Baseball in This American Life

By Bob Socci

Like so many Saturdays in May, far too many to possibly recount, this one included plenty of conversation about the game I’ve loved as long as memory can recall.

Only, unlike all those others, I wasn’t doing the talking.

Most of adulthood – accepting that I’ve actually grown up – spring and summer weekends typically were spent at ballparks around the country. One minor league baseball season to the next, that was life dedicated to the dream of becoming a major league announcer.

From 2003-09, it annually included the 140-plus games of a Triple-A schedule, sandwiched between the college basketball and football campaigns. Every spring, I stuffed my car with clothes and books, and headed out.

Those first three years, I drove three days from Annapolis to Albuquerque to call the start-up Isotopes. The next three, my commute was shortened to three-plus hours, as voice of the Norfolk (Va.) Tides. Around Labor Day, I retraced my tracks just in time for opening kickoff.

Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va. is home of the Baltimore Orioles Triple-A affiliate.

But by April of ’09, I was re-routed, after my wife and I moved to New England. Boston, for us, was the best place to raise a family. Unfortunately, home games – all four of them – occurred only when the Tides visited Pawtucket.

Then, last summer our first child, a boy, was born and my baseball schedule was cut in half. Although games were still almost always away, calling sports year-round, it was great to again experience true home stands. This spring, as our son closes in on his 11th month, my role with the Tides is essentially that of a pinch-hitter.

So, on Saturday, May 7, after returning from Indianapolis and Louisville, I wasn’t needed on air. My weekend free, what did I do? Naturally – though certainly not without the blessing of my wonderful wife – I left the house for a few hours of talking baseball. In this instance, for a change, I was the listener.

The Great Fenway Park Writers Series, a public service of the Red Sox, was holding its next event, an appearance by Texas attorney and published baseball historian Talmage Boston at a coffee-and-croissant reception inside the Hotel Commonwealth.

Ironically, if not for a football writer, I never would have known about it. Months earlier, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King noted the Writers Series in his Monday Morning QB column for SI.com. King’s comment was published between the items reaffirming his “Coffeenerdness” and “Beernerdness.”

Interest piqued, a quick search led me to www.fenwayparkwriters.org, where I learned of Boston’s upcoming visit to The Hub. Since the Series’ calendar coincided with an opening on mine, I reserved my seat.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect upon arrival in Kenmore Square. Part of me hoped Peter would be there too, so I could introduce myself, invite him to the Army-Navy Game – one coffee snob to another, thanking him for his lead about the Writers Series – and recommend Osiris Pale Ale the next time he’s in Indy to cover the Colts.

Alas, if King was there, I didn’t see him. Not that I recognized anyone in the audience, aside from the author. And not that it made an ounce of difference. The only thing that really mattered was easily apparent in everyone around me: why we were all there.

We all shared a passion for baseball. Why else would we devote a beautiful Saturday morning, much less pay to hear a lawyer state his case?

I signed in, received a copy of Boston’s latest book, Baseball and The Baby Boomer, poured a cup of coffee (Peter would have liked it, I think) and took an open seat. The first person I met was Jeff, a very friendly hotel employee enjoying a door man’s holiday. He was a veteran of the Writers Series and assured me that I was in the right place, among the right people – baseball fans all.

Before long, another amiable gentleman, Bob, joined us. Old enough to have seen his first major league game in person at the Polo Grounds, he was sporting a San Francisco Giants cap. It was his homage to Willie Mays, who the day before celebrated his 80th birthday. Say Hey!

Others filled the room, and soon enough the Writers Series chairman George Mitrovich addressed the gathering. Mitrovich presides over similar forums in Denver and San Diego. His bio on the group’s website states that he has a “profound belief in the dialogue of democracy – a dialogue that most assuredly includes the realm of sports.”

Especially the game that Mitrovich reasserts remains our National Pastime. As longtime Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, “Conversation is the lifeblood of baseball.”

Now, my friends in places like Baltimore or New York might find a bunch of mainly Red Sox fans waxing poetic about baseball, around the corner from Fenway Park, to be absolutely unlistenable. My own travels taught me long ago that devoted fans populate great baseball towns – and in some cases, regions – far from Red Sox Nation.

