When it was finally over on Saturday evening, when Navy and Air Force had traded punches for close to four hours like two fighters simply too tough to go down, the teams lined up for the traditional playing of the alma maters.
Air Force went first. Then it was Navy's turn to play and sing the hauntingly beautiful "Navy Blue and Gold." As the sky darkened over Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, Midshipmen Coach Ken Niumatalolo stood directly behind his players and didn't sing a word.
He couldn't. He was soaking wet, taking deep breaths and fighting not to completely lose his composure. If he had attempted to sing, it's entirely possible that nothing more than an exhausted croak would have come out of his mouth.
Cliches aside, this was a game for the ages, one that both teams thought they had won. At the finish, Navy got the ball last and scored last and, one year after a humiliating 28-14 loss at Air Force, pulled out a heart-stopping 48-45 victory. It was a game that, as Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk told the Midshipmen in their delirious locker room, they will all remember 30, 40 and 50 years from now.
Navy led 31-10 early in the third quarter. It led 38-17 later in that quarter. It still led 41-31 with less than five minutes to play. But Air Force simply wouldn't go away. The Falcons twice drove for touchdowns with the Mids needing one stop to end the game. They took the lead with 1:53 left when Falcons quarterback Arion Worthman, who was brilliant all day, found Marcus Bennett for a 51-yard touchdown with 1:53 to go.
That's the way these games go because, as Navy's new commandant, Robert B. Chadwick II, pointed out to the players, "When you play someone with the same DNA as you, you know they aren't going to quit either."
Air Force, though, made a fatal mistake. It had left too much time on the clock for Zach Abey and the Navy offense — even though having to go 75 yards with two timeouts left might have seemed a little much for a run-dependent offense. Abey is an absolute tank when he runs the ball — he rushed for 214 yards on 22 carries Saturday — but he can also throw the ball when there's absolutely no choice.
There was now no choice. The Mids faced fourth and three at their own 32 with the clock melting away. Abey found Brandon Colon with a perfect touch pass down the right sideline for 25 yards. Four plays later, Chris High picked up 10 yards to the Air Force 16. The clock was at 25 seconds. Abey just missed Colon in the end zone but, with 15 seconds left, fired a bullet to Tyler Carmona, who used his 6-foot-4 frame to leap over two Falcons defenders for — at last — the game-winning touchdown.
When the alma maters were over, Niumatalolo's longest postgame hug (among many) was with offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, who has been dealing with his son Jarren's life-threatening condition since preseason. Jarren, 14, who needs a heart transplant, left the hospital after two months on Thursday and was at the game in a wheelchair on Saturday.
Niumatalolo is a self-described crybaby. Which is why no one was surprised when he stood in front of his players and coaches and all the "stars," as the players call the officers who surround them on game days, that he had to start and restart several times before he could speak.
Holding up a football whose destiny everyone in the room already knew, he finally said: "Regardless of what happened on the field, today was a win." A long pause, his voice choked again. "Because Jarren Jasper is here."
The players, all kneeling as they normally do when their coach speaks postgame, leaped to their feet to cheer for the boy sitting to Niumatalolo's left with his mother standing behind him. His father stood a few feet away, somehow dry-eyed.
Niumatalolo wasn't quite finished. "Let me tell you guys one more thing," he said. "The greatest motivation isn't hate, it isn't fear. It's love. I love all of you." He stopped and smiled. "Regardless of what I say to you sometimes."
He turned and gave the ball to Jarren, and there weren't a lot of dry eyes in the house.
The "stars" went next — the secretary of the Navy; Superintendent Walter E. "Ted" Carter Jr.; the commandant; Gladchuk; and special guest Dick Vermeil. Carter called it Navy's greatest win in the history of the series.
Then it was Niumatalolo's turn again. He had one more game ball to give out: to Jarren Jasper's dad. "He took a lot of heat last year [when Navy rushed for only 57 yards against Air Force], and he came back today with a masterpiece."
Ivin Jasper took the ball flipped to him and promptly gave all the credit to the other offensive coaches. That's who Jasper is. If Niumatalolo is all heat and emotion, Jasper is nothing but cool and calm.
Niumatalolo then went to meet with the media and promptly broke down again. It was a game worthy of tears — on both sides.
As the commandant pointed out, it would have been easy for Air Force to quit, down by three touchdowns on the road in the second half. The Falcons were already 1-3 against a very tough schedule, but they simply kept grinding. In fact, they scored touchdowns on all five of their second half possessions.
The statistics in the game were mind-boggling. When someone told Niumatalolo that his team had rushed for 473 yards, he was stunned. "Against them?" he said. "Really?" Then, he added, "and it took Zach throwing the ball for us to win."
It took absolutely everything Navy had in its tank to survive what became a battle of attrition on a surprisingly warm, humid and breezy long day's journey into night. Players on both teams went down on play after play, many with heat-induced cramps, others with injuries. It appeared no one in the record crowd of 38,792 had left as the Mids scrambled down the field on their desperate final drive.
When Air Force's final play, which involved four laterals, was finally over, the brigade of midshipmen rushed the field. Then they had to get back into their seats for "Navy Blue and Gold."
Niumatalolo's exhaustion was apparent even as he walked up the tunnel. "Got nothing left," he said.
Fortunately, he had a few words left. At the end of an astonishing evening, they filled the Navy locker room with joy that went well beyond winning a football game. Even one that will be remembered for years to come.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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