Tago Smith runs for a touchdown in Navy’s season opener against Fordham. Smith would suffer a knee injury in the second quarter against the Rams, ending his football career with the Mids. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

This was finally supposed to be Tago Smith’s time to shine. He had patiently waited three years for Keenan Reynolds to graduate so he could take the reins as starting quarterback for the Navy football team.

His time lasted a little more than a quarter in Navy’s opening game this fall against Fordham. Smith already had rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns when his knee twisted under him at the end of a run early in the second quarter. It was one of those awful football moments when seasoned observers knew instantly the injury was serious.

It was. Torn anterior cruciate ligament. Season over. And, as it turns out, career over.

At any other school — including Army and Air Force — Smith would have been a lock to receive a medical redshirt. NCAA rules say that a player who is hurt after playing in less than 30 percent of his team’s games can receive a redshirt year. Clearly, Smith qualified.

But that wasn’t the hurdle he had to clear. That was the Naval Academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Walter E. “Ted” Carter. And, if you believe what many at the academy think, the Pentagon was a bigger hurdle.

Against those odds, Smith had no chance.

Carter officially ruled Oct. 25 that Smith would not be granted a redshirt year. In doing so, Carter failed to do what’s best for his men.

If the decision came from above Carter, that’s even sadder. For one thing, why have a superintendent if he can’t make a decision like this one without interference from outside the academy? For another, that would mean people who didn’t know Smith at all and probably had no understanding of why he should be granted the fifth year just decided he didn’t matter enough to be granted what is, in fact, a minor concession.

They decided to let a handful of perennially disgruntled faculty members and alumni who think football is too important at the academy overrule what should have been their best instincts.

Smith was, in every way, a model midshipman. After announcing his decision, Carter cited that Smith’s injury would not make it difficult for him to graduate in the allotted four years. This despite the fact that he had to hobble around the Navy campus, the Yard, on crutches and still carry out his various military obligations.

The irony is, if Smith were a shaky student or if he had said that getting to all his classes was just too tough, he might have had a better chance of being allowed to drop out for the semester and then finish his senior year next fall — and play football.

There is plenty of precedent for this. As far back as 1984, star running back Napoleon McCallum, who went on to play in the NFL while serving in the Navy, broke his ankle two games into the season and was allowed to return and play the next fall. Like Smith, he was on crutches after his injury.

“That may be the toughest question I’ve ever been asked,” McCallum said when asked Wednesday whether he thought Smith should have been granted a fifth season. “Mine was a little different — they’re all different. It was going to be hard for me to graduate on time because of academics. I needed to take a lot of extra classes.

“I feel terrible for him,” McCallum added. “I hope he understands there’s plenty of life beyond football. Each situation is different. I know that. Everyone knows that. It’s tough making exceptions like this one.”

He paused and then added: “Boy. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I feel for everyone involved.”

If McCallum had been on schedule to graduate without any issues, he might have been turned down, like Smith, when he applied for the extra year. In short, Smith is being punished for being a good student.

When McCallum was asked whether that was accurate, he sighed. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess that’s true.”

Since McCallum, five other Navy football players have been granted a fifth season after being injured, the most recent being Michael Walsh six years ago. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

What’s more, every fall, a number of recently graduated football players are assigned to stay at the academy to work as graduate assistant football coaches. They are called TADs, or temporary assignment duty officers, because they leave either during or after the football season. Currently, four seniors who graduated in June are TADs: Bernie Sarra, Ben Tamburello, Marc Meier and Eddie Robinson. They are all Marine second lieutenants. Their job, right now, is to coach football. Is that all that different from allowing a player in an exceptional situation to play football for one last semester?

Army and Air Force both have players on their teams who were granted fifth years because of injury: Justin Gilbert is a fifth-year senior who starts on the offensive line at West Point; Nate Romine is a quarterback who has been granted a fifth season next fall at Air Force because he suffered the same injury as Smith last fall.

Let’s dispatch with the gibberish that Smith would be given an extra semester in the name of winning football games and the academy’s mission is to train Naval officers and blah-blah-blah.

Here are the facts: Midshipmen drop out of school frequently for all sorts of reasons — family issues, physical and mental health issues, money issues. If they are in good academic and military standing, they are allowed to return and graduate in more than four years. That’s one reason the academy has a small graduation ceremony for a handful of midshipmen every December in addition to the one in the spring.

What’s more, the football team will be fine without Smith. Ken Niumatalolo has clearly established a program that replaces those who graduate or are injured and keeps on winning. Navy’s a national program now, a team that has beaten ranked teams such as No. 15 Memphis last season and No. 6 Houston this season. The Houston win came with Will Worth, Smith’s replacement, playing quarterback.

This wasn’t about winning football games. It was about doing what was fair and right for a midshipman who was looked up to by his teammates and his shipmates. The decision was arbitrary.

Smith’s teammates will play against Notre Dame on Saturday. They will be outweighed at virtually every position and will be facing players — even on a bad Notre Dame team — who will play in the NFL. Carter no doubt will tell them after the game how proud he is of them after they have given everything they have for 60 minutes. He will tell them how much their efforts mean to the academy and to all those in the Navy and the Marines around the world.

It’s a shame Carter and the Navy passed on a chance to show a deserving midshipmen that what was best for him meant something to them.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.