The Navy football program posted one of its most notable victories in more than 30 years Oct. 8, outlasting then-No.6 Houston in a 46-40 thriller at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. It was the Midshipmen's first victory against a top-10 program since they defeated No. 2 South Carolina, 38-14, during the 1984 season.
Navy followed up the win against Houston with a 42-28 victory against visiting Memphis Oct. 22. That triumph gave the Midshipmen the lead in the American Athletic Conference's West Division.
The signature wins against Houston and Memphis lifted the Midshipmen into the top 25 in both national polls. But while those victories were important, they don't quite match up to the one game that means the most to Navy every year. The game the Midshipmen circle on their calendar is the annual matchup with Army West Point.
"There's something unique and special about the Army-Navy game," said Ken Niumatalolo, now in his ninth year as Navy's head coach after spending 10 seasons as a Midshipmen assistant. "It's an iconic game in college football. Air Force is a really good program. We really want to beat Air Force, and Army really wants to beat Air Force. Those are super-intense, competitive rivalries too, but they're not Army-Navy.
"I've been here 19 seasons, and on a handful of occasions, the President of the United States has come to the Army-Navy game. How many sporting events does the President attend? That just shows you the magnitude of the game."
Considered to be one of the greatest of all athletic rivalries, Army-Navy brings together young men to battle each other on the gridiron before they graduate and join together to protect their nation after leaving their respective academies. The Midshipmen, who have won 14 straight games in the series, and Black Knights will play for the 117th time at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium Dec. 10.
"The way both institutions treat each other and the respect factor is what makes me most proud about this rivalry," Niumatalolo said. "There have been many surveys that have named [Army-Navy] as the No. 1 rivalry in college football or in college sports. It's always a healthy rivalry. As intense and as fierce as the competition is, the mutual respect never leaves. That's what separates this rivalry."
The Army-Navy matchup is broadcast around the nation and the world. But the rivalry hits close to home for several Navy players and their families.
For several Midshipmen, the Army-Navy game has a greater meaning. They are sons and brothers of veterans, who took an unusual route to a service career. The future Midshipmen watched and learned as their family members served their country and often sacrificed their own personal goals for the greater good. Drawing inspiration from those closest to them, this group decided to dedicate themselves to a military career that begins with their time in Annapolis, Md.
"When you have parents that have served in the Army, they'll obviously have their bias towards the Army," Niumatalolo said. "Ultimately, the parents just want what they feel is best for their sons. Blood is always thicker than water. Once their sons make their choice, they're going to support them."
A Mother's Influence
For the first eight years of slotback Toneo Gulley's life, his mother worked close to home. Shellaree Twitty had an established career as a hair stylist in Gulley's hometown of Akron, Ohio. But a greater calling awaited her.
Photo Credit: Alex Edelman/PressBox
"It was definitely challenging for her," said Gulley, a senior co-captain of the 2016 Midshipmen. "She went into the service later in life than most people, and some people talked to her as if she wasn't going to make it. But she didn't listen to it and proved those people wrong."
Gulley was in the third grade when his mother decided to enlist in the Navy. Following her completion of boot camp, Twitty told the family her first duty station was in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"I had friends in Akron and didn't want to move," Gulley said. "But being in third grade, I had no say-so whatsoever. We moved, and it was probably one of the best years of my life."
Gulley lived in the military complex and made a lot of friends. But the family moved back to Akron when Gulley was in middle school. His mother's orders eventually sent her to Jacksonville, Fla., but Gulley elected to stay in Akron with his father and grandmother.
While Gulley was in high school, his mother was transferred to the Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Ill., just north of Chicago. Gulley ultimately joined his mother in her Kenosha, Wis., home for his last two years of high school. He earned All-State honors at Tremper High School and was chosen as the Milwaukee Player of the Year following his senior season.
Gulley, whose brother Prince-Tyson Gulley was a running back at Syracuse, knew about the Naval Academy program from watching former Midshipmen quarterback Ricky Dobbs on TV. After weighing his options, Gulley chose Navy over the University of Akron.
"I wanted to travel the world, and Navy was the best option," Gulley said. "I haven't regretted it since, and coming here just made me more proud of my mother. It was easier to make the decision because I've seen what the military has done for our family in many ways. If my mother wouldn't have joined the military, I'm not sure where life would have taken our family."
Twitty, who is an operations support officer at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., has attended two of the last three Army-Navy games.
"My mother is Navy all the way," Gulley said. "She comes to the games, and she loves watching me play. It's a great experience for her and gives her a sense of pride to be serving in the military."
Military Through And Through
Quarterback Will Worth exemplifies the Navy spirit. The senior was a supportive teammate to former standout Midshipmen signal-caller Keenan Reynolds and classmate Tago Smith, before getting his first chance to start when Smith went down with a knee injury during Navy's season-opening win against Fordham Sept. 3.
Photo Credit: Alex Edelman/PressBox
Worth is a nominee for the National Football Foundation's Campbell Trophy, which will be awarded Dec. 6 to the top scholar-athlete football player in the nation. The native of Valrico, Fla., is also a candidate for the Wuerffel Trophy, which is presented to the collegian who best combines exemplary community service with academic and athletic achievement.
When Worth runs onto the M&T Bank Stadium field Dec. 10, he will be representing a family steeped in military service. Worth's grandfather graduated from the Naval Academy in 1953, where he was a member of the crew team. Worth's parents, William and Susan, met in the Navy, his father serving 20 years, while his mother spent eight years in uniform. In addition, Worth's brother, Joe, played inside linebacker for Navy before graduating in May 2015. Worth's family tree also includes two uncles and a great-grandfather who all served in the Marine Corps.
When it came time to make his college decision, Worth's family didn't try to influence him. But his brother, who is now in the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune (N.C.), spoke highly of the school and the football program.
