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Ten months after his death, David Forney's number will be worn again at the Army-Navy game

Navy guard David Forney (68) prepares to lead the Midshipmen out on the field before the 2019 Army-Navy game.

JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

By KAREEM COPELAND | The Washington Post | Published: December 11, 2020

Billy Honaker knew the No. 68 would be worn again one day. The Navy football team wouldn't keep it out of circulation forever, and there was a feeling Honaker just couldn't shake: That he might be the one to wear it.

The last time No. 68 was worn in Navy's blue and gold for a regular season game was nearly a year ago, at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field. That's when David Forney sprinted out of the tunnel first, carrying the Stars and Stripes as he led the Midshipmen onto the field against rival Army. The senior typically was one of the last players to leave the locker room; his position out front before his final regular season game was prompted by a vote from the four team captains. The humble 6-foot-3, 305-pound offensive lineman didn't even alert his dad about the honor.

Two months later, Forney was found dead in his Bancroft Hall dorm room after a sudden cardiac arrest.

"Losing Dave was probably the hardest moment of my life," Honaker said, "and something that's really affected me and other guys on the offensive line and the team as a whole. . . . I was just kind of weighing what that number meant to us and his family.

"I figured the first time this number should be worn on the field is Army-Navy and by someone who knew who he was and who loved him. Really the only thing for me now is to just play in a way that honors him and who he was as a football player."

Forney's Feb. 20 death sent shock waves throughout the program. He had played in 39 consecutive games and was preparing for NFL tryouts. Forney helped power the nation's No. 1 run game last season, as Malcolm Perry set the FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback. The Midshipmen finished ranked No. 20 and tied a school record with 11 wins.

He had no previous medical issues, no warning signs before he was found unresponsive while working on a paper and peeling an orange at his desk.

"The struggle is real, you know what I mean?" Forney's dad, Rick, said. "You can't prepare for something like this. . . . I guess when it's your time, it's your time. Maybe one day when we meet with David again, we'll find out what happened. We're utterly devastated, to say the least.

"I can't tell you how many letters my wife and I got from parents of Midshipmen that we didn't know before. Some of them were freshmen that spent a brief amount of time with Dave. They were crushed by it because Dave went out of his way to be friendly with everybody. . . . Dave was a good friend, a good teammate and he looked out for people, especially his brothers."

The process of bringing back the No. 68 started with a text from Hornaker to T.J. Salu and Kendel Wright. They were Forney's best friends, and Honaker wanted to run his idea past them. He had some worry that it was still too soon, but they were on board. Honaker then reached out to Forney's brother, Chris, who still plays Call of Duty on Xbox with the trio. Then he spoke to Rick Forney, who was both surprised and touched.

The Forneys had gotten to know Navy's offensive linemen over the years, particularly those three, even having them over to their house on occasion. Rick, an Annapolis native who had started talking to David about playing at Navy when he was still in middle school, thought Honaker was just calling to chat. But he had a more serious question.

"I'd never say no to Billy for anything," Rick said.

This 121st meeting between Army (7-2) and Navy (3-6) will be unlike any other, played during the height of a global pandemic on an academy campus for the first time since 1943. Lincoln Financial Field could not accommodate the Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen due to covid-19 safety restrictions, so Army, the designated home team, was selected to host the game. Both teams have dealt with schedule chaos this fall, as programs across the country patch-worked their seasons together. Navy had a 28-day break between games due to outbreaks, postponements and cancellations.

But as Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo has pointed out, his team already had a tragic start to the year with Forney's death. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper called Forney "a big, gentle teddy bear" who always had a way of making tough situations better. He remembered a game in which run game coordinator and offensive line coach Ashley Ingram was berating the line for poor play when Forney stepped in.

"David being David said, 'Coach, you know the way you're acting ain't helping the situation at all,'" Jasper reminisced. "Just in a moment of Coach Ingram just losing it. . . . That's just the way [Forney] was.

"He found a way to make things enjoyable. Even though it was a very tense moment, he found a way to stick a little bit of humility in there, little bit of comedy in there."

Rick Forney will be watching Saturday's game with family and expects to get a bit emotional, even before kickoff. The pageantry will be in full effect, and then will come the moment when Honaker sprints onto the field, ready to play left guard — Forney's old position — while sporting that No. 68.

"Probably going to draw a tear to my eye and make me cry for the first 10 minutes of the ballgame," Rick said.

One lasting image of Forney was taken moments after last year's Army game, Navy's first win in the series since 2015 and the only one of his career. A wide, toothy, open-mouthed smile is etched across his face as he's surrounded by teammates and the Brigade of Midshipmen, celebrating the victory. The 22-year-old's hair is a brown swath of a sweaty mess, and that gold No. 68 stands out on a field of blue, stained with 60 minutes of mud and grime from the biggest moment of his collegiate career.

"I just looked up to him and he was like a big brother to me," Honaker said. "The heartbreak isn't from him not playing football anymore or anything like that. It's the fact that we lost a friend. Somebody who we won't get to visit later on in life and see his family. Those kind of things.

"Probably the most painful thing about losing him is we lost out on years and years of having a great friend. That's the hardest thing about it."
 

Navy's David Forney (68) blocks Air Force's Demonte Meeks during a game at Annapolis, Md., in 2019. Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES