Here’s a link to my story for the USOC about Billy Demong, the first American skier to win an Olympic gold medal in a Nordic event. He was selected by teammates to be the U.S. flag bearer at the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
By Bob Socci
This story appeared in the Navy Gameday football program on November 17, 2012.
The first of the milestones occurred well after heavy gusts started spraying a hard rain sideways across East Carolina’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
In the second minute of the fourth quarter, with Navy comfortably ahead, sophomore Geoffrey Whiteside started out from the right slot of the Pirates’ 20-yard line. Running straight up the field, through the downpour and into the secondary, Whiteside had yet to score a touchdown in his brief collegiate career.
Within five yards of the end zone, Whiteside turned to the inside and found a dart from quarterback Keenan Reynolds on his fingertips. He snared the throw, before diving across the goal line and into the box score.
No more than a minute passed before one of Whiteside’s classmates celebrated his own first. This time, following an interception that positioned Navy in possession at ECU’s 33-yard line, Reynolds gave way to Trey Miller. Handling his initial snap of the game, Miller moved to the right and shoveled a pitch to Ryan Williams-Jenkins.
Williams-Jenkins collected the ball, held it against his right shoulder and sprinted down the far side. On his first rushing attempt as a Midshipman, Williams-Jenkins didn’t stop running until scoring the 55th of Navy’s 56 points.
Unable to run with Whiteside and Williams-Jenkins, a fellow slot back two years their senior still managed to stay with them every step of the way; his right knee in a brace and his weight supported by crutches.
“I felt like I scored a touchdown with them,” John Howell said several days later.
Howell watched Whiteside and Williams-Jenkins reach their uncharted territory from a spot near the Navy bench. No longer in uniform, he made his own arrangements to be in Greenville that afternoon, traveling separately from the rest of the Mids.
It turned out to be a treacherous trip, as the earliest signs of an impending Hurricane Sandy reached the South Atlantic coast. Regardless, Howell wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
“To see them do well and excel in the game was great for me,” he said. “Being on the sidelines, able to celebrate with those guys was unbelievable.”
The last few seasons, some of Howell’s most memorable plays occurred along a sideline, from the left in Philadelphia to the right at South Carolina. In this instance, on the final Saturday of October, in the eastern half of North Carolina, a sideline marked two of his proudest moments. To understand why, you need to know what happened on Sept. 29, next to a sideline in Annapolis.
Two weeks earlier, Howell had represented Navy as a game captain at Penn State. An honor under any circumstances, it was especially thrilling for someone who grew up near Philadelphia and gone to Beaver Stadium as a kid. Sitting among the masses numbering 98,792 were nearly 40 members of Howell’s friends-and-family club.
“Being able to be selected to go out as one of the captains, in front of family and friends and people I know who were watching on TV, it was just unbelievable,” Howell said. “It was a great experience, very humbling.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the afternoon was a letdown for the Mids, who lost to the Nittany Lions, 34-7. They rebounded, however, to win easily at home over VMI the following weekend. That put them at 1-2 entering their final September date, against San Jose State.
Navy received the opening kickoff, and on the day’s fourth play from scrimmage, Howell ran 19 yards into Spartan terrain. For the eighth play, the Mids set up on 1st-and-10 from the 32. Originally to the outside of right tackle, Howell wheeled up that same side, sprinting adjacent to San Jose State’s bench. He was accompanied almost the entire way only by a stream of thoughts, while running under the arc of a deep ball from Miller.
“I was thinking this is wide open, there’s nobody covering me,” Howell recounted. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a great momentum swing in the game, to get the first touchdown.’”
Momentum swung, alright. But in the wrong direction.
“I saw the ball coming, I slowed down to catch it, and out of my peripheral (vision), I could see the safety coming over,” Howell continued. “I thought I would try to catch it and spin back on him, because he was coming pretty fast.”
Just as Howell planted his right foot and extended his arms for Miller’s throw, the Spartans’ Damon Ogburn launched himself toward the receiver. Ogburn arrived simultaneously with the football, his helmet leading the way. Howell went down, the ball came loose and an official threw his flag.
For his hit, Ogburn was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul. From his hit, Howell remained on the ground, in obvious agony. Not so evident, at least initially from afar, was the nature of his injury.
Williams-Jenkins, for one and speaking for others, immediately suspected a head injury. Or perhaps, he speculated from the opposite sideline, an ankle problem.
“I figured, ‘John will be back next week,’” Williams-Jenkins recalled weeks later.
