Keenan Reynolds, a Navy lieutenant and NCAA legend, ready for next challenge in XFL
By SCOTT HANSON | The Seattle Times | Published: January 30, 2020
SEATTLE (Tribune News Service) — Keenan Reynolds is like the 51 other players on the Seattle Dragons. Then again, he’s nothing like them at all.
Like his teammates, Reynolds hopes playing in the new XFL will be a stepping-stone to the NFL.
But none of his teammates have set multiple NCAA records or won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top athlete. And none is a lieutenant in the Navy, specializing in cryptologic warfare.
Not that any of his teammates know he’s a military officer.
“I don’t like to talk about it. But if they ask, I’ll answer,” said Reynolds, 25, who scored an NCAA record 88 touchdowns at quarterback for Navy.
Reynolds, who switched to receiver as a pro, fits seamlessly with his teammates. At 5-10 and 190 pounds he doesn’t stand out physically.
And yet somehow, he stands out.
Even on the Seahawks, whom Reynolds played for in 2018 and was one of the last cuts this past season. Just ask Doug Baldwin.
“I love Keenan,” said the former Seahawks receiver. “I thought Keenan was one of the most polished individuals I’ve ever met, which makes sense knowing he went to the Naval Academy and who he is. What stood out to me was how well-rounded a human being he was. He was very quiet when I first met him, but when I asked him a question, he always had a specific answer.”
Unless, of course, you’re asking specifically what he does for the Navy.
“In layman’s terms, what we do is we’re in the intelligence-gathering business,” Reynolds said. “That’s all I can give you.”
After completing a month of active duty before training camp, Reynolds is ready to be a key player for the Dragons, who open their season Saturday at the D.C. Defenders.
Reynolds will try to show that an option quarterback in college can become a great pro receiver.
“I would never count Keenan Reynolds out,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. “He’s the last guy I would say can’t do things. I will always bet on Keenan Reynolds.”
A star is born
Niumatalolo learned early not to doubt Reynolds or his mother, who told the coach during his recruiting visit to their Nashville-area home that Keenan would start at quarterback as a true freshman.
“You don’t want to be rude, but you’re thinking, ‘We don’t have many people who come in here and start as true freshmen,’ ” Niumatalolo said.
It was especially unheard-of for a true freshman quarterback to start. But after coming off the bench in the fourth quarter to lead Navy to a 28-21 overtime win over Air Force, Navy’s first win in four games, Reynolds became the man.
“We played Central Michigan, and we killed them (31-13). He had three touchdown passes,” Niumatalolo said. “I remember seeing his mom afterward. She looked at me and said, ‘See, I told you.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry Mrs. Reynolds, I should have never doubted you.' ”
Niumatalolo said he should have figured Reynolds was special when he did something no other recruit had done: spend spring break as a high school senior at the Naval Academy, watching and listening.
“My parents weren’t going to let me go to the beach by myself, so, ‘Can I go to Navy? I might as well try to get a jump-start and see the culture,’ ” said Reynolds, who was drawn there for the chance to play at the highest level but also by the camaraderie and the chance to serve his country. “When you go on your official visit, they give you the highlights. I wanted to go hang out with the Midshipmen, the freshmen, see what life was like in the Hall (where they live) and learn what I was getting into that fall.”
Nothing Reynolds saw prepared him for Plebe Summer, seven weeks of grueling physical and mental training before the start of classes as a freshman.
It’s said no one gets through Plebe Summer without considering quitting. For Reynolds, it was on the first day.
“You come from doing whatever you want – you’ve got a little facial hair and you’re hanging out — then all of a sudden you’ve got to shave, they’re yelling at you for stupid stuff, and you’re running around doing 90-degree cuts,” he said. “They’re yelling in the hallways, and you’re thinking, ‘What am I doing? This is stupid.’ But it’s all part of the process.”
He survived, and thrived. On the football field and in the classroom.
Becoming the starter
Reynolds cemented his starting status against Central Michigan, but didn’t stop there. He put up incredible stats running Navy’s option offense, utilizing his athleticism and the ability to instantly read defenses.
He knew when to run, and when to pitch to the tailback. When opponents focused too much on runs, he would burn them with passes.
He led Navy to four straight bowl games and three bowl wins. He led four straight victories over Army, the only Navy starting quarterback to do that.
Reynolds rushed for more than 100 yards in 22 games and scored an NCAA record 88 touchdowns. His 4,559 rushing yards are a record for a quarterback. His 31 passing touchdowns are a school record. His 4,001 career passing yards are third in school history.
“He’s the best quarterback we’ve had,” said Niumatalolo, Navy’s head coach for 13 years.
“He could do everything. He studied everything, he was intentional and detailed in all of his preparation. It was super impressive.”
All Reynolds needed was a chance. He got that “and the rest is history,” Reynolds said.
“I always had confidence in myself, especially at the quarterback position,” he said. “I didn’t come in thinking about (records). I just wanted to play and be great and whatever happens, happens. The (touchdown record) didn’t cross my mind until just before it happened.”
