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With football players scattered and the coach in Hawaii, Navy focuses on team bonding over training

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo during action against Houston on October 8, 2016, in Annapolis, Md.

JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

By AVA WALLACE | The Washington Post | Published: April 8, 2020

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The updates rolled in one after another, brief reports from Navy football players who leaned toward the cameras on their computers at home and reassured their coaches and teammates that they were safe and their family was doing well. In Navy's first virtual full-team meeting March 27, Coach Ken Niumatalolo asked that every player provide a status report. Then, they divided into position groups and were tasked with finding out new facts about one another, as if they were doing ice breakers at summer camp.

They were only partway through the meeting when rising senior slotback Keoni-Kordell Makekau wondered whether they were going to get around to talking about football.

"The coaches and everybody, they're really just not focused on football. I feel like that's kind of last on our list. It is weird," Makekau said with a chuckle. "But at the end of the day, life is more important. I'm really grateful for Coach Ken right now."

Like most other college students, the Mids were instructed to stay home amid the novel coronavirus pandemic when their spring break ended last month. Since then, Navy's approach to this year's alternate version of spring football  — which runs on thrice weekly virtual meetings and adaptable conditioning workouts — has been to go rather light on the actual football part.

Strengthening the team's culture has become Niumatalolo's priority over strengthening his players' on-field acumen.

The 13th-year coach, who is with his family in Hawaii after deciding not to fly back to Annapolis following a spring-break visit home, eschews strategic talk for team bonding activities such as virtual scavenger hunts during team meetings. On Friday, he had the team divide into groups, do a little research and create five-minute public service announcements about the coronavirus.

Niumatalolo is keenly aware that his players aren't just missing out on football, they're missing out on military training. They're also adjusting to a lifestyle change that may be more drastic than the average college kid's — every hour of the day at the Naval Academy is scheduled. Now, players are making their own routines.

"The culture that you start building in January — if you don't have that installed, then in times like this you're in trouble anyways," Niumatalolo said in a phone interview after pausing to quiet his 18-month-old granddaughter, who was babbling in the background. "Maybe other teams are doing more football-wise than we are. But I feel really good about our guys. They're very disciplined. I try to create a balance. My first thought wasn't, 'Oh no, we're not going to be able to run; we're not going to be able to lift; what are we going to do?' Whenever it is we come back, we'll figure it out."

While Niumatalolo and his coaches are most concerned about their players' mental health, football is still a part of daily life. Players meet with coaches virtually three times per week - including one virtual meeting that is with the entire team rather than just a position group - and receive handouts to keep plays fresh in mind. They have daily workout plans courtesy of strength and conditioning coach Bryan Fitzpatrick.

Even in that arena, Fitzpatrick focuses on whether players are keeping consistent routines and putting forth real effort, no matter their access to equipment. That is more important to him than actual training.

"I could send them the greatest workout ever created and it's going to be hard for each guy to complete that, because I don't know what resources they have," he said. "It's going to sound bad, but I'm not as worried about the training as the mental aspect, that they feel like they're doing something, and that we're there for them."

Players are encouraged to do "team" workouts, meaning Mids in some position groups FaceTime with one another while they lift weights and others text teammates updates throughout their exercise. Makekau, who is also in Hawaii with his family and wakes up at 3:30 a.m. for classes held on Eastern time, said position groups get points for completing group exercises - though he doesn't know what the prize is for the group with the most points at the end.

"I guess the point is that it's a competition," Makekau said. "And it helps, with motivation."

Rising senior cornerback Cameron Kinley has found the home workouts more motivating than anything while spending his unusual spring at home in Memphis with his parents and four siblings. Kinley missed the routine of the Naval Academy, so he wrote out a daily schedule that includes time for reading and yoga, hobbies that don't usually fit into his busy days in Annapolis.

He can't quite replace the ultimate morale boost that is preparing for the season — and a military career — alongside his teammates. After spring football was set to conclude, Kinley and Makekau were among a host of football players who were supposed to go on an intense, four-week training course for Midshipmen who are interested in joining the Marines.

For now, all Kinley can do is run his sprints and text with his fellow cornerbacks while working out. He has embraced Niumatalolo's focus on team culture.

"It's definitely nowhere near the environment in Annapolis. Going at it with my brothers in the hot sun, it's  different grind up there, especially the way the academy works," Kinley said. "Going through a whole day of school with tough classes, then finally getting on the field to do what you love - there's no way to replicate that feeling. But I like how we're doing it. It's kind of like you're working out from home because you don't want to let your brothers down. Like, you're grinding for the love of the team. That's what keeps me going."

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