Two months later, Forney was found dead in his Bancroft Hall dorm room after a sudden cardiac arrest.
“Losing Dave was probably the hardest moment of my life and something that’s really affected me and other guys on the offensive line and the team as a whole,” Honaker said. “ … I was just kind of weighing what that number meant to us and his family. I figured the first time this number should be worn on the field is Army-Navy and by someone who knew who he was and who loved him. Really the only thing for me now is to just play in a way that honors him and who he was as a football player.”
Forney’s Feb. 20 death sent shock waves through the program. He had played in 39 consecutive games and was preparing for a shot at the NFL. He helped power the nation’s No. 1 running game last season as Malcolm Perry set the Football Bowl Subdivision record for rushing yards by a quarterback. The Midshipmen finished ranked 20th and tied a school record with 11 wins.
Forney had no medical issues, no warning signs before he was found unresponsive while working on a paper and peeling an orange at his desk.
“The struggle is real, you know what I mean?” said Forney’s father, Rick. “You can’t prepare for something like this. … I guess when it’s your time, it’s your time. Maybe one day when we meet with David again, we’ll find out what happened. We’re utterly devastated, to say the least.
“I can’t tell you how many letters my wife and I got from parents of Midshipmen that we didn’t know before. Some of them were freshmen that spent a brief amount of time with Dave. They were crushed by it because Dave went out of his way to be friendly with everybody. … Dave was a good friend, a good teammate, and he looked out for people, especially his brothers.”
The process of bringing back No. 68 started with a text message from Honaker, now a senior, to TJ Salu and Kendel Wright. They were Forney’s teammates and best friends, and Honaker wanted to run his idea past them. He had some concern that it was too soon, but they were on board. Honaker then reached out to Forney’s brother, Chris. Then he spoke to Rick Forney, who was both surprised and touched.
The Forneys had gotten to know Navy’s offensive linemen over the years. Rick, an Annapolis native who had started talking to David about playing at Navy when he was in middle school, thought Honaker was calling just to chat. Instead, he had a more serious question.
“I’d never say no to Billy for anything,” Rick said.
This 121st meeting between Army (7-2) and Navy (3-6) will be unlike any other, played during the height of a global pandemic and on an academy campus for the first time since 1943. Lincoln Financial Field could not accommodate the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen because of coronavirus safety restrictions, so Army, the designated home team, will host the game in West Point, N.Y. Both teams have dealt with schedule chaos this fall as programs across the country pieced together a patchwork season. Navy had a four-week break between games because of outbreaks, postponements and cancellations.
But that was far from the most difficult part of Navy’s year, as Coach Ken Niumatalolo has pointed out. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper called Forney “a big, gentle teddy bear” who always had a way of making tough situations better. He remembered a game in which Ashley Ingram, Navy’s running game coordinator and offensive line coach, was berating the blockers for poor play before Forney stepped in.
“David being David said, ‘Coach, you know the way you’re acting ain’t helping the situation at all,’ ” Jasper recalled. “ … That’s just the way [Forney] was. He found a way to make things enjoyable. Even though it was a very tense moment, he found a way to stick a little bit of humility in there, little bit of comedy in there.”
Rick Forney plans to watch Saturday’s game with family, and he expects to get a bit emotional before it kicks off. The pageantry will be in full effect, and then Honaker will sprint onto the field, ready to play left guard — Forney’s old position — while sporting No. 68.
“Probably going to draw a tear to my eye and make me cry for the first 10 minutes of the ballgame,” Rick said.
A lasting image of Forney was secured moments after last year’s Army game, Navy’s first win in the series since 2015 and the only one of his career. A wide, toothy, open-mouthed smile is etched across his face as he’s surrounded by teammates and the Brigade of Midshipmen, celebrating the victory. The 22-year-old’s hair is a brown swath of a sweaty mess, and his gold No. 68 stands out on a field of blue, stained with 60 minutes of mud and grime from the biggest game of his college career.
“He was like a big brother to me,” Honaker said. “The heartbreak isn’t from him not playing football anymore or anything like that. It’s the fact that we lost a friend — somebody who we won’t get to visit later on in life and see his family, those kind of things.
“Probably the most painful thing about losing him is we lost out on years and years of having a great friend. That’s the hardest thing about it.”