Navy football seeks answers to injury epidemic
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: August 11, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Injuries put a damper on an otherwise successful season for Navy football in 2017. The Midshipmen endured a rash of injuries over the course of the campaign, with the losses eventually exacting a toll.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo's frustration surrounding an inordinate number of lower body issues boiled over following the American Athletic Conference championship game. Navy had four players sustain foot or knee injuries in that loss to Temple, including two on one play.
In a truly bizarre occurrence, starting quarterback Will Worth and starting slotback Toneo Gulley both broke bones in their feet on a triple-option running play in which the Gulley was blocking for Worth. Starting wide receiver Tyler Carmona (foot) was also lost for the remainder of the season that day while starting slotback, and Dishan Romine suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the Army-Navy game the following weekend.
Navy was riding a four-game winning streak going into the AAC championship game, but wound up losing three straight contests to close the campaign with a 9-5 record.
"If there was anything that I was disappointed about last season, it was the injuries. That concern has consumed the off-season. How do we rectify that?" Niumatalolo said in April. "We weren't the same team at the end of the season. We have to do whatever we can to make sure that doesn't happen again. You go back and look at the accumulation of injuries and ask why that happened."
Niumatalolo demanded answers and convened what he termed "a huge summit" among the Navy strength and conditioning, training and equipment staffs to address the issue. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk was also involved with the review, which led each of the three aforementioned departments to implement measures aimed at reducing the number of in-season injuries.
"I think everyone involved has been at the forefront of trying to attack this. When you have the amount of injuries we did last season, you have to look at everything — how we practice, when we're training, what surfaces we practice on," Niumatalolo said.
"Everybody has been at this — from Mr. Gladchuk on down. I've been pleased. I just feel like we had to take a step back and look at what we're doing. I feel good about the research that we've received. We've taken all the necessary steps to alleviate all the issues we had last year."
There is no way to definitively explain every injury, and some are no doubt the result of plain bad luck. Jim Berry, Navy's assistant athletic director for sports medicine, said an unusually high number of similar injuries is cause for concern.
"Any injury can be equated to bad luck. However, when you have a high injury rate to certain areas you have to look carefully at everything," said Berry, who serves as head athletic trainer for the football team. "As a sports medicine staff, we look at all the data and see if there are any injury trends. Last year, we had a definite uptick in foot and ankle injuries so it made sense to do our best to evaluate the reasons why."
Worth, Gulley, Carmona and Romine all got hurt on the artificial surface of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Navy lost standout inside linebacker and defensive captain Daniel Gonzales to a foot injury that occurred on the turf field at Air Force. Gonzales is one of many Navy football players in recent years to suffer a Lisfranc injury, which is a fracture or dislocation of the metatarsal bones in the mid-foot area.
Many National Football League franchises, including the Baltimore Ravens, have replaced artificial turf with natural grass at their stadiums. Team president Dick Cass said the Ravens returned to grass at M&T Bank Stadium at the request of players and coaches.
"The Ravens got rid of turf because some of the older guys talked about the wear and tear it causes. There are a lot of studies that show grass is safer and leads to less injuries," said Niumatalolo, who is looking to reduce his players' exposure to artificial turf.
Navy practices on grass fields at the academy and Niumatalolo no longer takes the team to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturdays as was customary in the past.
Contemplating the spate of foot and ankle injuries led Niumatalolo to wonder about the cleats his players are wearing. In January, 2014, the Naval Academy Athletic Association signed a 10-year contract with Under Armour to outfit all 33 of its men's and women's varsity athletic teams. Naturally, football was at the forefront of the agreement and the deal called for Under Armour to provide the entire uniform, including cleats.
Gladchuk said Under Armour sent its Athlete Services and Footwear Team to Ricketts Hall to meet with Navy athletic department personnel.
"What we learned is that one size does not fit all," Gladchuk said. "Every athlete's foot is different in various ways and it's important to determine the exact type of cleat each athlete should be wearing."
Greg Morgenthaler, Navy's associate athletic director for equipment operations, said they discovered many of the football players needed different sized cleats. His staff also learned how to perform a much more thorough measurement process using a Brannock device.
"Under Armour has been phenomenal. Their whole team came to talk to us and educate everyone in our program — players, coaches, equipment staff, training staff — so we can be better," Niumatalolo said. "Players will get hurt, but it can't be because of our negligence. We have to do the best we can to make sure we look under every stone."
While it was prudent to make sure players were wearing properly fitted cleats, there is no evidence to indicate that alone will reduce the number of foot and ankle injuries. Morgenthaler noted during the review process that Navy football players wear uniform dress shoes for far more hours of the day than cleats.
Navy athletes, unlike those at civilian schools, are required to wear academy-issued dress shoes that are designed for functionality and durability more than comfort. While football players at other Division I schools are wearing designer sneakers, the midshipmen are spending as much as 12 hours a day in bulky dress shoes.
"Someone brought that up and it's a pretty valid point. Guys are walking around in hard-sole shoes all day," Niumatalolo said. "You definitely have to take into account the type of shoes they wear all day as midshipmen."
Berry and Morgenthaler are working together to determine whether certain players should be using orthotics, artificial devices that can be inserted into shoes to provide additional support. Carmona, a 6-foot-4, 227-pound senior, is now wearing orthotics in both his uniform dress shoes and cleats.
"I have a high arch. So the orthotics take away the gap between the cleat and the arch," Carmona said. "There's definitely a difference. I feel more secure."
Carmona believes wearing cleats during practice and games puts more stress on his feet than wearing dress shoes around campus. However, he admitted the dress shoes tend to wear out since midshipmen spend so much time in them on a daily basis.
"I think the difference is that we wear them so much they break down a lot faster," he said.
Berry has encouraged players to use cushioned insoles that lessen the impact of walking around in their dress shoes. He also recommends the midshipmen make use of the academy cobbler to repair damaged shoes.
"We have screened every player to determine whether orthotics would help make their cleats and dress shoes fit better. Greg and his staff are being more diligent in deciding whether some players need stiffer or wider cleats," Berry said.
Berry said Worth's injury was diagnosed as a stress fracture. Naturally, the training staff and team doctors have wondered what caused that stress. Navy's training room now has a foot activation station. Berry and his staff are using fusionetics — a performance health system designed to reduce injuries, decrease pain and speed recovery. It serves as a screening tool and provides a prescription of exercises players should employ.
"We have really revamped our training room regimen and introduced some new tools," Berry said. "We're definitely looking at our injuries from the ground up. This was a real team effort to address this issue. We will never know the variables of cause and effect. All we can do is tweak the variables as best we can."