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When duty calls ... Navy players know football serves as nice distraction

| Friday, Sept. 18, 2009

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - In the aftermath of its near-shocking defeat of No. 6 Ohio State, Navy gathered to rejoice its effort, not to console.

In reality, even with its 'A' game, the expectations were that the Midshipmen would only mildly challenge the Buckeyes. They seemingly have neither the talent nor depth to push a championship contender to the brink.

Yet, there they stood, at the doorstep of a colossal upset until the Buckeyes survived a last-minute flurry before a panic-stricken crowd of 105,092 at the Horseshoe.

"There's a thought process on our team that we can beat anybody we play," Navy senior outside linebacker Clint Sovie said. "But teams like Ohio State and Pitt have to make a lot of mistakes for us to win."

A year ago, the mistakes were few and far between for Pitt, which Saturday night hosts Navy at Heinz Field. The Panthers hammered the Midshipmen, 42-21, at Navy- Marine Corps Memorial Stadium last season.

"Pitt took us to the woodshed," Navy guard Osei Asante said. "But we're not seeking redemption - only a measure of respect."

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, current and former Midshipmen have earned plenty of respect - on the playing field and battlefield.

While the Ohio State loss was bitterly disappointing, the Midshipmen understand perfectly that winning and losing is overshadowed by the realities they face upon graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy.

Unlike a handful of players at Pitt and other big-time programs, the Midshipmen aren't seeking glory on the playing fields. And their numbers aren't likely to be called during the NFL Draft.

Instead, they'll be called to duty: to serve and protect the nation. That reality, says Coach Ken Niumatalolo, tempers the highs of victory and softens the blow of defeat.

"When we're done with football, we've got a higher job," Sovie said, "and it means much more than playing (in the NFL) on Sundays. It's just something you take pride in.

"Right now, our priorities are God, country, family and football. When football is over, it's over. It's not what I live to do. Ultimately, I live to be a Marine."

Still, the Midshipmen (1-1) are serious about football. It's a program rich in tradition: the 1926 national championship and two Heisman Trophy winners, Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino.

The Midshipmen, too, have dominated the Commander-in-Chief trophy, winning it a record-tying six consecutive years in trouncing Army and Air Force. They have an explosive triple option, triggered by quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who ignites a running game that has been the best in the nation the past five seasons.

"We've got some other things on the side to deal with," said wide receiver Nick Henderson, a North Allegheny High School graduate. "But what it comes down to is we're playing football for fun."

At times, the Midshipmen are reminded that opposing football fans don't view them as future officers and gentlemen. Two years ago, they were booed at Rutgers and jeered at Heinz Field.

"I don't see anything wrong with the fans booing us," Navy linebacker Ross Pospisil said. "I know they want to be respectful, but it's a little frustrating when they're too nice. It's football."

For the most part, the Midshipmen take the field amid grateful applause. They were warmly greeted by Ohio State fans and were honored on military appreciation day at Ohio Stadium.

"That kind of respect and gratitude seems to be growing since I've been here," said defensive end Mike Walsh, a Newtown native. "The fanfare is respectful, but we're also coming to play football. It's all forgotten when the ball is kicked off."

For Walsh, he'll always remember why he's at the Academy. Shortly after moving from Newtown to New Jersey, several of his high school friends lost one or both parents during the World Trade Center attack.

"That kind of hit home with me and persuaded me to join the military," Walsh said.

"There are times when you love it and times when you hate it. But I wouldn't trade this experience for anything."

The Midshipmen pledge never to forget their fallen comrades - including First Lieutenant Ronald D. Winchester, a two-year letterman and 2001 graduate, who in 2004 died during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"Right now, we're still focusing on football and academics," Asante said. "But it's in the back of our minds that some of us will be on the front lines, dealing with those trying to take away our freedoms."

Cameron Marshall, a senior defensive end, spent three tours in Iraq as an enlisted Marine. He is a constant reminder of the challenges facing the Midshipmen beyond the gridiron.

"We have lost guys and we know may lose others. It's something that stays with us," Sovie said. "We play for those guys. They will always be apart of the brotherhood."

"The brotherhood is the real deal," said slot back Cory Finnerty. "These are the guys I will die for."

Yet, football still takes up the majority of a Midshipman's day. There are early-morning treatments, formation, practice, lifting and time in the film room.

As a result, there's tremendous emphasis on discipline and time management for student-athletes, who are required to take at least 15 semester hours and minor in engineering.

"It's remarkable the commitment that they make to our country and to be able to put in the time, effort and energy to be prepared - and not just be prepared - these guys go out and win on Saturday," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said.

"You can not have enough respect for what they do and the type of people they are. It comes down to having the right person to be able to get that done."

For some, it took nearly four years to cope with the rigorous demands of Academy life. The Midshipmen, who are obligated to serve at least five years of active duty upon graduation, insists the demands to stay focused and disciplined are far greater at the Naval Academy than most other schools.

Most of all, the Midshipmen have different aspirations and realities than most of their opponents.

"It's funny, sometimes when we cut block, some guy will get upset and say, 'what are you doing, I'm trying to go to the league,' " Finnerty said. "It's a little different mentality for us. We're thinking about winning and maybe going to war, and they are thinking about making the NFL."

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