Being a football player at the Naval Academy is full of rigorous training both on and off the field, and going through the tough times together helps the team bond closer.
Tago Smith was lying on the field, the Navy starting quarterback obviously in a lot of pain. It was only the second quarter of the first game of the 2016 season, and the Midshipmen had lost their leader on offense.
In stepped Will Worth, and Navy didn’t miss a beat, running up a 9-3 record and spot in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. For head coach Ken Niumatalolo, the bond that exists between his players is one of the reasons for the success following Smith’s injury, and it comes from his team having together faced the rigors of being a student-athlete at Navy.
“That’s really the culture of our team. You go through so much here at the Naval Academy. You have our Plebe Summer here, which is tough for any freshman coming out of high school where you are the king of your prom, you’re the team captain. I mean, you’re the man and then you come in and get yelled at for the first month. I think it just forces our team to be close, but that bond, that love, that the players have amongst each other, it is really the fabric of what our team is made of.”
That closeness will mean more than ever this week, as the Midshipmen get ready to battle rival Army in the two academies’ yearly meeting. Worth, who had accounted for 33 touchdowns on the season, will be out after suffering an injury in the loss to Temple this past Saturday. The next man up is sophomore Zach Abey, who will be tasked with leading Navy’s offense as the Midshipmen look to make it 15 wins in a row over the Black Knights.
Not that Abey, or any of the Midshipmen for that matter, are unfamiliar with pressure. Surviving the demanding schedule that is required of them, which can consist of nonstop days lasting from 6:30 am to lights-out, makes a football game seem like child’s play. So much so that, in 2001, then-senior linebacker Ryan Hamilton, when describing what a normal day was like for him while attending the academy, wrote, “At approximately 3:35 p.m., after spending some time in the training room, we make our way to the field for the easiest part of our day,…..PRACTICE.”
When meeting potential players, Niumatalolo is up front about what lies ahead for the recruit if he elects to come to Navy.
“You’ve got to tell the truth. You obviously want to get the best players and kids that you can. We’re on the premise that kids can handle the truth. [We say] ‘We’d love to have you.’”
This recruiting practice was even used with Keenan Reynolds, who would go on to become one of the most decorated players in school history.
“When we recruited him, another school that was recruiting him was telling him that he was going to start if he went there. We just told him that he would have the opportunity to compete for it. You’ve got to tell kids the truth that hey, if you’re going to come here it is going to be hard, going to be hard work, school is going to be tough, football is going to be tough. You are going to have to earn your way onto the field. Nothing is given to you.”
Some players, if needing an extra year of core classes as decided by admissions, are put through the hardship of a Midshipmen’s life even before arriving in Annapolis, attending the Naval Academy Preparatory School located in Newport, Rhode Island for a year. Niumatalolo is confident that anyone able to come out of the preparatory school intact will go on to be successful.
“You’re going to be homesick. It might be a little different from the other schools that are recruiting you, but if you can make it out of our prep school, you are going to be one tough sucker, not only just for football but in life. The skills that you grow from being at a place like that just makes you a better person.”
The current crop of Navy players have more important things waiting for them, including the 31 seniors who all received their first selection of service, but for this week, it all comes down to one thing: beating Army.