In college, I interned with the Reds when Pete Rose was a ‘future hall of famer’ and Cincinnati was capital of Reds Land. Years later, off-days for my Peoria Chiefs allowed for sunning in the bleachers at Wrigleyville or joining the Cardinal red sea of fans in St. Louis. I also strolled along Eutaw Street, beside the Warehouse at Camden Yards, when the Orioles were perched atop the AL East.

What’s more, extended time in Triple-A can test your romantic devotion to the game. You’re always bound to encounter somebody displeased about something: mainly that he’s not in the big leagues.

But as Mitrovich concluded his introduction of Boston, prefacing a speech about “Baseball and American Life,” as far as I was concerned, we were in the center of the thinking fan’s universe. Boston opened by quoting the French-born scholar Jacques Barzun, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Talmage Boston's latest book, published in 2009 by bright sky press.

For the better part of the next hour or so, Boston filled the room full of mostly middle-aged men and women with anecdotes to back up his premise that, “Baseball is a hard game played by hard men, who throw hard and hit hard.” Naturally, as with the best yarns about baseball, they spun off a few laughs.

Boston also demonstrated how this hard game can touch a soft spot. He told the story of former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Suffering great personal loss in 1960, Thornburgh credited the miraculous World Series triumph of his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates for lifting him out of the doldrums. For Thornburgh, baseball was a healing agent.

Hearing Boston, I couldn’t help but think about September 2001, and how baseball helped to ease one’s psyche. I’ll never forget the exact moment I began to sense the so-called return to normalcy after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

For a week, I had tensely watched and listened to news reports almost non-stop. But when I turned on the car radio on the evening of Sept. 17, pulling out of a grocery store parking lot in Annapolis, I heard Gary Cohen and Ed Coleman calling the New York Mets vs. the Pirates. Baseball was back. Finally, I could exhale. As the brilliant documentary, Nine Innings From Ground Zero, later illustrated, I wasn’t alone.

Boston also shared some of his fondest memories of his all-time favorites, like Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Nolan Ryan. With mention of each name, I thought of my own boyhood idols. What was personal for him evoked what was personal for me.

And that, as much as anything, is why I believe the hard game has such a firm hold on this American life. Each of us has experienced, or at least longed for, moments like Kevin Costner having a catch with his dad in Field of Dreams. Memories of the game take us back to the sandlots and diamonds of our youth, if not an Iowa cornfield.

Sometimes, when you find yourself inside the game, you need step back and take stock of those memories. I did. Someday, I look forward to sharing them with my son.

When Boston’s speech ended and the Writers Series adjourned, I walked out onto Commonwealth Avenue, which was teeming with fans on their way to Fenway. In two hours, the Sox would host the Twins.

They streamed one way and I went the opposite. I couldn’t help but feel we were all going in the same direction – to the ballpark.

Bob continues to call Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

‘A Total Team Effort’

Ex-linebacker and former Navy SEAL Clint Bruce reacts to death of Osama bin Laden

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on May 4, 2011.

This was one of those rare where-were-you-when moments in life, marked as much by the vivid imagery of our space in its time as by its time and date.

Most likely, for most of us, there hadn’t been anything like it since the darkest hours of a sunny Tuesday in New York City nearly a decade ago. The memory of that morning, when nearly 3,000 innocent victims were murdered in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field, remains both surreal and unshakable.

So will, undoubtedly and indelibly, the recollection of our exact whereabouts late on Sunday night or the first thing Monday. Whenever it was that we first learned that Osama bin Laden, the man behind those attacks on 9/11, had been killed by U.S. Special Forces at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Clint Bruce happened to be fulfilling a dad’s duty, proudly watching his daughter dance.

“I was at my daughter’s ballet recital,” Bruce, once and always a Navy SEAL, said by phone late Monday afternoon. “There are two places I would want to be, either there with the guys or watching my daughter’s ballet recital. I managed to be at one of the two places.”

Those “guys” Bruce refers to are the commandos who helped the world’s most wanted terrorist, codename Geronimo, meet the fate Americans have long sought for him, as an enemy killed in action.

