Dobbs, Navy could bust BCS (cont.)
|A Day In The Life|
|Student-athletes at the Naval Academy require "extra dedication and meticulous time management in order to succeed at all that they do," according to a recruiting brochure on the Navy website. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs shares his typical daily schedule during the season.|
Dobbs was initially reluctant about the military commitment, but became enticed by the prospect of guaranteed post-graduation career opportunities. Cobb, who'd long envisioned his protégé playing for a Southern powerhouse, knew Navy's culture of discipline would help Dobbs thrive.
The nation's high schools aren't teeming with four-star recruits who happen to be budding military enthusiasts. Niumatalolo's program relies almost entirely on guys like Dobbs, overlooked recruits who want to play football and are confident enough to handle the rigors of Academy life (see sidebar).
"We're the guys people say, 'We can't do this, we're limited here,'" said Dobbs. "But we come out with a chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong. You can measure 1-2-3-4-5 stars, but you can't measure or label the size of one's heart."
In Dobbs' case, even Navy's coaches undersold him. Up until the day Dobbs replaced injured starter Jarod Bryant against SMU in his sophomore year, Niumatalolo wasn't sure he'd be a powerful enough runner in Navy's offense. He hadn't shown it in practice.
He wound up running 42 times for 224 yards and four touchdowns.
"None of us took into account his belief in himself," said Niumatalolo. "He's a very spiritual kid, a very religious young man. He believes he can do anything. He's willed our team back into games."
Dobbs' official bio on Navy's website mentions his "personal goal of becoming the President of the United States in 2040 after serving in the military and winning a Super Bowl." Upon learning he'd been born on the same day (Jan. 31, 1988) that Doug Williams became the first and only black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Dobbs announced his intention to become the second. He thought he'd be making history in the White House, too, before Barack Obama beat him to it.
"I've felt a sense of being the 'first' something, or the 'next' something, since I was born," he said. "I kind of felt it was my destiny."
How about the next Staubach?
It's a long shot, for sure. Option QBs tend to be discounted in general (Georgia Tech's Joshua Nesbitt barely registered on the meter despite leading an 11-win team last year), and particularly those from Navy. Most Heisman voters are unlikely to even watch Dobbs play much outside of the nationally-televised opener against Maryland and the Notre Dame game.
But the mere fact that he's being mentioned causes Dobbs to shake his head in wonder.
"I see this as a way of God showing the world that nothing is impossible," he said. "Because a player coming from Navy, nowadays, being mentioned in the Heisman race? Anything like that is a testimony that anything is possible, anywhere."
Once upon a time, it wasn't all that unusual for the service academies to be mentioned alongside the likes of USC or Alabama. Five Army and Navy players won Heismans between 1945 and 1963, most recently Staubach, whose '63 team finished No. 2 in the polls before losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The Mids haven't played in a January bowl or finished in the top 15 since.
While Navy doesn't get nearly the same attention as, say, Nebraska, football is as much a part of the school's identity, if not more so. Students are required to attend all home games, in uniform, with the entire Brigade marching from campus on to the field of nearby Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. They paint the statue of Tecumseh on campus before big games, and shouts of "Beat Army" can be heard nearly year-round.
Critics lament that the school has taken its obsession with athletics too far, tacitly accepting the blights of big-time football that come with success. The school came under fire in 2006 during the explosive rape trial of then-starting quarterback Lamar Owens (he was acquitted). Linebacker Kenny Ray Morrison was convicted of sexual misconduct by a military court shortly thereafter. Last spring, Niumatalolo dismissed two veteran receivers for detrimental conduct, one of whom, Marcus Curry, had previously tested positive for drug use.
In a controversial op-ed for The New York Times in May, Bruce Fleming, an English professor at the academy, argued that the service academies are essentially outdated relics that need to be "fixed or abolished" and that "The academy's former pursuit of excellence seems to have been pushed aside by the all-consuming desire to beat Notre Dame at football."
Navy backers would counter that the troublemakers were just two of a staggering 160 players on the roster. In another old-fashioned tradition, Navy still fields a jayvee squad, which plays its own schedule. Navy also abides by another antiquated football ritual: its players study. Since the NCAA began compiling its Graduation Success Rate in 2005, Navy football has ranked No. 1 nationally four times, coming in third last year at 93 percent. By comparison, last season's BCS Championship Game participants, Alabama and Texas, checked in at 67 and 49 percent, respectively.
No one would portend that Navy can compete at the same level as the 'Horns and the Tide. "We've been successful because we understand we're smaller and shorter than people," said Niumatalolo. "If we start thinking anything differently, than we're in trouble." Navy's primary goal remains winning the annual Commander-in-Chief's Trophy (as it has the past seven seasons) and qualifying for a bowl game. This year, the school has a deal to face the Mountain West's No. 2 team in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
With military personnel located throughout the country, Navy has become a boon to the bowl business in recent years. The school sold more than 20,000 tickets to last year's Texas Bowl, helping that game set an attendance record (69,441) and outdraw the Sugar and Orange bowls. It's done the same for nearly every bowl it's played in over the past seven years, selling more than 150,000 tickets and generating spikes in TV ratings.
It's that national following that allows Navy fans to dream of what many might think impossible: a BCS bowl berth.
"When we were freshmen, we set a goal as a class," said Middleton. "When it will be our time to shine, we want to do something different than any Navy team has ever done."
The Midshipmen would have to reach the top 14 to be eligible, which, with their admittedly lightweight schedule, would likely require an undefeated season. Navy has no individual BCS exemption like Notre Dame, nor is it eligible for the berth guaranteed to the highest-ranked non-AQ champion. But the major bowls would fall all over themselves for an undefeated Midshipmen team, not just for their ticket sales, but also for their All-American story.
Niumatalolo, like all coaches, preaches a one-game-at-a-time mentality. As the Mids struggled through the first of two practices on a sultry August afternoon, he repeatedly reminded them of opening-week opponent Maryland. Later, however, in the tranquillity of his office, the former Hawaii quarterback conceded he had the makings of "a special group."
"Football is the ultimate team sport," Niumatalolo said. "Unfortunately, there's so much catering to young athletes nowadays. It's great to see the young men that aren't getting the pampering be successful. To me, that's what college sports is all about. To me, it's a feel-good story that a bunch of guys that aren't selfish can be successful."
Maybe, just maybe, Navy can be successful enough that the overlooked quarterback from the wrong side of the tracks can lead his team to the Rose Bowl before riding off to sea.
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