As Howell remembers, many of the questions to come were from well-wishers, wondering whether he’d hurt his shoulder or suffered a concussion. Such was the nature of the blow, as well as the resulting penalty. Remarkably, his head was clear. And the first thing that came to mind was an old injury.
“I broke my femur in high school, so at first I thought I re-broke my femur,” says Howell, who was a three-time MVP at Lansdale Catholic, near his home in Hatfield, Pa. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I did not just break my femur again!’”
Howell realized it could be serious. Despite requests by Navy’s medical staff, he couldn’t bear to put any weight on his right leg. That didn’t keep him from wishful thinking.
“I just thought, ‘Geez, I hope I feel good, so I can get back up again for the next drive,‘“ Howell says. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about what the long-term (effects) were going to be. I was just thinking, ‘Let’s get to the sideline, have it looked at, and get it taped up.”
The team’s medical staff knew otherwise. Howell’s femur, his upper leg, was intact. His knee, they surmised, was not.
“It definitely hit hard when the doc’s on the sideline (said), ‘We think you tore your ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).’ I was like, ‘Can I keep playing with that?’” Howell laughs. “They were like, ‘If that’s the case, you’re done.’”
To find conclusive evidence, they scheduled an MRI two days later at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. In all probability, Howell wouldn’t recover in time to finish the season, much less the game.
Meanwhile, his offensive mates never regrouped. Shortly after Howell departed, their promising drive ended with a fumble inside the 10-yard line. Their next 41 plays netted only 78 yards. Four Spartan field goals amounted to a 12-0 final.
“I think it was a huge blow in that game,” Howell’s position coach Danny O’Rourke reflects. “Nobody wanted to believe it. Did that really happen? Especially because everyone knew how hard he worked. I guess it shows we’re not guaranteed anything. It doesn’t matter how hard you work and all the good stuff you do. It was tough on me, and all the guys.”
His loss, their loss, was devastating on different dimensions. To start, there was the impact of his physical absence from Navy’s offense. Howell was one of the Mids’ most consistently productive players.
One out of every seven career touches, as a runner or receiver, resulted in a touchdown. He scored on seven of 56 carries and two of seven catches. In 2010, Howell ran down the longest pass in Army-Navy history, streaking up the left sideline to grab a 77-yard strike from Ricky Dobbs. The second week of 2011, he raced up and down the field at Western Kentucky, scoring on 50- and 57-yard dashes. Then at top-ten South Carolina, he hurried up the right sideline for the first TD of a near upset.
Simply not having Howell in the lineup left an offense grinding its way out of the gate without one of its few proven playmakers. The day he went down, San Jose State pitched the first shutout of Navy since 2006.
But there was much more to their collective misery. The guy everyone called ‘Hollywood’ is beyond popular. As the son of a former Navy SEAL, and imbued with his dad’s work ethic, he’s also widely respected. His offseason workout partner, Williams-Jenkins, contends that Howell was always out in front, leading sprints.
“I don’t think anything’s been given to (John),” Williams-Jenkins says. “He represents what Navy football is all about, success through hard work.”
An equally impressionable youngster, Whiteside, concurred.
“I just felt so bad,” Whiteside said. “John worked so hard to be out there.”
“A lot of guys came up to me and were really sympathetic about it,” says Howell. “You could tell how sincere they were. They were like, ‘We really wish you were out there with us.’”
The only person, it seemed, who didn’t feel sorry for him was Howell himself.
“Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to play football. But that’s not going to break me down from who I am,” Howell says. “I can’t go back and control the play I got hurt on. I can’t control how fast or slow my rehab is going to be. I can control my attitude and outlook I have.
“There’s no need to be down and depressed, because that can spread to some of the guys. I might as well just look at everything as optimistically as I can and make the most of it.”
“His attitude has been unbelievable,” O’Rourke said in the middle of his 11th season as a Naval Academy assistant. “After the game, he was so positive. He kept saying, ‘I’ll be fine.’ He’s had a positive attitude the whole time.”
Including a couple of days later, when Howell’s MRI confirmed the Navy doctors’ worst fears, and more. Not only was his ACL severed, so were the MCL (medial) and LCL (lateral), other stabilizing ligaments in his right knee. Reconstructive surgery was scheduled for the following week.
At word of the bad news, it was Howell who texted Williams-Jenkins to lift his spirits. The gist of Howell’s message: Don’t worry about me.
