The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

His Army-Navy fumble left him ‘devastated.’ He still isn’t over it.

Anton Hall Jr. during the Army-Navy game in December. (Edward Diller/Getty Images)
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Two months later, Anton Hall Jr. can remember the play as if it just happened. “I seriously doubt,” he said, “that I’ll ever forget it.”

Hall was sitting in a conference room at Ricketts Hall, where Navy’s football offices and locker rooms are located, on a cool, sunny February afternoon. He was talking about a chilly December evening in Philadelphia and the second overtime of the Army-Navy game. The score was tied at 17, and, after a Navy timeout, the Midshipmen had third and goal on the 3-yard line. Hall had rushed for a career-high 97 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

“Looking back, I probably should have come out before that play,” Hall said softly. “I felt like I might be sick. During the timeout, I looked to the sideline, and I could see [fellow fullback Daba Fofana] was ready to come in. But I still felt like I was okay. I wanted the ball. I wanted to score. It was the kind of moment anyone who plays football dreams about.”

Quarterback Xavier Arline, who had been stopped twice from inside the 5, handed the ball to Hall out of the shotgun. After reaching the 1, Hall dived for the goal line. “Honestly, I thought I was in at first,” he said.

But the ball had been punched loose by Army’s Austin Hill, and at the bottom of the pile with the ball was the Black Knights’ Darius Richardson.

“When I realized they had the ball, in that moment, I felt as if I had just destroyed the Navy football program,” Hall said. “... If you look at the tape, if I had made a cut to the outside, I’d have walked in. But I was just trying to keep going forward.”

Several of Hall’s teammates grabbed him as he went to the sideline to offer reassurance. Linebacker Nicholas Straw told Hall: “The game’s not over. We’re going to get a stop for you.”

Navy conceded just three yards, but Army was merely trying to get the ball centered for a field goal attempt. Quinn Maretzki drilled a 39-yarder to give Army a 20-17 victory. That was when Hall’s misery truly began.

“I felt so guilty,” he said. “During the playing of the alma maters, I had a towel over my head because I didn’t want everyone to see me crying. I know that was wrong, but I just couldn’t help it at that moment. I was devastated.”

Ken Niumatalolo deserved better than what he got from Navy

Things got worse before they slowly began to get better. After the game, the players were told there would be an emergency team meeting Sunday morning. Normally, the day after Army-Navy is a day off, so everyone knew something major was up.

Something major was indeed up: In the wake of the loss, Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk fired coach Ken Niumatalolo after 25 years at Navy, the last 15 as the head coach.

“It was a complete shock when he told us,” Hall said. “I just sat there thinking: ‘I’m the reason this happened. This is my fault.’ ”

As he was talking to his players, Niumatalolo noticed that Hall was crying. “He was just bawling,” the former coach said this month. “He couldn’t stop himself. I felt terrible for him. He didn’t lose the game; we all lost the game. In a game like that, there are lots of plays that decide who wins. His was just one of them.”

When the meeting ended, the players lined up for farewell hugs with their coach. Niumatalolo held Hall tightly and said, “Without you, we wouldn’t have had a chance to win,” referencing the touchdown run. “Remember that. You’ve got a great career ahead of you here.”

A few seconds later, Niumatalolo’s wife, Barbara, gave Hall a hug. That made him cry again.

“He happens to be a great kid,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s grown a lot since he came to the academy. The place isn’t easy for anyone, but he’s really hung with it from the start.”

Hall is 5-foot-8 and weighs 198 pounds. When he gets rolling, he is tough to tackle. He finished the season with 390 yards on 89 carries — an average of 4.4 yards. But fumbling has been an issue.

“You can’t put the ball on the ground — I know that,” he said. “Coach said to me early this season, ‘If you can’t hold on to the ball, I can’t play you.’ I understood that. I focused on it. Now I’ll focus on it more if that’s possible.”

Hall and fellow sophomore Amin Hassan were recruited out of Gulliver Prep, just outside of Miami. The only relative Hall had with a military background was his great uncle, a Marine who served in World War II. He plans to become a Marine, too.

“It just felt right for me,” he said. “I really do believe we’re playing for more than just winning games. We represent the Navy when we play — and the Marines.”

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Hassan committed to Navy first and urged Hall to follow him. The two have remained extremely close since riding the bus to school every morning in high school. “When I walked into the locker room after the game, the first thing I saw was Amin with his arms wrapped around Anton,” Niumatalolo said. “It gave me a chill, especially after what the two of them had gone through in November.”

On Nov. 13, three University of Virginia football players were shot and killed after a trip to Washington. One of them was D’Sean Perry, who had joined Hall and Hassan on those morning bus rides to Gulliver Prep.

“The three of us were inseparable,” Hall said, his words coming slowly. “My fumble was a football tragedy. This was real tragedy. Even thinking about it now is very hard.”

Brian Newberry, hired four years ago by Niumatalolo as his defensive coordinator, is now Navy’s head coach. He’s still adjusting to the idea that he’s the man in the big office with the spectacular view of Annapolis harbor.

“There are players on offense whose names I don’t even know yet,” he said with a smile. “My focus has been so much on the defensive side in the past. I need to sit down and get to know the kids on offense before we start spring practice, and they need to get to know me. Anton is someone I not only need to get to know better but someone I need to make sure knows he has my complete support and everyone’s support around here.”

Hall understands that. He’s grateful for constant support from his teammates and coaches — and from outsiders who contacted him to say he isn’t to blame for the loss.

“All of that means a lot to me,” he said. “But it still hurts a lot. Around here, when you mess up, you don’t make excuses. I know I have to move on. I want to be a great player these next two years. It’s still up to me. I’m not going to say I’m over it, but I am going to move forward. It’s what I have to do.”