“We’ve all circled around each other the last 24 hours,” Bruce says of the comrades he once served alongside. “Some of us regret that we weren’t there. You almost feel like you missed the bus for the state championship game, that we weren’t there for the guys.”

Bruce may feel that way. But one can’t help but imagine that he was there, at least in spirit, unequivocally inseparable from all the other remarkably dedicated and skilled professionals who ever trained to become our most elite warriors.

Those SEALs who carried out the Abbottabad helicopter assault in anonymity embody an ethos attesting that the “trident is a symbol of honor and heritage.” Such heritage is made up by men like Bruce.

Fifteen years ago, he was defensive captain of a Navy football team that halted a string of 13 consecutive losing seasons and beat Cal in the Aloha Bowl. His position coach, Tommy Raye, once likened the passion with which Bruce played linebacker with that of Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.

Bruce was a bundle of emotion and fury, uncontained by his No. 51 jersey. His toughness transcended the field. And upon graduating from the Naval Academy in 1997, he service selected the SEALs.

Where or when he deployed isn’t for us to know. What’s important is an understanding that Bruce did his part, just like anyone else who ever engaged in the War on Terror. Ultimately, in their own way, they all helped bring bin Laden down.

“Pre-op was nine years in the making,” says Bruce, his point substantiated by every report of how years of military and intelligence efforts, during two presidential administrations, led to a 40-minute raid. “There are thousands of things that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq that pointed in this direction…it’s a total moral victory for the military intelligence community.

“There’s a pride from your own personal history that our guys were the unit to get it done. But I’m extremely proud of the entire U.S. military and intelligence apparatus. Rest assured, everyone played a role. It was a total team effort.”

Offering context, Bruce reminds us that the SEALs formed “the pointed end of a spear.” The so-called “violence of action” with which they operated so precisely isn’t exclusive domain. It belongs not to one group alone, nor to a single branch of armed forces.

Even so, as layers of their amazing operation are unpeeled, we gain a greater appreciation for the unblinking eyes SEALs fix on finishing what’s started. And, in that regard, for their amazing adaptability when best laid plans go awry, such as when a helicopter malfunctions.

“SEAL teams put a remarkable value on intellect,” Bruce says. “Like surgeons, when something goes wrong, you start applying your knowledge. They have a tremendous capacity for innovation.”

Some once demonstrated that faculty in Annapolis; often, while competing for Academy athletic programs and clubs.

“A lot (of ex-Midshipmen) are doing an incredible job,” Bruce guarantees, speaking in an authoritative voice to a longtime observer of Navy athletics. “Not just a few of them…and not just from the major (sports). There are guys that you know well, who were athletes at the Naval Academy, who’ve done hundreds of times more than me. I didn’t do as much as most.

“There’s absolute pride and no surprise. They’re the same men who sweated and bled next to me as plebes.”

Several of Bruce’s teammates and classmates, continue to serve. Their identities are hidden, their locations undisclosed.

They follow the lead of Bert Calland (Class of ’74), who decades after his record-setting career as a wide receiver reportedly became the first American flag officer in Afghanistan post-9/11. As Vice Admiral, Calland commanded the SEALs, before his appointment as Deputy Director of the C.I.A.

And they humbly bear the legacy of former lacrosse player Brendan Looney (’04), who perished last September in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan. You wouldn’t be alone if thoughts at word of bin Laden’s death included Looney and all others who sacrificed their lives for the America they loved.

“I always think about guys we lost,” said Bruce. “Losses and mistakes are immortalized. You think about them all the time; whenever Navy plays a lacrosse game, whenever I’m drinking a beer with (my buddies), or whenever I’m with my kids, wishing they could meet those (heroes).”

With that somber note, Bruce also sounds a cautionary word.

“It’s the end of Chapter One, cutting the head off the snake,” he says of bin Laden’s demise. “(Sunday) was a reckoning, an accounting, but wasn’t the end. There’s all the morale and satisfaction that comes with that accounting.

“(But) strategically, you’re at your most vulnerable after a win, in proportion to how high you hold your head after victory. We need to be concerned.”