“John was worried about us beating Air Force and getting to a bowl game,” Williams-Jenkins says.
With those ends in sight, Howell essentially began a second Academy career. He went to work as a de facto coach. The same afternoon he underwent imaging in Bethesda, Howell got back in time to sit in on football film review. He was out at practice that Monday, as well as the rest of the week; holding a practice script in one hand and carrying his crutches in the other.
“I just try to keep a positive attitude. I can’t physically be on the field, but I have a lot of experience through the years in the offense,” Howell explains. “I can be out there and support (everyone) vocally as much as I could on the field.
“I just try to push the guys, see if they can’t go one more rep before they take a water break. As much as I don’t want to be ‘that guy,’ I try to remind them that you never know when that last play will be.”
Of course, by the time the Mids left for Colorado Springs, Howell was all too aware of when his last play occurred. He’d already come to grips with it. But seeing his teammates off to a showdown with an arch rival was tough to get a handle on.
“When the team went out to Air Force on Thursday, and I was saying ‘bye’ to everybody, that’s when it hit hard,” said Howell. “That’s probably the hardest, when I was saying goodbye to the guys and not being able to go out there with them.”
While the Mids went west, hundreds of miles to the south, a recent Academy grad and ex-wide receiver understood exactly what Howell was experiencing.
Numerous ex-teammates, as well as some others Howell never played alongside, called and messaged encouragement. He heard from slot backs who once mentored him as a plebe, Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty. And from predecessors who played defense, like Bobby McClarin and Ryan Hamilton.
All are close friends whose accomplishments Howell admires; whose advice he treasures. But none endured what he’s going through. One who did is Doug Furman, who tore up his knee last fall at Notre Dame.
“You couldn’t have two harder workers than those guys,” said O’Rourke, who was struck by how closely the senior-year narratives of Furman and Howell parallel one another. “It’s ironic. The situation is very similar with those two kids.”
Actually, it’s eerie.
“When Doug got hurt last year, I was like right next to him on the field,” Howell recalls. “I turned and looked, and I was waiving the doctors over. For me, I was like, ‘How could that happen?’ He was one of the best guys on the team. He was always positive, inspirational. I thought, ‘This is such a shame for him go out in his senior year like this.’”
Two of the Mids’ best leaders. Both hugely popular in the locker and weight rooms. Each handed an unjust fate on the football field.
In the immediate aftermath of his injury, Howell’s mother and father, Liz and John, even reminded their son about Furman. Look at him now, they advised, remarking how Furman recovered and rehabbed, and is now symptom-free at flight school in Pensacola, Fla.
Typical of caring parents, their words were prescient. Within days, Furman reached out.
“When (Doug) called me, he said, ‘John I feel the same about you that you did about me. It’s such a shame seeing you go down,’” says Howell, before sharing their new inside joke, with a chuckle. “We have something more in common now.”
“With Doug, I can relate to him a lot. He told me to just do my rehab, go through the process and everything will be alright.”
Regarding Howell’s absence at Air Force, there was consolation. He couldn’t help Navy beat the Falcons. But he was able to enjoy the next best thing: watching them do it.
His folks drove to Annapolis for the weekend and entertained a group of Mids left off the travel squad. As Navy rallied into overtime and took the lead, John shouted at the TV. And when defensive end Wes Henderson swatted away a fourth-down pass to preserve victory, he joined a mile-high celebration two time zones away.
“It took all the pain away watching that last (Navy) touchdown, and seeing Air Force’s incomplete pass on fourth down,” Howell says excitedly. “We all went nuts. I had my knee brace (on) and threw everything that was in my hands, and just started jumping around.”
The day before the next contest, a Friday night affair at Central Michigan, Howell underwent surgery by CDR J.P. Rue, MD at Anne Arundel Medical Center. He was in and out in less than three hours, well in advance of his next appointment viewing of a 31-13 Navy win.
A month later, Howell experienced little pain or swelling. Recovery was going so well that during the Mids’ most recent home contest, he shared with a radio audience his wish for the Army-Navy game. He wants to be in uniform on Dec. 8, to run out of the locker room with everybody else.
“I would definitely say the Army-Navy touchdown was most meaningful,” says Howell, who grew up on America’s Game. “It was in Philadelphia, where I’m from, I had a lot of family and friends there, and playing at that stadium was unbelievable for me.
“Growing up, watching that game, I never really ever anticipated (playing in) it. Going there with my dad and seeing how the fans were and seeing the interaction, that whole atmosphere was electrifying. It was such a great thing to go to, seeing the rich tradition it had.”
