Amid pandemic-riddled season, Navy football hopes to send 26 seniors out the right way
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: December 5, 2020
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(Tribune News Service) — Senior Day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium has culminated with some familiar scenes.
For close to two decades, Navy football has celebrated the final home game for the seniors with an uplifting victory that produces many hugs, handshakes and tears.
Following the playing of Blue and Gold, members of the senior class adjourn to midfield to pose for a group photo.
Meanwhile, the rest of the players create a tunnel at the entrance of the home locker room for when the seniors enter.
In a moment of joy and happiness that has been captured on film many times, the seniors run into the locker room one by one and are doused with water by their underclass teammates, who are chanting and cheering.
Jackson Perkins remembers being shown a video of that Senior Day locker room celebration when being recruited. Last season, Perkins participated in the senior salute, trying to spray as much water as possible on fellow defensive linemen Jackson Pittman, Dave Tolentino and Nizaire Cromartie.
Now a senior tri-captain, Perkins said it would be "unreal and unforgettable" to receive that traditional water drenching Saturday at 3:30 against Tulsa.
"That's a major milestone in every Navy football player's career. I'm excited for it to happen," Perkins said.
Navy will need to upset a Top 25 opponent for the second straight season in order to send the seniors out with a win. Last year, quarterback Malcolm Perry amassed 357 yards of total offense and accounted for three touchdowns as Navy knocked off No. 21 SMU, 35-28.
This year, the Midshipmen must put forth their most complete performance of the season in order to snap a three-game losing streak and take down No. 22 Tulsa, which is trying to clinch a berth in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Navy has won 17 straight games in Senior Day, an impressive streak rooted in respect. During his pregame speech, coach Ken Niumatalolo implores the underclassmen to send the seniors out the right way.
Niumatalolo has been impressed by the desire of underclassmen to do just that.
"It's a pretty emotional game for our team. Those seniors are your big brothers that help you get through the dark days when you want to leave or quit. Those seniors are the shining knights who put their arm around you and tell you it's going to get better," Niumatalolo said.
"When you're a freshman, sometimes you can't see yourself making it through this place. When you see a senior that has made it, you have a ton of respect for them. It's the love and respect factor. These guys recognize what these seniors represent for our program."
One staple of Senior Day will fall by the wayside because of coronavirus. Normally, each senior walks slowly onto the field carrying flowers and flanked by their parents or other loved ones.
Each senior will have a limited number of family members in the stands at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but they will not be down on the field for the pregame introductions.
One big melting pot
Navy will honor 26 seniors that made it through four years of football. They were part of a 53-man recruiting class announced in July 2016, which means nearly half their classmates are no longer part of the football program.
When they arrived at the academy for plebe summer, the Class of 2021 football players were divided into two distinct groups — those that had spent a year at the prep school and those coming direct.
Perkins and fellow captain Cameron Kinley were among the direct entry recruits, along with the likes of guard Peter Nestrowitz, wide receiver Ryan Mitchell, safety Evan Fochtman, quarterback Dalen Morris, Myles Fells and fellow slotback C.J. Williams.
Starting offensive lineman and tri-captain Billy Honaker led a large contingent of players that spent the previous academic year at the Naval Academy Prep School. Perkins described the prep school products as acting like "salty sailors, seasoned vets."
"I remember not liking the prep school guys at all," said Perkins, recalling that fellow defensive lineman Tobe Okafor did not speak to him for months even though their lockers were side-by-side.
"We still mess with the NAPS guys by saying they were super mean when we got here. We would meet in Ricketts Hall during sports period and the NAPS guys would be sitting together laughing and joking," Kinley recalled. "They made us direct guys prove ourselves. We all become one family, one brotherhood over time."
A Navy football recruiting class consists of players from all over the country with varying backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. Kinley and Fells found an immediate bond as products of the deep south who shared a love for the old-school music of their parents and cooking of their grandmothers.
Honaker was a Texas boy wearing cowboy boots and listening to country music. Perkins is an Illinois native and was immediately described as "wild and energetic." Okafor came across country from Portland, Oregon, and was introverted initially. Fochtman, an Archbishop Spalding product, quickly earned the title of "King of Maryland."
"It's kind of like a big melting pot. Everyone throws their different ingredients into the pot," Kinley said. "You set aside any differences and appreciate each person for who they are. We all came here to achieve the same goals."
Kinley said he's learned something from every remaining senior on the football team, which showed him "everyone brings value to the table."
Perkins and Okafor are now best friends starting together along the defensive line, something they never thought would happen while toiling on the junior varsity as plebes.
Nose guard Chris Pearson served on scout team for three seasons and wound up starting two games as a senior. Morris was another career backup who surprised even the coaching staff by seizing the starting quarterback spot as a senior.
"We've seen a ton of development out of everybody. I think it shows what our class is about. We might not be the most talented players, but every single guy is a workhorse and was ready to go whenever their name was called," Perkins said. "This class is filled with men of character that are always going to fight."
Leading during tough times
These seniors have led the Navy football program through a tumultuous time. This 2020 football season was played amid a global pandemic within a country dealing with political unrest and a social justice movement.
Navy football had a total of four games either postponed or canceled due to coronavirus. An outbreak of positive tests on the Naval Academy campus put dozens of football players into quarantine or isolation. Kinley felt the seniors made the best of a bad situation.
"None of us would want our last season to be like this. We knew it would be difficult to lead under these circumstances. So many thing were out of control," Kinley said.
"I think the seniors have done a real good job of keeping the younger guys engaged and focused. I'm proud of this class for taking the underclassmen under its wing and looking after them. We made sure everyone was doing well in a tough environment here at the academy."
Honaker describes himself as extremely patriotic and has a brother who works for the U.S. Marshals office in Texas. His father served in the Army while numerous other relatives are military veterans.
It was Honaker who called Kinley and suggested a team-wide virtual meeting this summer amid the nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
"We got on that team meeting and it was eye-opening hearing so many of my teammates talk about their feelings and voice experiences," Kinley said. "I think that was one of the key ingredients to building this 2020 team. We were able to come together about what was happening in our country and have an understanding for everyone's perspective."
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