By Bob Socci
Originally published in Navy vs. Southern Miss Gameday Program (October 8, 2011).
The answer is self-deprecating, the words spoken over a steady track of his own laughter.
John Dowd was asked to assess his overall performance to date. He is three games into his senior season, really just beginning his second year as starting right guard for the Naval Academy.
“I don’t do things very pretty,” Dowd says, a chuckle suggesting that he’s revealing a means to survival more than describing any style of play. “I’m not very graceful but I get them done.”
To illustrate what he means, Dowd sets the scene from one of the late August afternoons leading up to the 2010 opener against Maryland. Blocking to solidify his space on the Midshipmen’s offensive line, he engages a defensive counterpart.
Simultaneously, Dowd grapples with some suddenly non-adhesive athletic tape. He is trying to keep his balance and use his leverage. But the tape, once wrapped tightly to support his ankles and wrists, is unraveling right there on the practice field as Dowd does his best not to come undone.
He recreates the scene in his Staten Island English, which is its own sound, distinct from Brooklynese or any other dialect spoken in the five boroughs of New York City. To finish his anecdote and complete his point, Dowd wants to share the line his position coach utters as the play — and all that tape — unfolds.
However, he’s smart enough to recognize his own limitations; few as they are, as you’ll soon discover. It’s one thing for Dowd to simply repeat what Navy assistant Ashley Ingram has to say. And quite another for someone raised between the Goethels and Verrazano-Narrows Bridges to try to replicate the native sound of Iron City, Ga.
“Coach Ingram has a strong accent,” Dowd prefaces, again with a laugh. “I’m not going to try to do it.”
Then he delivers Ingram’s punch line — the coach’s words in his voice — to a play that ended with the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Dowd tripping.
“(Coach) was like, ‘That’s how you come off the ball!’’ Dowd says, his voice at least mimicking Ingram’s excitement. “‘You stay low, you got stuff falling off you, and you plant him! Then you go talk smack with your thick New York accent.’ I think that’s a pretty good way to describe how I play.”
Center Brady DeMell, who’s started every game alongside Dowd since the beginning of last fall, offers his own account of Dowd’s modus operandi.
“He’s an old school kind of player,” says DeMell, likening his pal’s on-field appearance to the grit captured on the grainy celluloid of NFL Films back in the 1960s. “He’ll do whatever he can to get the job done. Sometimes he makes a fantastic block, but sometimes he just puts his body in position to get the job done.”
Unlike Ingram’s summation, DeMell’s lacks any mention of extracurricular commentary. If you believe Dowd, truth is most of the time he’s the one receiving rather than giving an earful.
“Probably every game we’re winning,” Dowd says of the frequency of trash talk crossing the neutral zone from defenders cut blocked down to size by the typically-smaller Midshipmen. “You hear a lot of interesting stuff about that, like ‘Why don’t you block me like a man?’ or other things of that nature.
“But as long as we’re scoring touchdowns, that’s good enough for me. I usually don’t say much on the field, and actually I didn’t say anything to that one.”
A good thing for his opponent, who was likely to be outwitted as well as outmuscled.
Dowd is easily one of the brightest players in college football, with the near-perfect grades to prove it. Twice in his first three years in Annapolis, he was selected Academic All-America by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
After Second Team honors as a sophomore used mostly in reserve, Dowd was named to the First Team as a full-time starting junior. The last Midshipman chosen First Team Academic All-America was Ted Dumbauld in 1980.
No course load is cake at the Academy; but what makes Dowd’s distinction especially impressive is that he’s earned a 3.92 grade-point average majoring in Mechanical Engineering. This semester alone he carries 16 credits in classes ranging from (Nuclear) Reactor Physics to Introductory Economics. Safe to say, Dowd is at low risk of contracting senioritis.
Still, one’s academic aptitude often remains independent of what coaches call a ‘Football IQ.’
“They are two totally different things,” Ingram explains. “One, you sit and memorize and learn things. (The other), people are moving in space. A lot of guys can do it on paper, but when you put them in the situation (on field), maybe they freeze up or don’t transition soon enough, so things are happening too fast.”
That, Ingram makes clear, is a non issue with Dowd. Whether wearing a pocket protector or protecting the pocket, his intelligence translates and his toughness transcends.
“Obviously, John understands concepts,” says Ingram. “He’s definitely one who can transition from the classroom and film study onto the playing field.”
Ingram illustrates how Dowd processes what he sees to aid in-game adjustments.
