's wanted to be a pilot since he was 2 years old, when his father flew a jet upside down 150 feet over his house. He'll stay in the Navy, flying, and, 10 years from now, remembering the time he was a record-setting runner, he'll think about the friends he made and the lessons he learned.
"You learn things in football you can't learn other places," he said. "Physical and mental toughness. Endurance. Never giving up. Man, I've been in some games that were no enjoyable."