And continues to have, thanks to young men like Howell.
He came to Annapolis, choosing to follow his father by serving his country. When he leaves Annapolis, he intends to follow his sister, Danielle, into the Marine Corps. Thirteen months older than John, she shocked her kid brother a year ago by enlisting. Now she’s in a dual program, bound for graduate studies at South Carolina and Officer Candidate School.
“I got a phone call, and she said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a Marine,’” John says of the big sister he considers a best friend. “I’m like, ‘Good joke. Seriously. What’s up?’”
He laughs, repeating their words, then continues.
“I feel that definitely influenced me a little bit more to go into the Marines,” says Howell, who wants to fly in the Corps. “She kids me that (I) don’t even know what it feels like to be a Marine.”
Not quite, yet. But Howell is getting a feel for the post-military career he desires. His sideline perspective has given him a new outlook.
“I never really put too much (thought) into (coaching), until now. I really love the game,” Howell says. “Now that I’ve taken that role, I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of weeks, being able to sit back and look at it from a different perspective.”
If granted the service selection of his choice, there’s a chance Howell can be temporarily assigned to assist the football staff before attending The Basic School in Quantico.
“That would be a good transition for me, not being able to really finish my senior season,” he says. “Being able to coach the guys, would be a good transition out.”
In ways evident at East Carolina, his transition is already under way. The catch by Whiteside, the run by Williams-Jenkins weren’t strictly products of their own abilities. A lot of tutelage was invested in those two slot backs. Namely, from veterans like Howell.
Before and after injury. During games and practices. Lifting weights and studying video. Meeting in rooms at Ricketts Hall and Bancroft Hall. And conferring on the sideline, in the wind and rain of Greenville, N.C.
“John actually sits behind me in the meeting room,” explains Williams-Jenkins, who’s adapting to Navy slot back, after playing tailback in a high school spread offense. “When I have a question, I turn around and he helps me, just so I know what things to key on.”
“He helps me every day in practice or the film room,” adds Whiteside, a slot receiver before attending the Academy. “We get together in the meeting room or his (dorm) room. He’s always quizzing us on different defenses.
“I don’t know if I’d be where I am at right now, as far as learning the offense and learning defenses…I was so lost, I didn’t think I’d be playing.”
Howell’s voice helps create a welcomed stereo effect for their full-time coach O’Rourke. Often stressing the same points, they reach the more inexperienced slots in different ways.
“John helps those guys a lot,” O’Rourke says. “They look up to him because he’s done it. He can tell them in another language. He’s seen it first hand, against good people.”
There’s another obvious benefit of having Howell around, even if he’s no longer available to run, catch or block. Exposure to his everyday demeanor adjusts the attitudes of others.
“John’s taught me a lot,” admits O’Rourke, in a rare concession from a coach about a player. “He’s such a grounded kid.”
One false step, in the nanosecond of a football play, cut short John Howell’s career. This afternoon, on this — on his — Senior Day, we commemorate neither endings nor lasts. It’s the beginnings and firsts — his and those he influences — that we celebrate.
“John knows there are bigger things ahead of him. He loved playing and being out there, but it’s not like his life is over,” O’Rourke continues. “He’s a special kid. If I coach 50 years, I might not find another kid like him.”
By Bob Socci
This blog first appeared on www.navysports.com.
Early last week, prior to hosting Navy on Saturday, Troy head coach Larry Blakeney sat in a press conference lamenting his defense’s effort at Tennessee the previous weekend. In losing the highest-scoring game in Neyland Stadium history, 55-48, the Trojans allowed a whopping 718 total yards.
Blakeney dispensed a list of shortcomings, before interrupting himself to utter something of an afterthought. There was one area, he conceded, in which the Trojans were somewhat respectable.
“We’ve actually not been bad about getting off the field, which is what defense really is all about these days,” he said. “Nobody really slams anybody, but getting off the field is big on third down and getting them to punt it to you.”
So this is where we are today in college football. Understand that offenses are going to get theirs. Just try to get enough stops to give your offense a chance to get more.
A few days after Blakeney’s remarks, Troy gave up a still-sizable 487 yards and 31 points to the Midshipmen. But by forcing punts on Navy’s first two possessions, Troy raced ahead, 14-0. After the Mids fumbled at the Trojans’ 2-yard line, Troy made it, 21-0.