Bruce still stands vigilant. No longer active military, he manages intelligence and security for “admirals and generals of private industry” with the Trident Response Group.

He also remains extremely close to the coaches who once mentored him – “I was raised by those guys, (after) I lost my father” – and to the young men they now mold.

Bruce frequently reaches out to current Navy players, sometimes to counsel them on career choices. And when asked what it takes to be a SEAL, the self-professed “gas-pedal guy” never applies the break on the truth.

“The myth of who we are, and where we are, has been expanded,” Bruce said, well aware of the near mystique surrounding `his guys’ in the aftermath of Abbottabad. “But you either have it or you don’t. A commercial won’t get you through Hell Week.”

But to those who have it, to those who made it, this week more than ever, Americans are indebted.

“It’s amazing what can happen when you give bold men permission to be bold,” Bruce says. “Dare well, and you deliver well.”

‘The Stark Reality of What This Place is About’

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on Friday, September 24, 2010.

Last Friday morning, sipping a cup of Starbucks and sitting on a bench near the Delta counter at BWI Airport, I couldn’t help but observe a very private moment in a very public place.

A few steps to my left, a young woman, dressed in her camouflaged fatigues, was leaving loved ones, off to the next stop on her tour of duty.  As you can imagine, theirs was a tearful embrace as they said goodbye.

I was caught in this awkward time and space, waiting to board the chartered plane that would transport the Navy football team to Louisiana.  Gourmet coffee in hand, living a good life of fun and games, I thought about how little the country has asked of me these last nine years, and how much America has demanded from someone else’s son or daughter.

Every day service men and women are separated from their families, who, I only imagine, can never distance themselves from constant worry. Certain inalienable rights require our citizen soldiers to pay a steep price.  Sometimes, far too often, it’s a cost that can never be repaid.

Around Annapolis, of course, sacrifices in service are never forgotten.

A stroll along Stribling Walk, or a visit to Memorial Hall offer powerfully moving reminders of the heroism behind our history.  The same is true where patriots play, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, a 34,000-seat tribute to the fallen.

Four more times this autumn, as on the anniversary of 9/11 a couple of weeks ago, thousands will gather there for a football game.  Before them – in bold type on the stadium facades, and in the lettering raised from the plaques of the North Memorial Plaza – will be a roll call of battles fought by the Navy and Marine Corps.

As much as the vast majority will seek to celebrate a victory on the field, they will celebrate the young men and women willing to sacrifice off it. March-on to sun down, until the final words of Blue and Gold, they will honor the call all midshipmen have chosen to answer.

In many ways, it’s no different elsewhere, even when the football Mids wear white.  Navy’s road schedule often amounts to a tour of gratitude, as fans in places like Columbus or South Bend pay their respect – at least, prior to kickoff and after the final whistle – and say “thanks” to today’s student-athletes who are tomorrow’s military leaders.

Last week at Louisiana Tech, for example, the street leading to Joe Aillet Stadium was lined with American flags.  So was each side of the stadium grandstand – east and west, one end to the other, the Stars N Stripes fluttering in the warm breeze.  A chief petty officer sang our national anthem, before a B-52 bomber flew over the field.

It was, I suspect, a bit different from some other Saturday when the Bulldogs might be hosting Nevada or Boise State.

There was similar treatment for those from Air Force by the 85,000 jamming Owen Field last weekend at the University of Oklahoma.  The Falcons emerged from their locker room to a standing ovation.  Hardly what the Oklahoma State Cowboys can expect the next time they pass through Norman.

The applause was born from an understanding – made all too clear in this decade of two wars – that college life is different for Navy midshipmen and Air Force cadets.  And our lives are different, too, because of people like them – be they officers or enlisted.

Next weekend, those two service academy teams will occupy the same turf, about 6,000 feet above sea level, for one of the three games that annually stand apart from every other in Division I.  In Colorado Springs, they will complete the first leg of the Commander-In-Chief’s series, which includes their counterparts from West Point.

As always, they will try to beat each other as fiercely as, if not more than any other rivals in college football.  Three hours or so after they start – however bitterly they go at one another – the Mids and Falcons will stand for their alma maters.