"My brother wanted it to be my own decision," Worth said. "But he was a huge proponent of the school. He loved the place and the brotherhood aspect of the football team. I learned how tight the team was, and that really appealed to me."
Worth's father drew a strong comparison between the military life and Worth's sport of choice.
"My dad had always said that, if you liked the teamwork atmosphere of a football team, then joining the military is the best team experience that you can have," Worth said. "Just seeing him and all of his buddies throughout the years was something that I looked up to."
Worth, an ocean engineering major who carries a 3.50 GPA, was also thinking about his post-college career.
"Coming here, I knew that I was going to be able to do something different and that it would be a challenge," Worth said. "I knew that, wherever I went, I would have tried to join the military after college. My family has been in the military for a while, and I knew that was an option."
Worth has experienced three Army-Navy clashes. But as the Midshipmen's starting quarterback, he will be asked to play a more prominent role during his final game against Navy's archrival.
"It's one of the best experiences you could have on a football field," Worth said. "Everyone is watching, since it's the weekend after the conference championship games and the only game on TV. You prepare the same way that you would for every other game. But obviously, there's an added excitement and energy during that week."
From The Mountains To The Water
After graduating from Palmer Ridge (Colo.) High School, Winn Howard had his share of collegiate football options. A two-way standout, Howard was also considering Northwestern University and the University of Colorado, where his father, Tim, played football from 1980-83.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics
Howard was raised near the United States Air Force Academy, but the idea of attending a service academy wasn't appealing at first. Yet, Howard still wound up spending his collegiate years in Annapolis, Md.
"It really came from a long-term desire to serve, and that was because of my dad," said Howard, a junior linebacker from Monument, Colo. "He brought home these night-vision goggles when I was 4 years old, and ever since I looked through them, I knew what I wanted to do."
Howard wasn't the first in his family to wear a military uniform. His father served as an Army officer, and his mother, Karen, has worked throughout the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for many years. Tim Howard was excited his son had decided on a military career.
"I think he was just psyched that I was somewhere I wanted to be," Winn Howard said. "He likes the Navy. He does a good job of hiding it, but I think there's a bit of rivalry in him."
Despite his upbringing in Colorado and familiarity with Air Force, Howard was drawn to the Naval Academy.
"Navy had sent me a letter for track and field," said Howard, who was a two-sport athlete in high school. "I wanted to help people, and [the military] became a really cool option. I reached out to [Navy football assistant coach] Steve Johns and told him that I wanted to play at Navy. I saw it as a way to accomplish two goals: to serve in the military and to play football. I got a call back, made a visit out here and got my application in. I was on my way."
Howard feels his military commitment is also a way to honor his mother's work in Veterans Affairs.
"I think that it's so valuable to give back to this country," said Howard, who also had an uncle serve in the Navy. "My parents were the foundation of that inspiration."
During the day of the Army-Navy clash, the postgame pageantry also makes Howard proud of the respect that signifies the service rivalry.
"When it comes to singing the alma maters after the game, they're both beautiful songs, and it's a really cool tradition," Howard said. "You're humbled when you're standing there with your hand over your heart, singing your alma mater and listening to Army's. You can't help but think of both services, the history of the game and the people who have played."
During the 2016 Army-Navy game, Howard will be wearing a patch on his Navy uniform to honor his father's U.S. Army intelligence unit.
"I tracked down the intelligence patch he wore when he was in Korea," Howard said. "I thought that was one way to pay tribute to my dad, and to connect our two services."
Staying Close To Home
While the current Midshipmen roster lists players from 31 states, offensive tackle Jake Hawk saw the Army-Navy rivalry from close range. A graduate of Meade High School, Hawk was raised in nearby Severn, Md.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics
Hawk's home environment was different from most of his teammates. His family is heavily populated with Army veterans. Hawk's father, John, was an Army man for 20 years and was deployed three times during the Iraq War. His older brothers, Paul and Zachery, joined the Army after attending Baltimore's Coppin State University and are currently stationed in Korea and Germany.
"I grew up in this area, but I only came to the Academy a few times," said Hawk, a sophomore. "My dad was always cheering for Army, and I was cheering for them, too. But when it came to recruiting, I liked the Naval Academy better."
During his senior year at Meade, Hawk earned first-team All-State honors and played in the Big 33 Football Classic. He could have played college football elsewhere, but he opted to suit up for Navy.
"I thought that this place was amazing," Hawk said. "I knew that I wanted to serve, like my dad and brothers did, and to me, this was the best option. I committed early, during the summer going into my senior year, so I wouldn't have to worry about the recruiting process. I'd be in the area, would be able to do all the military stuff and get a great education."
Despite their long-term involvement with the Army, Hawk's family was supportive when he chose Navy.
"It didn't matter to my dad whether I went to Army or Navy," Hawk said. "He knew that it would be a great situation coming out of either academy. And he told me, ‘As long as you're at Navy, I will cheer for Navy.'"
While Hawk didn't make many trips to the Navy campus during his youth, he was heavily influenced by his dad's military career.
"He was really inspiring," Hawk said. "My dad did 20 years, and he told me about all of the hardships that you have to go through. Coming out of high school, he realized that he was going to have to go 100 percent. The military taught him a great lesson, and he's carried that through his career and into what he's doing now [at Fort Meade]. I want to be like that."
Photo Credit: Alex Edelman/PressBox
Their mission is clear. Army and Navy work together every day to develop young men and women who will lead, protect and defend the nation. On Dec. 10, the football teams representing these two branches of service will oppose each other for one afternoon. But like the families portrayed here, the mutual understanding and respect, the love of country and the true meaning of loyalty will be on display for a much longer period of time.
Issue 227: November 2016