It was a frigid day last December in Philadelphia, the clock was melting away and no one at Lincoln Financial Field was leaving. They were all standing, almost none of them feeling the cold because the tension and the adrenaline was keeping them warm.
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds had scored from the 8-yard line with 4 minutes 41 seconds left in the game to give the Midshipmen a 17-13 lead, and Army had taken over at its 17, needing a touchdown to end Navy’s 10-game winning streak in college football’s best rivalry.
Black Knights quarterback Trent Steelman, playing his last college football game, was convinced this was the way it was meant to be. So was Larry Dixon, Army’s sophomore fullback. His mother had served in the Navy, and he had grown up in a Navy town (Bremerton, Wash., outside Seattle) only to decide to go to Army. He loved West Point from Day One.
“Never seen anything like it,” Steelman said. “It was as if he was born to be part of West Point from the very first day he got here. He loved it — all of it.”
As if following a movie script, Army began steadily moving the ball downfield.
Soon, it was first and 10 at the Navy 14, the clock ticking under 1:20.
“This is the way it’s supposed to end for the seniors,” Dixon thought. “We’re going to send them out with a win.”
He took a deep breath. He was tired. It was okay, though. He could push through for a couple more plays.
On first down, Steelman took the snap, looked at the defense and turned to put the ball into Dixon’s stomach.
“The play was wide open,” Dixon said. “Check the tape. Trent made the absolute right call giving me the ball.”
Except the ball never quite got to Dixon and tumbled to the turf. Third-string Navy nose guard Barry Dabney recovered it with 1:03 left. Army had only one timeout left. The game was over. Navy’s 17-13 lead would hold up.
After the game, Steelman took the blame. “No way I’m going to put that on Larry at all,” he said. “I’m the quarterback and I’m the captain. I have to take responsibility for what happened.”
That’s what cadets and midshipmen do: “No excuse, Sir,” the mantra they are all taught as plebes.
Dixon, though, is adamant that Steelman was wrong.
“I wasn’t in good enough shape,” he said, his voice soft but firm. “I was at least 15 pounds overweight. Maybe 20. That’s why I got tired on the last drive. I could feel it; I knew I was hurting a little. But it’s the Army-Navy game; you don’t ask to come out because you’re breathing hard.
“I knew what Trent was doing when he tried to say it was his fault. He was being the captain, the leader.” His voice dropped even lower. “He was being my big brother — protecting me. But it was on me. Not 50 percent or 80 percent — 100 percent.”
Dabney, who was only on the field because first-stringer Danny Ring suffered a leg injury and second-stringer Bernard Sarra was gassed on Army’s final drive, had been doing what he did best — pushing forward, trying to get penetration to set up one of his teammates to make a play.
“I thought I was doing a decent job,” he said later. “All I remember is being maybe a step into their backfield when I looked to my left and saw the ball on the ground. I just reacted and dove on it.”
To Dixon, the play is as clear as if it happened a few minutes ago.
“Guys kept coming up to me to tell me to keep my head up,” he said. “I remember [senior fullback] Dan McGue putting his arm around me and saying, ‘Hey, you gave us a chance to win.’ The thing is, I dropped the ball — literally and figuratively — for all those seniors.
“My mom told me, ‘You can’t get this day back, but you have to wear it, own it and move on.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do. Every day in the weight room if I’m getting tired, I think about that play. It drives me every day.”
Both Dixon and Dabney will play Saturday in the same stadium in the 114th Army-Navy game, although in limited roles.
Dixon cracked a bone in his right wrist last month early in Army’s game against Western Kentucky. At first it looked as if his season was over, but he has returned to practice and expects to play, although no one is certain how much.
Dabney is still listed at No. 3 on the depth chart at nose guard for Navy. This will be his last regular season college football game. Midshipmen defensive line coach Dale Pehrson says even though he knows Dabney would like to play more, his attitude has never wavered.
“He’s the best example I can show any of our players about how you can impact the game on just one play if you’re ready,” he said. “What’s been amazing is he’s never once complained or pouted because he isn’t playing more.”
Navy is favored to extend its series-record winning streak over Army to 12 in a row Saturday. The Midshipmen are 7-4 and headed to the Armed Forces Bowl later this month. Army is 3-8, and there’s no doubt Coach Rich Ellerson’s job is in severe jeopardy.
Both players who were at the heart of the play that decided the outcome last year feel pressure going into this year’s game — for entirely different reasons.
“We don’t want to be the senior class that lets the streak end,” Dabney said. “We saw the guys ahead of us go 4 for 4 against Army, and we want to match that. No one wants to walk off the field for the last time feeling as if you’ve let people down. We feel like we owe it to one another to keep the streak going.”
Dixon will have one more season left after Saturday’s game, but he desperately wants to send this group of Army seniors out with a smile on their faces.
“I can never change what happened for last year’s firsties,” he said. “But I can help change it for this group. I feel like I owe them this one.”
Each left the stadium with a lifetime memory that night. Dabney will happily carry his with him forever. Dixon will spend at least that long owning it but never forgetting it.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.