And anyone paying attention will realize what lies ahead for the respective seniors.  After clashing in pads for four years, they will soon graduate into a common cause, with all that it entails.

This year, they will compete just days after the jolting reminder that the level of their commitment can know no limits.

Brendan Looney was once a Navy football recruit out of DeMatha Catholic High School in the DC area.  The oldest of three Annapolis bound brothers from Silver Spring, Md., he picked up lacrosse as his sport of choice while at the Naval Academy Prep School.

He wound up playing it alongside those brothers, Steve and Billy, a sophomore and freshman, respectively, on the 2004 Midshipmen who came within a single goal of a national championship, falling to heavily-favored Syracuse, 14-13.  Upon graduation, Looney was first denied entry into the elite of the Navy’s elite, the SEALS, because he was color blind.

Looney seized a temporary assignment to assist a SEAL unit and, as Navy lacrosse coach Richie Meade told Bill Wagner of The Capital, wouldn’t let go of the opportunity.

“It was like a tryout and Brendan kicked their butts until he was asked to join,” Meade said.

On Tuesday, the worst fear for Meade – or any other academy coach – became reality.

A helicopter carrying servicemen above southern Afghanistan crashed.  Nine were killed, all of them Americans. Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, was among the fatalities.

While Looney’s death most directly and profoundly impacts his large and loving family, including all of his Navy lacrosse brothers, it is the Academy’s loss.  It’s America’s loss.

Because we associated with the Academy learn to view athletics through a broader scope, we already understand the relative importance of a single sporting event.  Or, if you prefer, the unimportance of same, compared to the overall mission of its graduates.

When tragedy strikes as it did this week, it’s natural to look at a game – even Navy at Air Force – and wonder how much it really matters.  It is, after all, a game.

“It just puts a lot of things into perspective,” head football coach Ken Niumatalolo said eight days before his Mids confront the Falcons.  “There are things that are way more important. It helps you remember who these young men are.  It’s the stark reality of what this place is all about.”

Niumatalolo never knew Brendan Looney, who was originally recruited by Charlie Weatherbie’s coaching staff.  But he’s known, and coached, hundreds of others just like him – kids who mature into men, dedicated to ideals that extend well beyond their own self interests.

This week, he and his players knelt in the privacy of their own domain for a moment of silence.

“He was an American,” Niumatalolo said.  “He was a Naval Academy graduate.  He was in that locker room.  We honored him in a quiet and respectful way, without fanfare.”

As for us fans, a fallen hero is a tragic – and unnecessary – reminder of why a game like Navy-Air Force remains just a game, but also that the people who play it are different than most.

The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy is football’s most precious hardware. Not because of the victories that it represents, but rather the valor of those who vie for it in the first place.

“These games are different,” said Niumatalolo, his soft-spoken tone more somber than usual.  “When two academies go against one another, it definitely garners respect for these young men.”

Next Saturday, those young men will play a game, before placing their hands on hearts, to sing their alma maters.  They will be in very public view, leaving us with our own private thoughts.

May they include a son who died a hero this week, and everyone else willing to do the same.

What A Difference A Decade Makes

Posted on 1/8/10 at http://www.navysports.com

By Bob Socci

You know how the decade ended for the Navy Midshipmen.  Do you remember how it began?
 
If so, perhaps you’d rather forget.  
 
It’s totally understandable, especially considering how the latest of Navy’s last seven seasons – the best yet, I believe – came to end little more than a week ago in Houston.
 
I mean, who in the afterglow of a nationally-televised rout of Missouri, completing only the third 10-win campaign in 129 years, wants to look back on an uncomfortably hot, rainy night when the Mids could muster six measly points against Temple?
 
Leave it to me.  
 
This first week of 2010, I’ve thought a great deal about that game.  And others like it, at the turn of this century.
 
Memories of that first game in 2000, held in Annapolis on Sept. 2, are somewhat hazy.  Exactly as it appeared, looking through the old scratched-up and fogged-up windows of a pre-renovation Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium radio booth.
 
