ANTIOCH, Tenn. — Keenan Reynolds is busy catching up with family and spinning yarns with friends not seen in months during a brief trip home for the July 4 weekend. He doesn’t get back much to this Nashville suburb anymore because playing football while attending the U.S. Naval Academy means infrequent leisure time and summers on a ship rather than vacation. On this weekend, the senior quarterback has been making every conversation count.
Just about everyone who initially influenced the most statistically accomplished player in program history — and, possibly, the most prolific touchdown scorer in major college football history by the end of this season, which will begin Saturday against Colgate — has stopped by to greet Reynolds before he heads back to Annapolis for training camp.
With Reynolds obligated to five years of naval service after graduation, there’s no telling when he’ll be back for the next occasion. That’s why these past few days of leave mean a bit more.
“It’s definitely surreal,” Reynolds said. “I’ve only got one year left, and I’m going to be active duty for real. I’m going to be in charge of people’s lives. My decisions can ultimately affect the way somebody’s life plays out, so it’s definitely a scary thought, but I think the Naval Academy has prepared me well.”
Burgers, chicken wings, mac and cheese, corn on the cob and Reynolds’s favorite guilty pleasure, sweet tea, compel guests to linger. Reynolds, wearing a gray Washington Wizards T-shirt, poses for pictures while little brother Quentin, 10, enjoys a plate of food at the dining room table.
Keenan was just 5 when he and the boys’ father, Donnie, began sitting at that identical spot to pore over every play from every game he played. Donnie, who played in college at Tennessee-Martin, coached Keenan during his first days of organized football but made certain not to provide special treatment.
“I had to be hard on him because I’m hard on every kid out there,” he said. “I had no patience when he screwed up because I wanted him to perfect more being a leader than being an individual running around and playing football at a young age. If you’re going to play this sport, be serious about it. If you’re playing it for fun, then that’s the way I’m going to coach it.
“Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great? That’s the question I asked him when he first started playing football. I always said, ‘I’m not going to babysit you,’ and as he grew up, he started to mature and understand what I was saying.”
Reynolds has kept that message in mind throughout his football career. It has spurred him to 64 rushing touchdowns, already a Football Bowl Subdivision record for quarterbacks and 13 short of equaling the overall mark held by Montee Ball. The former Wisconsin running back’s 83 total touchdowns are also an FBS standard within reach.
Reynolds has averaged 27 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons, setting an NCAA record in 2013 for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (31).
He holds virtually every meaningful career rushing and scoring mark in Navy history, including touchdowns (64) and points (386). His seven touchdowns in one game in 2013 are a school record — and the most ever scored on the ground by a college quarterback — and he’s one of four Midshipmen players to amass 1,000 yards rushing and passing in the same season.
“What makes Keenan different is his decision-making,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “He’s as cerebral a quarterback as I’ve ever been around. To me that’s always been the number one characteristic of a quarterback, your decision-making, how fast you can process stuff. It’s not arm strength. It’s not your 40 time. From a decision-making standpoint, he’s the best I’ve ever been around.”
Choosing Navy, much less staying there, wasn’t an easy decision.
Early in the college selection process, Air Force was the front-runner for the eventual two-time all-state quarterback at Goodpasture Christian. Navy’s second-most contentious rival behind Army had been recruiting Reynolds vigorously, and at a function in Colorado Springs where school officials spoke with the hope of persuading prospective recruits to commit, Reynolds’s mother, Jackie, sat next to Keenan anxiously wondering if he was about do so.
“I was ready to stand up and commit,” she said, “and they weren’t even recruiting me.”
Not long after, Navy entered the picture when assistant Ashley Ingram met him one afternoon following math class. When Reynolds and his parents visited the Annapolis campus for the first time, they were sold almost immediately, and not only because of the football program, which was in the midst of unprecedented prosperity with eight consecutive bowl appearances from 2003 though 2010.
The academics, location and comfort he felt among the student body also factored heavily into Reynolds’s decision to attend, but Niumatalolo provided no assurances Reynolds would become the starting quarterback. Junior Trey Miller was at the head of the line for that job entering the 2012 season.
During Reynolds’s first few months at Navy, there was some doubt as to whether he was going to stay in school, much less play football. Plebe summer had drained him mentally and physically. The academic and military demands at a service academy left virtually no time for anything other than limited sleep. Maybe a clean break would be in his best interest.
Jackie still has the letters her son wrote detailing his discontent. She resisted the urge to drive to campus and whisk her son back home.
“There were several times during plebe summer, even out of plebe summer,” Reynolds said of instances when he considered leaving. “The first couple weeks of the season when I wasn’t playing, I questioned whether or not I made the right move. Maybe I should have gone to Wofford, a regular school, six-hour drive, real close to home. Things are done a lot easier, so I definitely questioned a lot.”
Four games into that freshman season, Reynolds replaced an injured Miller in the fourth quarter at Air Force with the Midshipmen trailing, 21-13. Reynolds scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession, with fullback Noah Copeland’s two-point run tying the game. In overtime, Reynolds capped the 28-21 victory by directing the decisive drive.
The following week, Reynolds became the third freshman in Navy history to start a game, and he passed for three touchdowns in the 31-13 win at Central Michigan. Afterward, Jackie was waiting outside the locker room to congratulate her son. But before Reynolds was finished dressing, Niumatalolo emerged.
The coach and the quarterback’s mom made eye contact and shared an insider’s laugh recalling a conversation in which she told Niumatalolo her son would be starting by the fourth game. She wasn’t off by much.
Reynolds has gone on to a 21-11 record and three bowl appearances as Navy’s starter.
“When I signed on the dotted line, I wasn’t like, ‘All right, I’m going to be the record holder,’” Reynolds said. “It just kind of happened. I’m fortunate and blessed to be in this position. All the individual success that I have is a tribute to the team’s success because it takes 11 to make it go.”
The record that matters most to Reynolds and his teammates is 3-0 against Army. In last year’s 17-10 victory that extended Navy’s series-long winning streak to 13 in a row, Reynolds rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries and completed 6 of 8 passes for 77 yards and another touchdown.
On top of that, Reynolds has led the Midshipmen to consecutive bowl victories after one win in their six previous postseason appearances. Not even the legendary Roger Staubach, Navy’s Heisman Trophy winner in 1963, can claim such an accomplishment.
“It’s always a good time when you can play and watch history happen, all the records,” Navy senior guard E.K. Binns said. “At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to win football games, but it’s something you’ll look back on and say, ‘Wow, I was part of that.’ ”
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