The defense did enough, as the offense built a lead that proved insurmountable. Navy drew as close as three points, with possession, at 31-28, but never overcame that early multi-score deficit. The final was 41-31.
As much as such a result might offend purists who prefer low-scoring sparring matches, 72 total points is relatively tame in comparison to many 21st-century outcomes.
Rest in peace, Woody (“three yards and a cloud of dust”) Hayes, as difficult as it may be. And you too, Darrell Royal, the recently-departed ex-Texas coach who popularized the wishbone decades ago. It was Royal who cautioned, “I’ve always felt that three things can happen to you whenever you throw the football, and two of them are bad.”
Well, in this day and age, there are few who see the game the same way. Most teams are willing to throw caution to the wind — out of the spread, of course. Why, even run-first offenses are lighting up scoreboards.
Last Saturday alone, the Mids’ former coach Paul Johnson play-called Georgia Tech to a 68-50 win over North Carolina in the highest-scoring affair in ACC football history. Later in the day, Navy’s next opponent, Texas State, lost to Louisiana Tech, 62-55.
If you’re a scoreboard watcher, be sure to read the fine print when eyeing the updates that scroll along the bottom of the television screen. It can be quite confusing.
For example, two weeks ago, perhaps you wondered: Was that 62-51 loss for USC to Oregon in men’s or women’s basketball? Uh, neither. Those were the football Trojans — not to be mistaken for Blakeney’s. Despite being directed by a Super Bowl-winning coordinator, Monte Kiffin, they were gashed for 730 yards.
The school that turned out legendary defenders like Ronnie Lott, Junior Seau and Troy Palamalu, never before surrendered so many points and so many yards. It started playing football in 1888.
Six seasons ago, the Midshipmen prevailed in the most prolific match-up in Division I history, outscoring North Texas, 74-62. The record they share with the Mean Green was threatened on Sept. 29, when — in a pairing of then Top 25 teams, no less — West Virginia beat Baylor, 70-63.
Current head coach Ken Niumatalolo was an assistant to Johnson when Navy outlasted North Texas in November of ’07. Since experiencing the sublimity of 136 total points in a single game, he’s seen the numbers become more and more ridiculous.
What used to be an anomaly isn’t so unordinary anymore, as teams continue to spread the field and expand the playbook in their race against time. Thirty-five times this season, a team has scored at least 60 points.
“Just the hurry-up, no-huddle offenses, what they’ve allowed people to do is (get) more plays off” Niumatalolo said. “Normally people have run anywhere between 60 and 70 snaps. Now guys are getting in the 80’s and 90’s and, sometimes, 100 snaps a game. Just those 30 more plays allow for more scoring opportunities. It wears your defense down and lends itself to higher scores.”
Niumatalolo should know. In October, he prepared the Mids for Indiana, which averaged 86.3 plays per game during a three-week stretch in September. Before last Saturday, he and his staff scouted 99 offensive reps for Troy at Tennessee, as well as 102 in an earlier loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Offenses are gaining an increasing advantage over defenses not merely because of the number of plays. The more plays, it seems, the more personnel groups and more formations they make you deal with. All while forcing you to cover more of the field.
It’s stressful enough trying to keep up with offensive substitutions from the stands or press box (just listen to last week’s Navy radio broadcast; on second thought, don’t). For defensive coaches and their players, they not only have to identify who’s shuttling in and out; they have to keep up with them.
If, for instance, an offense hurries to the line in a formation suggesting run or pass, does the defense have time to counter with appropriate personnel? Often, they don’t.
Prepping for Indiana, Niumatalolo was very concerned. The Hoosiers snap the ball quickly, about every 20 seconds. The Mids substitute freely, constantly rotating on their defensive line.
“It complicates it a lot, because they go so fast,” he said of the looming matchup. “ We’ve got to be really precise and organized in some of our substitution patterns. It’s something that we have to work on and stress. They put such a premium on their pace of what they do, it makes it hard.”
Navy eventually caught up, and beat IU, 31-30. Niumatalolo expects defenses in general to catch up too, and stem this present-day offensive wave. When they do, he suspects in time — naturally, sooner than later — offensive strategists will figure a way to forge back in front.
Long before that happens, his Mids host Texas State this Saturday.
The Bobcats are under Dennis Franchione, who first visited Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium as the coach of TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000. His offensive style differs from what Navy dealt with at Troy. Balancing the pass with the run, TSU is reliant on the zone-option read.
That doesn’t mean the Bobcats can’t put up Trojan-like numbers.
