A photo illustration shows Naval Academy football team captain Lirion Murtezi wearing No. 68, the number that had been worn by former Midshipmen offensive lineman David Forney who died of a sudden cardiac arrest in February 2020 and was found unresponsive in his Bancroft Hall dorm room.

A photo illustration shows Naval Academy football team captain Lirion Murtezi wearing No. 68, the number that had been worn by former Midshipmen offensive lineman David Forney who died of a sudden cardiac arrest in February 2020 and was found unresponsive in his Bancroft Hall dorm room. (U.S. Naval Academy Athletics )

(Tribune News Service) — Lirion Murtezi has been battling a serious back issue ever since spring camp. Navy’s starting center and senior captain fought through the pain because he wanted so badly to be on the field for his teammates this season.

“Any time I hit someone really hard the pain shot down the nerves of my back and my legs would go numb,” Murtezi said.

However, the situation literally reached a breaking point during the season opener against Notre Dame. Murtezi was involved with some jarring collisions with some of the Fighting Irish’s massive defensive linemen and this time the symptoms were more worrisome.

Murtezi was thoroughly examined by team doctors and underwent numerous tests. It was determined that continuing to play football would put Murtezi at risk of permanent debilitating damage.

On Monday, Murtezi posted a message to Twitter announcing he was retiring from playing football and would spend the rest of his senior season serving as a student coach.

“Although it is painful to walk away from a game that has given me so much, I recognize that in order to get back to the level of physical well-being I need to be, this decision is the best one,” Murtezi wrote.

Murtezi elaborated on the difficult decision following Wednesday’s practice. The Pittsburgh native has known for almost two weeks that his playing career was over, but just needed some time to “process it” before going public.

“It definitely sucks. This is not the way I wanted to go out. I was hoping to have a special senior season,” Murtezi said. “After talking to the medical professionals, it was clear this was in my best interest. It was a very serious injury and I learned I was just one hard hit away from doing some serious damage to myself.”

Losing Murtezi is a tough blow for the Navy offense as he was the leader and anchor of the offensive line. The powerful 6-foot-3, 315-pounder brought superb size and strength to the center position and was a real force as an interior blocker.

Murtezi brought invaluable experience after making 10 career starts and appearing in 25 games.

“It certainly hurts our football team because Lirion was a starter and a leader. He’s a captain for a reason,” Navy coach Brian Newberry said. “Your heart breaks for the kid. Lirion has worked his tail off and to not be able to be on the field for his senior season is really tough.”

Murtezi showed tremendous promise as a sophomore in 2021 as a member of the point after touchdown and field goal units. His first collegiate start came against Tulsa and the future looked bright. Bad luck struck in the final home game versus East Carolina as Murtezi suffered a severe knee injury and missed the last two games, including Army.

Murtezi sat out spring practice ahead of his junior year and was limited to special teams for four games to start the season while still recovering from surgery. He returned to the starting lineup at center for the final six games of 2022 and graded out well.

Navy assistant head coach Ashley Ingram, who tutored the centers and guards throughout Murtezi’s career, can only wonder how good Murtezi might have been had he not dealt with multiple injuries and a battle with mononucleosis.

“I think Lirion had a good career. He did everything he could with the hand he was dealt,” Ingram said. “I think Lirion can sleep well at night knowing he did his part and played well whenever out there.”

Getting the start at Notre Dame Stadium was a great memory for Murtezi, who also cited all the service academy contests as highlights. “I definitely cherished every moment I had out on the field. I treated every game I got to play as something special,” he said.

Ingram always appreciated the heart and toughness Murtezi played with and those characteristics were a big reason why he was chosen to wear the No. 68 in honor of David Forney this season. Ingram is heartbroken that the player nicknamed “Bear” will not get to play against Air Force and Army as a senior.

“I really feel for Lirion that he didn’t get to finish his senior season. That said, my biggest concern was for his safety and how continuing to play would impact his future,” Ingram said. “I sat in on the meetings when the doctors spoke to Lirion and there was really no option available. His health and well being long-term is the primary concern.”

Murtezi remains one of four team captains and fully intends to continue taking that role very seriously. He has transitioned into a role as student-coach with particular emphasis on mentoring the younger offensive linemen.

“I’m going to put all my energy into coaching and helping the team in any way I can,” Murtezi said. “I get a new perspective on the game as far as the coaching side — just looking at all the little details that I can impart based on my experience. I’ve kind of taken the younger guys under my wing. I’m just trying to give them all the tips I’ve learned over my time here.”

Unique journey

Murtezi was born and raised in Kosovo, which his parents fled during the war that lasted from February 1998 to June 1999. Looking for a new start in life, Ismet and Fatime Murtezi emigrated to the United States and settled in Pittsburgh.

Lirion discovered football and blossomed into a massive two-way lineman at North Hills High, earning Class 5A All-State honors from the Pennsylvania Sports Writers Association. He played in the Big 33 Football Classic between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Being able to attend the Naval Academy and play Division I football was a dream opportunity for a European immigrant who wanted to give back to his adopted country.

“Just to think about where I came from and how football gave me an opportunity to attend the academy is amazing,” he said.

Murtezi is going to graduate from the Naval Academy and hopes to serve in the information warfare community as an intelligence officer or cryptologic warfare professional. Knowing his future is secure has helped Murtezi clear the mental hurdle of not being able to play football anymore.

“I’m still part of this team. I still get to be out here every single day with my brothers. I still get to lead my teammates and experience everything with them,” Murtezi said. “It’s God’s plan. That’s how it was written. I’m OK with how it ended. I’m still enjoying this journey.”

Junior Brent Self has taken over as the starting center and drew positive reviews from Ingram for his performance against Wagner and Memphis. Senior Mike Petrof, a converted defensive lineman who made his collegiate debut against Wagner, is now the backup. A pair of plebes, Cameron Smith and Hoke Smith (no relation) are battling to be No. 3 on the depth chart.

“As a coach, you always have to prepare for these types of things. You need to have the next guy ready. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of injuries the last few seasons so we’ve gotten a little better at this than we would like,” Ingram said. “I think Brent Self has played well so far. He’s a smart football player with some savvy. Mike Petrof is a tough kid who has been in the program and knows the offense.”

Being selected to wear the No. 68 and represent David Forney on the field is one of the highest honors bestowed on an offensive lineman. Murtezi was the fourth Navy player chosen to carry on the legacy of Forney, who tragically died a few months after completing a stellar senior season in which he was named first team All-American Athletic Conference.

Ingram acknowledged that “the thought has crossed my mind” about possibly transferring No. 68 to another offensive lineman for the remainder of this season. Ingram said no action would be taken on that front until he could discuss the issue with Newberry as well as the Forney family.

Josh Pena is now the only senior starter along the offensive line. He has made 23 career starts at right guard and was under consideration to wear No. 68. When approached by Ingram, Pena insisted that Murtezi be the one to wear the revered jersey number.

“It sucks that I wasn’t able to represent Dave the way I would have liked,” Murtezi said. “I think it would be cool to possibly give that jersey to someone else if they would take it.”

(c)2023 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

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