Constantly trying to keep the beads of sweat out of my eyes on an oppressively humid evening, I watched the Owls’ Tanardo Sharps – a local product – outgain the Mids by himself.  Sharps rushed for 180 yards, including 64 on a fourth-quarter scoring dash.  
 
Navy totaled 148 yards, incurring six sacks and failing to rush for 100 yards for the first time in six years.  A 17-6 final, it was the first of 10 straight losses and one of the Mids’ 30 in their first 33 games of the decade.
 
Remembering when – even when remembering isn’t much fun – is important.  Among other things, it reminds us just how good we got it.  
 
What was once the little team that could is now so much bigger than that.  Oh sure, Navy remains undersized by Division I standards.  And granted, one look at yours truly suggests that no one roots harder for the little guy.
 
But it’s time to see the present-day Mids for what they truly are: a very good football team capable of competing with anyone from the Big Ten to Big 12, Columbus to Columbia.  Small by comparison, they’ve cast some very large shadows, and inspired expectations that once would have been outsized among supporters.
 
For instance, however you feel about this year’s final polls, with Navy barely missing the coaches’ Top 25, do you think the Mids might be, could be, will be nationally ranked next season?  There’s little reason today to believe they can’t be.  
 
And is there any Navy fan not yet convinced that a healthy Ricky Dobbs, coming off his 1,000-yard double as a rusher and passer, and NCAA record 27 touchdowns as a quarterback in 2009, will merit mention in the Heisman conversation when next fall begins?  
 
Not if the way he ended 2009 is taken into account.  Dobbs’ closed with five straight 100-yard rushing performances, including 11 touchdowns. Despite the not-so-mild inconvenience of getting hit on virtually every play while running on a fractured right knee cap.
 
Too soon to begin stumping for the 2040 presidential primaries – though the Commander-In-Chief aspirant might want to start fundraising – it’s not too early to launch a “Dobbs for Heisman” campaign.
 
This is 2010.  As far as Navy football is concerned, what previously would have been far-fetched is now simply far-reaching.  And with apologies to Robert Browning, 61 wins the last seven years (16 over BCS members) are indisputable proof that the Mids’ grasp often exceeds their reach.
 
That’s how remarkably the Navy football culture changed in less than a decade.  What had been mission impossible has become matter of fact.  
 
New if not improved, the millennium opened with one win in two seasons under a pair of outgoing coaches, Charlie Weatherbie and his interim replacement Rick Lantz.  Lowest of lows was a 63-point margin of defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech early in 2001.
 
Six years later, when that same Georgia Institute of Technology needed a new head coach, it reached out to Navy’s Paul Johnson.  By then, he’d engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history and prepared the Mids for a seamless transition under Ken Niumatalolo.
 
On Niumatalolo’s watch, the decade wound down with 18 wins the last two seasons, each of which included an upset of a Top 20 opponent.  Before 2008, the last time Navy beat a team ranked by the Associated Press was 1985.
 
With such success, interest and attention have coincided with changing technology and an evolving media landscape.  Early in the decade, the Mids were occasionally on TV.  Now, it’s extremely rare if they’re not on.
 
Where once Navy football coverage was seasonal, today it never stops; thanks to local newspaper beat writers, as well as internet sites such as GoMidshipmen.com and thebirddog.wordpress.com.  
 
Today alone, I’ve read a breakdown of the Mids’ 2010 schedule, a blog taking certain voters to task for omitting Navy from their final Top 25 and a profile of a running back being recruited to the Academy.
 
True, watching snow fall in New England, I probably should instead be reading Thoreau, if not the book my wife just gave me about parenting.  Yet, here I am, relishing Navy football’s present, contemplating its future and, as mentioned before, revisiting its past.
 
Some memories are of good times, others of bad.  A handful are of turning points, a few of tragic turns.
 
As an American, one can’t begin to think about the past decade without first remembering September 2001, and contemplating the wars that followed.  As an associate of Navy football, such reflection demands remembrance of fallen heroes like J.P. Blecksmith and Ron Winchester.  
 
With sadness, I can’t help but think of others – older members of the Navy family, yet taken from us too soon during the last decade.  Men like Tom Bates, Joe Duff, Steve Belichick and Frank Oslislo.  If you knew any one of them, you know what I mean.
 