Granted La Tech is a sieve. At 9-1 and ranked 19th in both major polls, the Bulldogs somehow manage to overcome a defense that gives up 505.7 yards and 36.2 points per game.
Nevertheless, on their drive to 55, the Bobcats covered 577 yards, including 134 by former Navy slot back Marcus Curry.
Of their eight touchdown series, just one lasted longer than 2 minutes, 16 seconds — it took all of 2:53.
Texas State also converted 9-of-15 third-down attempts, plus its lone fourth-down try. That’s a rate of 62.5 percent on those two downs.
The Mids will need to lower those numbers. Because as Larry Blakeney reminded us, in this age of offense, getting off the field on defense is all that matters.
By Bob Socci
This story was published in the Navy Gameday football program on November 3, 2012.
His head coach, Ken Niumatalolo, will concisely characterize Cabral as a “quiet, humble leader.”
“He’s not the most vocal guy in the world,” assistant Ashley Ingram will disclose, before explaining how the player he oversees on the Midshipmen’s interior still manages to speak volumes, despite a daily economy of words.
“I’ve known him for four years,” line mate and classmate Ryan Paulson will qualify, before adding: “I’ve always known him to be a pretty quiet guy, but he gets things done.”
“He’s not much of a vocal leader,” is how another senior toiling in Navy’s offensive trenches, Kahikolu Pescaia, phrases it. “Josh is a leader by example. But when he does speak, people will listen.”
By now, after nearly a full half hour of a phone conversation in which there have often been long pauses following personal questions, the talking point others are soon to repeat is easily understood.
It’s not that Cabral is uncooperative; but exactly the opposite. He patiently listens and replies to what have to seem like endless inquiries into his business as a college football player, a Midshipman, a son. His reticence is less a reluctance to respond than a reflection of someone who simply isn’t self indulgent.
The mere fact that he’s hung on this long, first for a radio interview and now for more than a few follow-ups for print, suggest something else Paulson will confirm: Cabral definitely seems to be “a cool guy.” He even laughs, absent any exasperation, at an apology for taking up so much of his so-called free period in an effort to peel back the layers of his personal story.
There’s a lot there, uncovered bit by bit, about football and family. And, naturally at Navy, football family. In the 27th minute of this Q and A, his interrogator wonders what Cabral seeks in the final weeks of a remarkably consistent and durable career.
He begins by slowly reciting the usuals. “Well, definitely beat Army,” as Cabral and teammates have done the past three seasons. “Work toward getting a bowl bid,” which would be his third in four years. He then offers the predictable, “Our goal is to win every game we go into, but…”
Cabral’s voice trails off, before it fades back in and out. “It’s been a great ride,” he assures.
And with that, Cabral suddenly shifts. His tone, like his pace, picks up. He speaks enthusiastically, without the slightest hesitation.
“I remember in 2007, on November third, when Navy played Notre Dame and finally beat them. It was actually my birthday,” Cabral reminisces, a lilt to his words. “I wasn’t being recruited then. But we always cheered for Navy, because my mom went there and my dad was in the Navy. That was just a great moment. I didn’t even know any of those guys.”
Cabral recalls eventually meeting one of the stars of that day. “Just awesome,” he says of his encounter with linebacker Ram Vela, whose leap over a Fighting Irish blocker remains one of the game’s iconic moments.
Continuing, Cabral then connects that third of November, as a teenager fixed on the television from home in Orange County, Calif., to this third of November.
“It’s my birthday and I’m playing one of my last home games at Navy-Marine Corps (Memorial Stadium),” he fondly reflects. “It’s crazy to think it’s almost over.”
Yet it all makes perfect sense.
That his birthday marks one of the most significant milestones in the modern era of Navy football. That his mother made infinitely more important history at the Academy, as one of its first women graduates. That his father devoted decades to Naval service. That his buddy, Paulson asserts, “When you think of a Navy offensive lineman, you think of Josh.”
And that Niumatalolo goes so far as to say of Cabral: “This is the mold, this is how you’re a Navy football player and a Midshipman.”
The signs — they can’t all be mere coincidences — and superlatives make it easy to see what Cabral doesn’t say. He was meant to be here, today; in Annapolis, opposite Florida Atlantic, celebrating his 22nd birthday. He was born to be a Navy football player.
Cabral is the son of all-Navy parents who met playing all-Navy volleyball.