Not that it was always easy for Reynolds, who said there were lots of high and lows, not just on the football field, but with the academic and military demands at the Naval Academy.
“Chemistry 2, that was definitely a low,” said Reynolds, who has a degree in political science. “I don’t know how I got through that class, but I did. In my junior year, I got hurt, missed a couple of games and wasn’t playing well after that and lost to Air Force. That was another low. There weren’t many, but there were some tough times.”
The highs, Reynolds said, included meeting President Barack Obama three times, including once at the State of the Union Address.
Reynolds was as detailed with schoolwork as he was football.
“A lot of guys really struggle coming to the academy, with the military, Division I football and school being really rigorous,” Niumatalolo said. “He was detailed and meticulous in his study time, knew what classes he needed to go to study groups, which classes he needed to go to the professor for help. … Some guys leave it to chance, but he had a plan.”
He also had a plan on the field, born from hours of studying and detailed preparation.
“We’ve had some smart quarterbacks and good quarterbacks, but he was at a different level,” Niumatalolo said. “That was his greatest gift, just being mentally tough and a smart, smart football player.”
Reynolds finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting in 2015. Later in his senior year, Navy retired Reynolds’ No. 19 uniform., joining Heisman winners Roger Staubach, Joe Bellino and Napoleon McCallum as the only Midshipmen to receive that honor.
Reynolds said it “was a blessing” to have his number retired while still in school, an honor undoubtedly bestowed not just for his remarkable stats but also the four wins over Army.
“I love talking trash on Twitter to Army, because they can’t say anything because they never beat me,” he said. “That’s something you can brag about for years and years.”
Reynolds was drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens, even though there was a good chance he would have to spend at least two full years on active duty as part of the commitment that comes with the education at the Naval Academy.
But the military made a rule change (since rescinded) that allowed Reynolds to defer his service (he is serving eight years in the Navy Reserve) and play right away.
Playing receiver for the first time, Reynolds spent most of 2016 on the Ravens’ practice squad. He spent time in 2017 on Washington’s practice squad before landing with the Seahawks in 2018, on the regular roster and the practice squad.
With Baldwin retiring, Reynolds was competing for a spot last summer to help fill Baldwin’s role. That spot went to rookie John Ursua.
“It’s always disappointing when you come up short, but you’ve got to try and figure out what you can do better and get over the hump the next time,” Reynolds said. “It was a good learning experience. I made lots of friends, lifelong friends. … I played with Doug (Baldwin), one of the all-time greats at receiver, in my opinion. I picked up a lot from him. We have similar body types, speed, size and everything. I tried to emulate his game and put my own spin on it.”
Baldwin said Reynolds just needs to find the right spot.
“Keenan has a very specific skill set and used in the right system, it would have seen him do extremely well,” Baldwin said. “He is a very smart player, very cerebral. I admired the way he approached the game and the way he studied it. When you see a player like that who’s undersized, but really smart and really tough, it’s inspiring in a lot of ways.”
To the XFL
After getting released by the Seahawks, Reynolds worked as a TV analyst for CBS Sports Network. He enjoyed that, but then the Seattle Dragons drafted him.
Reynolds spent a month on active duty to fulfill his naval requirements before joining the Dragons.
“You’ve got to be crazy to be out here playing,” he said. “You’ve got to love this thing, and I do. I love competing and the camaraderie. That’s one thing the military brings, that camaraderie with your unit – you get tight because you go through the same experiences and that makes you love being around those people.”
The XFL loves him back.
“It’s awesome (he is in the league),” said XFL commissioner Oliver Luck. “He’s a classy guy. I’ve got all the respect in the world for the kids in the academies and what they do. They’re special human beings. To have a guy like Keenan be a part of this thing I think will pay dividends, not just his onfield performance, but I’m sure he has unbelievable leadership skills.”
Coach Jim Zorn calls Reynolds his “secret weapon.” Reynolds can play inside or outside receiver, return kicks, run with the ball and throw it. He’ll be the team’s emergency quarterback.
“You can just tell (he’s special),” said Dragons offensive coordinator Mike Riley. “He’s a disciplined, smart football player and tremendously versatile. I can do some stuff with him.”
Once again, Reynolds just needs a chance. He misses not having the ball in his hand on every play like he did as a quarterback, but enjoys being a receiver and strives to be great.
“I feel like I haven’t met my potential,” he said. “When I went to college, I wanted to be great. At the pro level, I want to be great. I’m nowhere near that yet, so I still have that hunger.”
U.S. Naval Academy co-captain and college record-breaking quarterback Keenan Reynolds, right, presents President Barack Obama with a team helmet at the White House in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2016.
Former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, right, shakes hands Superintendent Vice Admiral Walter E. Carter Jr. after receiving his diploma as the United State Naval Academy holds its 2016 Commissioning Ceremony on Friday, May 27, 2016, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md.
PAUL W. GILLESPIE/BALTIMORE SUN/TNS