Navy fullback Anthony Gargiulo searched the stands following a breakout performance against SMU Nov. 11 and tracked down his biggest fans -- his mom and dad.
Sal and Lisa Gargiulo leaned over the lower guard rail at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium and each gave their son a huge hug as the Midshipmen celebrated another key victory.
Gargiulo, a 6-foot-2, 239-pound junior, carried the load during the Midshipmen's 43-40 win that day. He broke two runs for 21 and 29 yards on Navy's final possession that set up the game-winning field goal by J.R. Osborn.
When Navy's sputtering offense needed a spark, head coach Ken Niumatalolo turned to Gargiulo. The burly fullback responded by leading the Midshipmen's heralded rushing attack, much to the delight of his close-knit family.
"I'm blessed to have the parents I have," Gargiulo said. "They're great people. They're probably my greatest supporters. Everybody says, ‘I've been watching you forever,' but they literally have been watching me forever.
"It's funny because my mom didn't want me playing football when I was little. She said, ‘You're too soft, you're too nice, you're never going to be able to play.' My dad said, ‘No, no, he's going to play.' And ever since 4 years old, I've been playing. I'm honored and blessed to be at the point I am now."
Gargiulo rewarded his coaches' confidence in him by running for 145 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown against SMU. He followed that up with 87 yards rushing during a 24-17 loss against Notre Dame Nov. 18, and 71 yards and a touchdown during a 24-14 loss to Houston Nov. 24.
When asked about his career day against the Mustangs, Gargiulo said the answer was simple: His offensive line opened huge holes for him to break long runs.
"I know exactly where it came from. It was that front five," Gargiulo said. "I don't think I've ever seen holes as big as they made. It just seemed like everything was perfect. I've never seen holes like that in practice, and that's usually where you see the good stuff. All I had to do was run straight, stay up and hold the ball. I couldn't have asked for a better performance from that front five."
The Midshipmen are generally loaded at fullback each season. As a result, there is fierce competition for playing time. Gargiulo excelled during spring practices this year and moved to second on the depth chart entering the regular season behind senior Chris High, who has also played a key role.
Gargiulo shed 12 pounds to help with his quickness and that strategy paid off. Over the course of the year, he has earned more reps and has been a go-to player out of the backfield.
"I'm just proud of the way Anthony has progressed through the program," Navy fullbacks coach Mike Judge said. "He's kind of your prototypical Navy football player in that regard. He came in and had a lot to learn, but embraced the culture here of working hard and grinding away. He stayed the course, has improved every year and earned everything he's gotten."
Gargiulo appeared in just three games last season and finished with 29 yards on nine carries and a touchdown. He scored his first collegiate touchdown on a 2-yard run against SMU in 2016. Gargiulo knew he needed to work harder in the offseason to earn his reps. He impressed his coaches and teammates with his determination to make an impact.
"Having that competition really pushed me to be better," Gargiulo said. "I got into the playbook a lot harder and paid more attention to what I had to do. I realized there were a lot of little things I needed to perfect to even get noticed among all the talented players we have here. It definitely helped me to be better."
Gargiulo was a standout in football and lacrosse at Colts Neck High School in Monmouth County, N.J. He earned first-team all-state and first-team all-division honors and was the league's Offensive Player of the Year his season year. He was also a first-team
Asbury Park Press and first-team All-Monmouth selection.
Gargiulo caught Navy's attention when he finished his final high school season ranked fifth in New Jersey with 1,666 rushing yards, fourth with 27 rushing touchdowns and second with 139 tackles. He ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons and 3,436 yards for his career. He also received the Board of Education Award of Excellence and the Maxwell Football Club Award.
Gargiulo received offers from Penn State as a preferred walk-on, Connecticut, Towson and Villanova. However, he thought the Naval Academy would better prepare him for his professional life after graduation.
"To be honest, it was mainly for my family," said Gargiulo, who attended the Naval Academy Prep School during the 2014-15 academic year. "I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, and I saw the opportunity of getting a great education, having a job afterward and playing Division I football for a great coach. I couldn't really turn that down. I talked to my family, and they were behind me one-hundred percent."
Gargiulo also could have played college lacrosse and was recruited by several schools during his freshman year of high school. He was a starter on the 2010 under-15 U.S. National Lacrosse Team that went undefeated and won the championship. Gargiulo was a four-year starter for the Colts Neck lacrosse team and served as team captain his senior year.
"Freshman year, I had schools talking to me," Gargiulo said about lacrosse. "But I turned them down. I wanted to focus on football."
However, there was a big transition in playing football at Navy, which runs the triple option and relies heavily on its fullbacks to set a physical tone. He was able to run behind a lead blocker in high school. At Navy, he is asked to break through the line and reel off yards.
"In high school, I was able get the ball, slow it down and see what was opening up and then hit it at the end," he said. "In this one, it's full speed, and if it's not there, you have to make it there. I know that was my biggest challenge. I tend to overthink things sometimes."
Now, Gargiulo is prepared to play an even bigger role next year as a senior. As an economics major, the foundation is also laid for a successful life after football.