Naval Academy to honor shooting victims at Army-Navy game
By AVA WALLACE | The Washington Post | Published: December 12, 2019
In every way but one, this military patch looks like all the others that have been affixed throughout the years onto flight suits of those in the Naval Aviation Schools Command. On a background of olive green sits a navy-blue triangle jammed with symbols: An anchor, a shield centered on a pair of wings, a lit torch and two swords whose tips meet to form a point.
The only element that distinguishes this specific patch from its siblings is the black bar that's been stitched across it. The bar bears not a name but a date — Dec. 6, 2019.
That was the day a Saudi airman opened fire on a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola, killing three people and wounding eight. Among those killed was Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in May and who last month reported to Pensacola to begin aviation training.
Saturday, Navy senior outside linebacker and team captain Nizaire Cromartie will honor the victims of the shooting when he wears the NASC Memorial Patch on his uniform, just below his left shoulder pad and just above his heart, in the 120th installment of the Army-Navy game.
"When I asked him if he wanted to wear it, he sent me a message back and I explained to him the situation," including that one of the victims was an academy graduate, said Greg Morgenthaler, Navy's associate athletic director for equipment operations. "His words — it was true leadership of a Navy captain: 'I would be honored and blessed to play for this young man.'"
All Navy players will wear a patch honoring a military unit for the game at Lincoln Financial Field, where Navy (9-2) will play for its first win against Army (5-7) since 2015.
Midshipmen players have worn unit patches on their Army-Navy game uniforms for at least 29 years, a tradition that has become so deeply embedded that no one in the athletic department knows when it actually started. Each fall, every player dressing for the rivalry game gets to pick a patch to wear. If they don't have a one in mind — it's common to wear the unit patch of a loved one who's served — players can choose from the team stockpile.
Not every patch is worn in remembrance, like the NASC Memorial Patch will be Saturday. The Midshipmen pick their patches based on a variety of reasons — some wear patches from ships named for their home states, some choose the patches of former players and some choose solely based on colors.
But make no mistake, there are rules to the selection process. Wearing patches from Strike Fighter Squadron 154, which coincidentally shares the nickname "Black Knights" with the Army football team, is outlawed. Players also aren't allowed to wear patches of Army or Air Force units without having a family tie or other good reason; this year, quarterback Malcolm Perry was one such exception.
Sometimes, players are asked to wear a specific patch. Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the Naval Academy superintendent, requested this week that a player wear the NASC Memorial Patch.
"Those are the ones that I push to guys first — not that I force it on them, but I'll explain the situation, then leave it up to them," said Morgenthaler, who keeps patches of units that will be deployed while the Army-Navy game is played in his desk drawer. "If they look good, the kids are going to want to wear them. But yeah, there are limits. The whole purpose of doing this is to honor Navy and Marine Corps units in one of the most visible ways possible."
Beginning around late October every season, the Navy football equipment offices are turned into a patch buffet. Hundreds of patches of different colors and shapes are spread across tables for players to peruse, with ships or weapons or animals — dragons appear frequently — depicted on each one.
Morgenthaler, whose staff oversees the patches, likes to keep a stockpile of between 300 and 500 in storage containers year-round. When the supply runs low, Scott Strasemeier, Navy's senior associate athletic director for sports information, will put out a call on social media.
"We probably got around 400 patches this year from that alone," Morgenthaher said.
Some of the patches arrive with handwritten notes, usually from former football players or Naval Academy alumni, and units or ships will often send patches in bulk so the team has them on hand for future games. The service members sending patches aren't tearing them off uniforms; they're usually purchased in a ship store or online.
The equipment staff gives players until around Thanksgiving to make their selections. Then their work begins.
This year, equipment staffers Peter Ford and Shari Mangas were tasked with sewing not just one but three patches onto every uniform — one for each unit, one for college football's 150th anniversary and one for the American Athletic Conference. That came out to 375 in total, with each patch taking between five to 10 minutes to sew.
"The circular ones? Those are Pete's favorite ones," Morgenthaler said. "No weird edges."
While the players aren't necessarily privy to the labor that goes into preparing the Army-Navy jerseys, they do know that patch selection can be serious business. Having a patch featured on a nationally broadcast football game is a huge source of pride for those within the unit.
Perry, the starting quarterback, was presented with his patch this year when the 105th Attack Squadron, an Air Force squadron nicknamed "Old Hickory" that is based less than an hour away from Perry's hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, invited the team captain for a special tour of their drone facility over the summer.
Ford Higgins, another senior captain, also had his selection sorted before the season began. The center will be wearing the patch of the 2nd Battalion 8th Marines, dubbed "America's Battalion" for how many major conflicts it has been involved in, because he was asked to by a mentor, former player Adam West, when West visited fall camp.
West "wore Number 72 before me. He's an infantry Marine now, and he sent a nice letter along with his patch," Higgins said. "He was a huge influence on me, and you take pride in who wears the number before you and who comes after."
There is one patch that the athletic department gets onto a jersey every Army-Navy game: the Seal Team Three patch from former Navy lacrosse and football player Brendan Looney.
Looney was one of nine service members killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2010. Since his death, Stacie Michaud, an assistant athletic director for sports information who works with both lacrosse and football, has asked the player who best embodies Looney's leadership characteristics to wear the patch.
Michaud, who keeps a Seal Team Three patch in her press box credentials during the Army-Navy game, knew for years she would ask linebacker and captain Paul Carothers to wear the patch his senior year.
"It was pretty cool," Carothers said. "Miss Stacie asked me about it, told me what it meant, and she felt that I was able to wear it proudly and carry on Brendan Looney's legacy well. Of course, it was a yes."
The four Navy captains' jerseys with unit patches sewn on, from left to right: Nizaire Cromartie (Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 75), center Ford Higgins (2nd Battalion 8th Marines), linebacker Paul Carothers (Seal Team Three) and quarterback Malcolm Perry (105th Attack Squadron). Cromartie's patch was switched days later to one honoring the victims of the Dec. 6 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST