Navy's D.J. Palmore thought about Saturday's game against Notre Dame all week, except on Thursday morning. Palmore wasn't thinking about football at all as he pulled on his crisp working blues and went to join the rest of the seniors in his company in a stuffy room on the top floor of Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. There, the 6-foot-3 linebacker squeezed in the back and stood with a tight smile, gripping his right wrist in his left hand.
"I have never seen him this nervous," said senior slotback Josh Brown, who is also in Palmore's company.
The room soon filled with intermittent cheering and clapping as the men and women in Palmore's company stepped one by one to their company officer to receive a color-coded cupcake. This was the day when seniors — first-class midshipmen, as they are called at the academy — learned their service assignments, the reveal that determines the next five years of a midshipman's life, and the culmination of their training and study.
Next to graduation, it's the most important day on the calendar.
Palmore was hoping for a cupcake with red frosting, signifying he would be a Marine like his grandfather.
"I don't usually get nervous," he said, "but it just hit me: It's the next five years of my life. I'm pretty sure what it's going to be, but everything I planned — it could be something completely different."
Palmore took a few steps toward the middle of the room when his name was called, opened a small cardboard box and said, "Marine Ground." His friends burst into applause and reached to clap him on the back. Some bit into their cupcakes immediately after learning their assignment. Others opened their boxes and simply nodded. Another member of Palmore's company, one of just 34 seniors out of 1,053 to be assigned to the Navy SEALs, cried.
Palmore carried his box back to his spot in the back of the room and clutched it to his chest for the rest of the ceremony, wearing a wide smile and staring straight ahead, taking it all in.
Palmore didn't get to celebrate his service assignment quite like the rest of his company. He and the rest of the football team left for Notre Dame on Friday morning.
By now, Navy's defensive captain is accustomed to dividing his time between football and military demands. He doesn't call football a distraction from his duties at the academy; it is part of what he came to Annapolis for. But Thursday morning, at least, Navy's 34 seniors weren't thinking about what is perhaps their most important game on the schedule, aside from Army.
The Midshipmen (6-3) head to Notre Dame (8-2) for the 91st meeting of the programs. They face tough odds to repeat last season's 28-27 victory in Jacksonville, Fla. Their quarterbacks are beat up, and Notre Dame sits eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings, carrying extra motivation to rebound from a humbling 41-8 loss at Miami last week.
Palmore, who leads Navy with 10½ tackles for losses and also has 2½ sacks, will be tasked with leading the defense against the No. 6 rushing offense in the nation. But that took a back seat for the most important day of his life at the Naval Academy.
After receiving his assignment, Palmore called his parents in Memphis to tell them the good news, then hustled off to class, then practice, then weight training.
"It's just another game," Palmore said robotically Thursday morning, standing outside of the room where he received his cupcake, sporting glassy eyes, his mind still clearly on the Marines.
"I was thinking, if I don't get it, what's going to be the look on my face? Because I can't be sad," he said. "I was just so excited. It was like opening a Christmas present. Thank goodness, thank goodness. My grandfather was a Marine; it's just really what I want to do. I always knew it was what I wanted to do, but I didn't realize it until it got this close. I don't want to do anything else."
Coach Ken Niumatalolo is accustomed to his players balancing football with their military lives, and that doesn't make him any less demanding. He likes that football provides an occasional reprieve from the stress of the Naval Academy, particularly during road games.
"I'm excited because they're going to be able to go on the road and sleep," Niumatalolo said of the football-military balance earlier this season. "We load the buses, and I think by the time we get to Gate 8 [to leave the Yard], they'll be asleep. I think for them, it's an opportunity to just kind of get away and . . . sleep on the airplane, get a nap. It always bodes well for us, because you can kind of take away the stress."
Of 34 seniors on the team, 15 were assigned to the Marines; that's 44 percent compared with just less than 24 percent of all first-class midshipmen assigned to the Marines. The Marines are a popular choice among football players because of the team-like atmosphere.
Navy football's director and assistant director of player development, both of whom work closely with the team, also come from the Marines.
Capt. Mallory Dietrich, Palmore and Brown's company officer, said football players are "exposed to a lot of Marines down there. They live, breathe, interact with Marines for most of the day."
Dietrich, a Marine herself, is sure Palmore and Brown have the leadership skills and passion to succeed in the Marines. Dietrich told her company to enjoy the moment before continuing with the rest of their days.
"Unless you're here, it's hard to put into words how you'll feel," Dietrich said. "The closest thing I can compare it to is winning a major sporting event. You've just put in all that hard work and dedication over however many years to get to this one moment where you're told, 'Hey, we want you to come join us.' That's us saying, 'We want you.' The emotion you feel . . . it's almost euphoric. It's better than beating Notre Dame. It feels like winning the Super Bowl."
Palmore hopes to feel both emotions Saturday night — the residual euphoria of his service assignment and the joy that would come with beating Notre Dame. He has plenty of room in his heart for football and the military.
"It's my life," Palmore said before finally taking a bite of his cupcake. "I'm not nervous anymore."
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