Susan Stapler was a three-year letter winner and two-time captain in the sport, before graduating with the Naval Academy’s precedent-setting Class of 1980. After enduring the hard road of a trail blazer in Annapolis, she worked in Naval Intelligence.
Meanwhile, Dan Cabral enlisted, leaving home in Hawaii and what his son describes as an environment that wasn’t exactly island paradise. Seeking something better for him, and eventually his, a career as an aviation technician offered that much and more.
Susan and Dan had a daughter, Hanna, now 24. Then Josh came along. He grew, and grew some more, to his current height of 6-foot-3 and weight of 297 pounds. He came to embody athleticism matched by intelligence and toughness. All qualities, he believes, that are equal parts of both parents.
Though Josh’s mother rarely, if ever, dwelled on the challenges unique to her gender on the way to becoming a true Academy Firstie, he understands enough to appreciate what she went through.
“She seems to play it off as if it wasn’t a very big deal,” Josh says more than 30 years after Susan’s commissioning with the inaugural class of female grads. “She doesn’t give it, I think, the amount of respect it needs. She’s kind of happy go lucky about her time here. But I think she’s very proud of where women at the Academy have gone.
“It was definitely a lot rougher (for her) than I have it now. She’s one tough lady. The first class of women, I understand, was controversial back then, and they suffered a lot more hazing than I (have).”
If she didn’t turn back in her time, neither will he in his.
“I can’t quit, because my mom got through it,” Cabral laughs. “At least, that’s what people keep telling me.”
Those people should know, if they don’t already, there’s no give-up on the other side of the family as well.
“My dad grew up in a tough family. It wasn’t the best scene,” Cabral shares. “Joining the military for him was a way out. He made a life for himself and for our family, and gave my sister and me more than he ever had. I think that’s what motivates him.”
A little later, Cabral expounds on his parental guidance.
“(My) parents (were) always being there for me, teaching me to keep fighting through,” he says. “They were always supportive of what my sister and I wanted to do, as long as we did it with all our effort, all our might. Never quit on anything because it was too hard.”
Their message helped form the perfect makeup for this next generation of Midshipman, who wound up being recruited out of Tesoro High School. But while Navy assistant Steve Johns worked to lure Cabral to Annapolis, Susan and Dan weren’t necessarily pushing him there. If he was headed in that direction, they wanted him pulled on his own.
“They were a little concerned that I was picking the Naval Academy because I felt pressure from them,” says Josh. “But I had always, since a young age, thought about joining the military. I thought it was a great opportunity.
“When I was growing up my mom was already out, but my dad was still in the Navy. One of my best friends, his dad was a Navy SEAL…The way they talked about people they met in the service, it seemed like a great deal.”
Because Dan was based in Coronado, Josh was spared the peripatetic upbringing of many military brats. He lived near San Diego his first 10 years, before moving to Rancho Santa Margarita in the OC. Following back-to-back league titles for Tesoro, Cabral went straight to the Academy.
In time, that first year, like any other plebe prior or since, he thought about a return home.
“If you don’t think about quitting here, there might be something wrong with you,” Cabral confesses.
The parents who taught so much about persevering asked him to stick with, at least a little longer.
“My mom and dad, they would definitely support me if I wanted to leave, but they kept telling me to give it to Christmas, or give it to the end of the year,” says Cabral, who did just that. “They were right. It’s definitely well worth it, especially playing on the football team, with these people that I’ve become family members with. It’s all worth it.”
Others concur, from Navy coaches to Cabral’s brothers among the Brigade.
“I know exactly who I’m getting every day,” said Ingram, the fifth-year coach of the Mids’ centers and guards.
Every day is the operative term when it comes to Cabral. No one in the Navy program is more reliable. He went into last week’s visit to East Carolina on a streak of 32 consecutive starts.
And who Ingram gets is a quick study, whether the subject is his major, ocean engineering, or his athletic calling, blocking in an option offense.
“In the coach’s world, there are two types of players,” Ingram explains. “There are ‘rep guys.’ You have to pound (information) into their heads. And there are guys who immediately understand concepts. It’s pretty easy for (Josh). Since day one, if I told him something, he understood.”
Ingram doesn’t mean simply guard play, although Cabral has played only the one position his entire career.
“He knows every position on the line,” Ingram asserts. “He’s an observant kid and a smart kid.”
Cabral is also unselfish, willing to impart his knowledge onto others. Perhaps no one has benefitted more from his insights than a starting tackle in his first season on offense.