“When things start happening in the game, you ask, ‘John, what’s happening here?’” Ingram offers. “He’ll say, ‘Well coach, their linebacker’s playing downhill, so maybe I need to do this,’ or ‘Their linebacker’s playing over the top, so maybe I need to do this.’
“I love coaching him. Obviously, he’s a very smart young man, (but) he’s as tough as they come. If you could line up 11 John Dowds on the field all the time, you’d feel confident that (they’re) going to know what to do and going to play as hard as (they) can. He’ll do everything in his power to get the job done every single play.”
Backing up his statement, Ingram rattles off a list of injuries hampering Dowd, if not his performance, during his career. Ingram works his way around the anatomy, from knee to hip to the latest, his hand.
Dowd fractured his right thumb at South Carolina. To remain active on the O-line, he was fitted for a boxing glove layered in tape, presumably sticky enough to last a complete game, at least.
“John’s obviously a smart football player who epitomizes who we are: just a bunch of guys who come to work,” says Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who notes that Dowd smoothly converted from tackle to guard and is adept at all three disciplines of blocking in an option offense — scoop, pull and base. “He adds great chemistry and great confidence to our offensive line.”
Being tight upfront is imperative on any football team; even more so with the Midshipmen.
“The type of offense we run, you rely on getting double teams,” Dowd says. “So you’re working with somebody 80 percent of the time, or some crazy odd number, because we like to get two of our smaller guys on one of their bigger guys.
“We basically have to play as one team inside the team. If somebody’s not getting it done, it affects us all. So we do take pride in our cohesiveness and the fact that we’re so tight.”
To foster such unity, Navy’s offensive linemen regularly meet on Thursdays at the Drydock Restaurant inside Dahlgren Hall. A small break from their every-other-weekday routine, it’s a chance to hang out as long as a couple of hours. In season, they also congregate on Fridays at the team hotel to kibitz while surfing televised games.
Sometimes, on either night, what brings them closer is picking each other apart. But in a good way.
“It’s all fun between us. It keeps you sane at this place,” says DeMell, indicating that Dowd has the thick skin one expects of a New Yorker. “We take shots at John, but he takes it well. We all spend a lot of time together. We know we can’t let each other down.”
Often, from both inside and outside his social circles, Dowd hears about the spots he and his parents appeared in the last two years for CBS Sports. Produced as preludes to Army-Navy telecasts, they were moving portrayals of the young men who play at West Point and Annapolis.
Commonly referred to as “teases,” they are viewable on-line. As you’ll discover should you take the time to Google the 2009 piece in particular, Dowd set the stage for Army-Navy with four words that, well, live in infamy: Let’s get it on!
“I’ve gotten that quite a bit the last two years,” Dowd says of his line, scripted for him to conclude a vignette narrated by Harrison Ford. “To put it lightly, I’ve had a lot of people ask me to do it. I kind of cringe every time I hear it.”
Yet, in the preceding three minutes, his mother, Kathy, emerges as a most memorably likable figure. Joined by her husband, Thomas Dowd, she speaks poignantly of her son, his comrades and their counterparts.
“Remember their names, remember their faces,” Kathy Dowd says to America. “Oh John Dowd, I am so proud of you!”
In quick-cutting clips, she animatedly — with hands and voice — describes the game’s pageantry.
“It’s enough to take your breath away,” Kathy proclaims.
And then she proceeds to do the same. Two and a half minutes in, wearing John’s No. 68 Jersey and propped up on a railing, with Thomas in front and the Manhattan skyline behind her, Kathy pumps her arms chanting: Fire up! Fire up!
Seconds later, Kathy Dowd, daughter of a Marine and a nurse who served four years in the Army, is seen doing textbook-form military push-ups.
“It was great,” John says. “That’s just my mom being herself. She’s always had that much energy and that much life to her, so I really can’t picture having a mom that’s any other way.
“My teammates will joke about the video sometimes, especially the corny stuff they sometimes make you say. But I think on the whole everybody appreciates the fact that she’s willing to put herself out on national TV for us, and help us represent ourselves to the nation.”
His coaches certainly do.
“I don’t know (his parents) that well, but we all know his mom,” says Ingram. “He doesn’t fall far from the tree. It’s pretty obvious where he gets his toughness. His dad was a career police officer in New York City and his mom, obviously, she’s a spark plug. There’s no doubt about that.”
“What’s not to love about the Dowds?” Niumatalolo asks rhetorically. “They’re great Americans. They did a great job raising their son, with all the characteristics you look for in someone. Seeing his mother do those push-ups, you see that energy translated into John. He plays a thousand miles an hour.”
