Not since the days of Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach has Navy had a player of the stature and impact of Eddie Meyers.
"In all my years (nine) at Navy, I don't think any player has meant more to any of our teams than Meyers," Coach George Welsh said. "I think he's a great player and should be put in the class with Staubach and Bellino. He earned it. But even if he never carried the ball, he's the kind of player who makes the rest of the team feel confident and play better just because he's out there."
Meyers will play his last game for Navy Wednesday in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis against Ohio State. It will be his third bowl game in four years.
Despite missing one complete game and three-quarters of two others with knee and thigh injuries, Meyers set academy season records for rushes and yards gained rushing in becoming Navy's all-time leading ground gainer. But national honors never came his way.
The best Meyers could do was honorable mention all-America, even though he was the nation's fourth-leading rusher, averaging 131.8 yards a game. He had seven games this season in which he ran for more than 100 yards.
"I did as well as I could and the team did as well as it could," Meyers said. "Being an all-America is an honor, but those are popularity contests more than anything else, anyway."
Five years ago, Meyers was just the shy little brother of Navy defensive back and middle guard Charlie Meyers. He even needed a year at the Naval Academy Prep School to get him ready for the academy.
During his freshman year, 1978, Meyers carried the ball only twice, gaining nine yards. He was considered a better wrestler than football player, and, at 190 pounds, finished third in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association tournament.
Now, Welsh puts Meyers in the same class with Herschel Walker, Marcus Allen, Staubach and Bellino.
"I'll certainly remember him," Staubach said. "Backs like him don't come along that often. He could have played practically anywhere and probably done just as well as he did at Navy."
Meyers established six school rushing records this season (bowl statistics aren't counted in single season or career statistics):
* Most yards rushing in a career -- 2,935.
* Most yards rushing in a season -- 1,318.
* Most yards rushing in a game -- 298 (against Syracuse).
* Most rushes in a career -- 589.
* Most rushes in a season -- 277.
* Most rushes in a game -- 43 (against Boston College).
Meyers also tied a school record by scoring four touchdowns against Syracuse and holds the Army-Navy game and career rushing records. He ran for 547 yards against Army in three games and gained 278 yards in 1979.
A statistical comparison with Bellino is thoroughly one-sided in Meyers' favor. Bellino, 5 feet 9 and 181 pounds, gained 1,664 yards on 330 carries from 1958 through 1960. The year he won the Heisman, 1960, he gained 834 yards on 168 carries and scored 15 touchdowns as the Midshipmen lost only once, to Missouri in the Orange Bowl.
"I just wish we had played together," Bellino said.
"Me, too," Meyers said.
Why did Welsh run Meyers so often?
"Some people seem to think I'm a great coach," said Welsh, who will leave Navy to coach at Virginia after the Liberty Bowl. "I'm not a great coach, but I've got enough sense to know that if you have a back like Eddie Meyers, you better run him 30 times a game. It doesn't take a great coach to figure that out. With Meyers we're a good team, capable of beating most teams we play. Without him . . . I don't know."
Meyers, 5-9 and 202 pounds, is built like a small Earl Campbell. He doesn't have extraordinary speed, but he shifts direction well, has excellent vision and that extra sense that allows him to feel an opening and get through it.
He resolved questions this season about his speed when he got loose for touchdown runs of 79 yards against Syracuse and 70 against William and Mary. Before that, his longest run had been 31 yards.
Meyers also has the ability to slither and twist, denying tacklers a clear chance at him. "That's been the biggest improvement in his game," Welsh said. "He's learned how to avoid the hits."
His success this season also has caused Meyers to think about professional football, something that didn't interest him when he first came to Navy.
He has a five-year military commitment after graduation that he hopes to fulfill by flying, but said he would then like to try pro football.
"I don't see any reason why I can't make it," he said. "I'll just wait and see what happens in the next five years. I certainly don't have any regrets about having gone to Navy. At the time I thought it was the right thing to do, and I still think it was.
"Football has been a big part of my life here, but the friendships I've made will stay with me long after football is gone."
Meyers said he is in the best condition that he's been in since the first week of practice in August. He also said the Midshipmen have something to prove against the Big Ten Buckeyes.
"We really didn't need much to get us up for this game, but the things I've heard they've been saying about us adds fuel to the fire," Meyers said.
Clippings are circulating around the Navy locker room quoting Ohio State players as saying that Navy is a pushover and that the only way the Midshipmen will win is if they can walk on water as well as sail on it.
"They're a good team, but they aren't good enough to talk about us like that," Meyers said.
Welsh gave his players a vacation from football until yesterday, when they met in Memphis to resume practice for Wednesday night's game. It will be televised on the USA cable network and on WBFF-TV-45 in Baltimore at 7.