A year ago, Paulson was a backup on the Mids’ defensive line. But last spring, he switched sides and, in a remarkably short period, adapted well enough to earn the first seven starts of 2012 at left tackle. He credits Cabral with expediting his adjustment.
“Just being his personality, (Josh) automatically stepped into (a leadership) role and helped me with my transition,” Paulson said.
During the summer, they studied video, as well as the playbook, and worked out together. Frequently after their workouts, Cabral and Paulson stayed to improve footwork or blocking techniques.
But Cabral’s reach doesn’t stop at Paulson.
When Pescaia was summoned for a rare appearance at center midway through last month’s victory at Central Michigan, Cabral was at his side. On the field, of course, but also on the bench. As offensive series ended and they retreated to the sideline, Cabral revealed his vision for Pescaia.
“He has so much experience, there were times he would see things that only he could see, and he would talk about them to help me make the right blocks,” says Pescaia, who shares Hawaiian heritage with Cabral. “Definitely when times are hard, in preseason camp or practice, Josh is definitely there to motivate guys.”
“Josh takes ownership of the group,” Ingram says, “trying to help other guys.”
“He’s the one we all look to, as far as senior o-lineman go,” says Paulson. “He’s the definition of the Navy offensive lineman. He’s smart, tough, big. He doesn’t do a lot of talking, but he walks the walk.”
As far as Niumatalolo is concerned, nothing else matters.
“Here’s a guy who’s a three-year starter who works as hard as anybody on our team,” says Niumtatalolo. ”The adjectives run out for him, because he’s such a wonderful young man to coach. His actions tell you what kind of person he is.”
So does Cabral’s middle name, if you understand Hawaiian language like native Islander Niumatalolo. Susan and Dan chose to call their son Joshua Kekoa. Pronounced keh-KOE-ah, it means ‘brave soldier.’
Cabral jokes that he’d “probably slaughter the language” and poor mouths what steps he’s taken attempting a version of the Haka Dance, which is a specialty of several Hawaiian teammates. But setting self-deprecation aside, he’s well on his way to living up to his middle name.
This month Cabral and classmates discover if their service selection is approved. His top choice is Naval Flight Officer, which would require about a 60-pound weight loss. If he doesn’t wind up in the back seat of a plane, Cabral will land aboard a ship as a Surface Warfare Officer.
“I think it’s important to remember they’re people too, not just someone you can just order around,” he says of his perspective. “They’re young kids. I’ve had friends right out of high school go enlist in the Marines and be deployed over to Afghanistan. They have their own troubles and their own stories, yet they sacrifice so much for our country and each other. It’s just amazing.”
It sounds like Cabral will treat them the same way he does Navy teammates; regardless of class or position, no matter if on or off the field.
“I try my best with younger teammates and encourage them,” he says, before offering his own key to succeeding.
“It’s tough here at the Academy. But here they give you a lot of assistance. No one here wants to see you fail; teachers, coaches, company officers, classmates. You’ve got to put in the work. It’s rough, but you can get through it.”
You can do it by heeding the few words of a quiet leader. Or by observing his actions, which give you so much to emulate.
“I’ll give you an example,” says Niumatalolo. “Josh was going to miss a meeting and be late for practice recently because he had some appointments for his service selection assignments. When he came to ask me (for permission), he came in sheepishly, like he did something wrong. I had to explain to him, ‘Josh, that’s for your career. That’s fine.’
“If there’s anybody who’d be allowed to miss a meeting or be late for something, it’s him. He’s deserved it, he’s earned that right.”
Nevertheless, Cabral couldn’t justify missing a lunch-time pre-practice session with Ingram, so he asked his coach to reschedule for 6:30 in the morning. Ingram arrived at 6:25, found the door to his meeting room closed and detoured for a cup of coffee.
Upon returning, the door was still shut. Huh, Ingram thought, it isn’t like Josh to be late.
“Ashley opened the door and Cabral was sitting there, waiting for him in his full uniform,” Niumatalolo continued. “That’s him. You can count on him to be there.
“There are so many variables in sports and in life, but one constant I know for our football team and our program, you can count on Josh Cabral to do things right. To me, he is the epitome of integrity and doing what’s right at all time and all places. That’s Josh.”
Compliments of Todd Green, following are highlights of Navy’s 24-17 victory over Florida Atlantic on Nov. 3. The Mids’ fifth straight win, it guarantees them a berth in the postseason for the ninth time in 10 years. They’re scheduled to meet a Pac-12 opponent on Dec. 29 in San Francisco’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.