As Ingram mentioned, Dowd’s dad retired as one of New York’s Finest. A number of relatives also serve among New York’s Bravest. They, like so many other members of NYPD and FDNY, settled on Staten Island.
There were few communities in the country more personally impacted and heartbroken by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. More than 270 Staten Island residents were killed on that Tuesday morning in 2001.
All of which made Thomas and Kathy Dowd’s child, and a son of Staten Island, the perfect choice of teammates to lead the Mids into last year’s matchup with Georgia Southern, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. He charged across the field, carrying an American flag once was raised over Ground Zero and flown over special operations bases in Afghanistan.
“To put it into a few words, would definitely not do it justice,” Dowd said. “Obviously, the community I’m from was devastated. But I was fortunate enough not to lose anybody in my immediate family.
“I’m very proud I can do those things, and maybe help some of my friends or people I know from back home who did lose somebody. They’re the ones, ultimately, who suffered the most. Anything I can do to help them heal, that’s really how I try to approach it.”
Only 11 years old in September 2001, Dowd was already contemplating his own call to service, influenced by both parents and his grandfather, Bill Marsh.
“I thought (military duty) would be part of growing up,” he says. “I thought that since I was really young. (9/11) didn’t change that, it just magnified how important doing that was.”
Years later, when college coaches began recruiting him out of St. Peter’s Boys High School, Dowd considered service academies his top choices.
“When I started getting letters from colleges in high school, I told my coach I want to send my (highlight) tape to the service academies,” says Dowd, who became valedictorian of his class. “I wanted to make sure it got there first.”
Coincidentally — and fortunately for the Midshipmen — Dowd’s cousin was about to graduate from the Naval Academy the same spring he was set to leave St. Peter’s. He visited Annapolis for a family-guided tour.
“I loved everything about the place,” Dowd says in retrospect. “It was definitely a place where I could see myself flourishing and doing well.”
Dowd was clairvoyant. Although saying he has flourished in his three-plus years here is an exercise in gross understatement.
He is poised to be Navy’s first two-time First Team Academic All-American and is officially a candidate to succeed the Mids’ own Ricky Dobbs as the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award recipient. Dowd downplays the former and, for now, ignores the latter.
Playing for a winning team, he believes, probably separated him from deserving Midshipmen during the 29 years the Academy went without a First Team Academic All-American from 1981-2009. Anyway, Dowd’s preoccupied and unconcerned with end-of-the-year accolades.
“It’s really an honor to do that for an institution that’s given a lot to me, and helped me to grow up in a lot of ways,” Dowd says of his national recognition. “(But) I really try not to think about that kind of stuff. I’m really a ‘try to focus on the small things, and the big things will take care of themselves’ kind of guy.”
That’s exactly how Dowd views his work in the classroom and on the field. He stays in the moment. Of course, those moments add up.
“Even though I spent almost two hours with seven guys in Drydock last night, the three hours afterwards I was doing Heat Transfer and Design homework,” said Dowd, citing a recent sampling of the time he devotes to studies. “I wouldn’t say it’s as simple as hard work, but it’s almost as simple.”
“I’m a history major and seeing what John does every day, I don’t know how he does it,” DeMell adds. “I have to be in bed by eleven. John’s up late most nights. If you’re averaging a 3.0 (GPA) here, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Dowd also attributes his near straight-A success to the accessibility of Academy faculty, both civilian and military, who view the role of a professor as that of a teacher.
“You also have to know when you’re in over your head,” he instructs. “I think I’ve done well with that, knowing when to get help. I’m not wasting my time, and time is, obviously, a very precious resource here.”
That time is winding down. In little more than a month, Dowd will undergo his service selection interview. He hopes it leads in the next year to a career as a submariner, an interest confirmed last summer during a brief pre-commission cruise on the California (SSN 781).
“I really liked that atmosphere, just how close-knit everybody was,” Dowd explained. “It kind of felt like the team a bit, like with the guys I play O-line with. Obviously, some of them were a little bit nerdier but I’m kind of a nerd myself. I don’t think it will be too much of a stretch for me to fit in there.”
Surely it shouldn’t be for an individual who just might be the toughest guy on the block and the smartest guy in the room.
“He will get in scraps on the field,” Niumatalolo says of Dowd, “but he’s a gentleman and a scholar off it.”
Bob is in his 15th season calling radio play-by-play of Navy football. He can be heard alongside partner Omar Nelson on Saturday, Oct. 22, when the Midshipmen entertain East Carolina, on the Navy Radio Network and Sirius Satellite Radio. For samples of his work, please visit. www.bobsocci.com.