PHILADELPHIA — They walked through the dank hallway on Saturday evening, heads down, cleats clicking against the concrete, the silence deafening. A few yards away on the field, the members of the Navy football team were being presented the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy by Vice President Biden, drinking in the cheers from the Navy fans who didn’t want to leave Lincoln Financial Field until they were absolutely certain the trophy was returning to Annapolis.
Trent Steelman was one of the last Army players to walk up the tunnel, in large part because so many Navy players and coaches stopped him for a hug, a handshake or a word of encouragement after the playing of the alma maters. One of the first to find the Black Knights senior quarterback was Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who told him: “You’re as tough as any player I’ve ever competed with or against. I’m proud of you.”
For the first time in a long time, Army had a lot to be proud of in an Army-Navy game. Not only had Navy beaten the Black Knights 10 straight times entering Saturday, the Midshipmen had done so by a combined score of 349-112. A year ago, Army lost by single digits for the first time during the streak. Saturday, the Black Knights led in the fourth quarter for the first time since their last win in 2001.
They also had a real chance to win — in fact, the case can be made that they should have won.
“I feel like we should have won,” Steelman said softly, his eye black staining his face because of the tears he had shed in the final seconds. “I thought we deserved that game in every possible way.”
Except for the final score: Navy 17, Army 13. The last play of Steelman’s career was a fumble with a little more than a minute left in the game and Army on the Navy 14-yard line with a first down. Steelman turned to hand the ball to fullback Larry Dixon and something went horribly wrong. Dixon never got control of the ball as Steelman put it into his stomach and Navy’s Barry Dabney was on it a split second before Steelman, seeing the ball on the ground, could dive on it.
“I’m honestly not sure what happened there,” Steelman said. “Simple triple-option play. No way am I going to put something like that on Larry, so put it on me.”
Of course he would say that because that’s what academy players do. “No excuse, sir,” is the first thing you are taught as a plebe.
It can be argued that no one who has played in this game has lived up to that credo more than Steelman. He has been Army’s starting quarterback for four years and has helped bring the program back to respectability — which may sound difficult to believe at the end of a 2-10 season, but it’s true. The year before Steelman and Coach Rich Ellerson arrived, Army lost to Navy, 34-0, and it wasn’t that close. The Black Knights beat Air Force at home this year for the first time since 1996 and, much like this game, were agonizingly close in several of their losses — including a 42-41 loss to Orange Bowl-bound Northern Illinois, when a missed extra point was the difference.
“I really believe we started something these last four years,” Steelman said, patiently standing in the hallway talking after he and his teammates had spoken to the media en masse. “I know the record doesn’t show it but we’re running an offense where everyone knows what’s coming and we’ve still moved the ball.” He shook his head and his voice quavered a bit. “One play. Just one play.”
There were a lot of plays in this game that could have tilted it in either direction. Navy freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds was brilliant, most notably on the Mids’ game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Both teams fumbled and made mistakes. Both teams made superb plays as the emotion in the stadium rocked back and forth as afternoon became evening and evening became night.
No Navy team — especially the seniors — wants to be the one that allows the streak to end. Needless to say each group of Army seniors wants to be the one to hear the alma mater played second at least once before graduation. Steelman’s class became the eighth class to leave without a win over Navy.
“I really can’t believe football’s over,” Steelman said. “I don’t even want to take my pads off because when I do I know it’ll hit me.”
If there was one person in the building who could understand what Steelman was feeling, he was on the Navy sideline during the game wearing a Marine major’s uniform. Andrew Thompson was captain of the 1995 Navy team, the leader of a group of Navy seniors that lost four times to Army — by a total of nine points.
Thompson has been a Marine for 16 years now. He has served in Iraq and is married with three children.
“All of that changes your perspective,” he said. “I wish I had a chance to talk to that kid tonight, although honestly, right now, there’s nothing I could say that would console him. It takes more time than that.
“If I did see him tonight, the first thing I’d do is buy him several drinks. Then I’d say to him, ‘I know this won’t mean much to you right now, but you’re going to have a chance to lead men and women and you’re going to do great things in your life because I believe that.
“After a while, you’ll remember the competition more than the losses. That doesn’t mean the losses won’t hurt, but you’ll see your career and Army-Navy as more than that — a lot more than that.”
Because the game had been so one-sided for the last 10 years, it had lost some luster. Army-Navy games aren’t supposed to be over in less than three quarters. When Army-Navy is over, everyone is supposed to cry: the winners joyfully, filled with relief and exhaustion; the losers dealing with the agony of being so close and yet being forced to sing their alma mater first.
This Army-Navy game had all of that. For Army, the heartbreak is especially poignant because if any player has ever deserved to take his team down the field to score the winning touchdown in the final minute of his final game, it is Steelman.
And yet he handled it with the class and dignity you would expect. In the locker room, Bob Beretta, who has handled media relations at Army for 26 years, told Steelman if he wanted to skip the postgame ritual with the media, no one would blame him under the circumstances.
“He’s talked to the media after every single game for four years,” Beretta said. “He was just so torn up. I thought I should give him the option even though I knew what he would say.”
Steelman didn’t disappoint. “I’m the captain,” he told Beretta. “I’m ready when you need me.”
That’s a pretty good legacy for any football player from Army or Navy: “I’m ready when you need me.”
No excuse, sir. Even when football has broken your heart one last time.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/