Last October, fullback Erich Sauerbrey was sitting in a very small bar in Annapolis feeling, as it happened, very small. Navy was losing to Notre Dame, Sauerbrey hadn't made the traveling squad and, with his head in his hands and the noise of the game drifting from the TV, he thought, "What in the world am I going to do?"
Wide receiver Troy Saunders was also back at Annapolis, nursing a chronically dislocated shoulder and the typically bruised ego of a freshman at the Naval Academy. John McKenna was hobbling around on a broken foot thinking if he recovered real quick he might get to play special teams, but probably never fullback at 5 feet 7 and 182 pounds.
It was quite a contrast, then, when the three of them turned up after Navy's upset of Pitt last week laughing so hard they almost hurt themselves. Sauerbrey, McKenna and Saunders helped Navy play a grand, 21-7 joke on the Panthers.
This week, as the Midshipmen prepare to travel to South Bend, Ind., for Saturday's game with Notre Dame, the three have had trouble getting their hands back from all the well-wishers on campus. Sauerbrey, a journeyman senior, can't help giggling when he thinks about some of the people who last week wondered if he was still on the team. McKenna, a junior walk-on, was stopped by Coach Gary Tranquill on Monday for a handshake -- "I really wasn't ready for that," he said -- and Saunders, a sophomore, has been congratulated by usually reserved teachers.
A number of the Midshipmen, including McKenna, even indulged in a rare night out Saturday. "We got away from Annapolis so we wouldn't get in trouble," McKenna said. " . . . And I better not say any more about it."
Navy has always relied heavily on walk-ons and a depth chart that is used to the fullest. The maxim that Navy does a lot with a little was never more evident than in the three third-stringers' performances against Pitt, and their minor heroics have helped the Midshipmen work their way from 1-4 to 3-4.
"Everybody knows things haven't looked that good for us," wide receiver coach Kevin Rogers said.
Navy went into the Pitt game without its top two fullbacks, John Berner (sprained knee) and Chuck Smith (sprained ankle), and its top two receivers, Tony Hollinger (sore hip) and Mike Ray (pulled hamstring). It was an apparently dire situation not made any better by Sauerbrey playing with a dislocated shoulder, McKenna being outweighed by a huge Pitt line and Saunders merely a promising prospect.
Nevertheless, Saunders caught four passes for 68 yards and ran 25 yards on a reverse to set up one touchdown. Sauerbrey caught three passes for 22 yards and gained 35 yards on five carries. McKenna, backing up Sauerbrey, picked up a 23-yard gain on third down to set up another touchdown.
"We knew we'd be better off with Troy in the game," Rogers said. "But the other two just weren't as good (as the starters). Very frankly, I was surprised."
Running backs coach Bill Haushalter was perhaps least surprised because he had seen it before, in 1978. Navy was playing William and Mary when its top two backs, Mike Sherlock and Steve Callahan, were injured. Then, as on Saturday, Navy resorted to third-stringers: an unknown named Dwayne Flowers, and a freshman named Eddie Meyers, who later became Navy's all-time career leading rusher. Navy won, 9-0, and went on to an 8-3 season.
"I've been here long enough to have seen it before," Haushalter said. " . . . We have a lot of kids who come out as walk-ons, and they stay out because they say, 'Hey, I'm as good as that guy.' So you work with them, and pretty soon you have a football player . . . "
Sauerbrey, McKenna and Saunders have perhaps been so well received on campus because they seem to typify Navy athletes. Sauerbrey was recruited by a number of Southeastern schools out of Eastman, Ga., but was dropped when he injured a knee his senior year in high school. He has spent most of his time at Navy barely hanging on between injuries, occasionally thinking of quitting.
McKenna, unrecruited out of Marlton, N.J., because of his size, has mostly been on scout teams. Saunders was largely unrecruited out of Bordentown, N.J., when his high school team won one game his senior year.
"We've always hung in there with what we had," Sauerbrey said. "We do a lot with a little, that's the truth. We don't get blue chip players. Most of the people here had a bad senior year or suffered injuries in high school. But we're out there working hard, and sometimes we get a chance."