Of course, Navy football is buoyed on a steady flow of pride and patriotism; evident always on game day, and embodied forever by those who play the games.  Among my favorite images of the last decade is the repeated scene of the Midshipmen charging onto the field, led by a player or two carrying the Stars and Stripes.
 
Unforgettable still is the sight of Andy Michalowicz waving the flag at the 2003 Houston Bowl.  And for that matter, the thought of Cameron Marshall doing the same in the same stadium, six years later, at the 2009 Texas Bowl.
 
During the last decade, as the program’s transformation mirrored the renovation of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, we were treated to so many wonderful on-field moments and performances.
 
Most you’ll easily recall.  
 
They include Craig Candeto’s six-pack of scores in the 58-12 rout of Army that ended Johnson’s inaugural season as head coach and ignited a still-active 15-game winning streak against academy rivals. There were Reggie Campbell’s five touchdowns opposite Colorado State at the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl and Shun White’s 348 yards rushing vs. Towson in 2008 opener.
 
No doubt, you too recall all those game-winning kicks; none more impressive, or important, than Joey Bullen’s 46-yarder, off a sprint from the sidelines, in the rain, to down Air Force in 2005.
 
Of the milestones that marked the decade, there were epic achievements; like the 26-play, 14 ½-minute march that secured victory in the 2004 Emerald Bowl; and the one last stand, in the third-and-final overtime at Notre Dame in 2007.
 
Every so often, a bolt of lightning produced a twist of fate.  In 2008, it struck twice at Air Force, where a pair of blocked punts resulted in Navy touchdowns.  A month later, it struck again.  This time in the form of a nothing-short-of-miraculous fumble return against Temple.
 
Perhaps there were other highlights that more personally affected you as well.
 
For me, the-not-so-obvious include the night of Aug. 31, 2002, and the celebration touched off long after pregame fireworks set fire to a hill in the south end zone of SMU’s Ford Stadium.  It was Johnson’s debut as head coach, and Navy defeated the Mustangs, 38-7.
 
The Mids’ first victory since Dec. 2, 2000, it led to a joyous trip back to BWI on a plane that was loud with laughter. Finally, after so many chartered returns in the silent darkness of defeat.
 
Even though Navy wouldn’t celebrate another triumph until that December, you could see and hear that Johnson’s hiring meant “Expect to Win” would become a mantra more than a slogan.
 
To this day, I’m convinced that no win the last seven seasons was more significant than the 28-25 decision over Air Force in October 2003.  The Mids entered at 2-2, winless against the Falcons since 1996.  Air Force was unbeaten and ranked in the coaches’ poll.  Things haven’t been the same in academy football since.
 
Fullback Kyle Eckel was the star that day, steamrolling defenders at FedEx Field in Landover.  But the unsung hero, wielding the symbol that became the stuff of legend, was linebacker Bobby McClarin.  
 
Athletic trainer Dr. Jeff Fair essentially wrapped a boxing glove in rolls of tape to allow McClarin to play despite a broken hand.  Fair’s invention became known as ‘The Club’ and, dare one write, it came in handy when McClarin batted down a potential touchdown pass during an early goal-line stand.
 
Following Navy’s win, The Drydock Restaurant at the Academy’s Dahlgren Hall, introduced The Club sandwich.  In time, it was dropped from the menu.  As for The Club itself, it lives on.  
 
It’s funny – and it’s what makes Navy football such a pleasure to cover – to think of how someone like McClarin made such an impact.  Here he was a 21st-century player, who kept a black-and-white photo of Chuck Bednarik, the last of the NFL’s 60-minute men, inside his locker.
 
Old school, and blue collar, McClarin was, like so many Midshipmen, a cliché come to life in his blue-and-gold uniform, right down to his number 51.
 
As much as anything, he made the most of his football talent, and the time he had in Annapolis.  Yes, there’ve been all-stars at the Academy in recent seasons; Dobbs being an example.  But success in recent years has been driven and sustained by everyone who found a way – his way – to maximize whatever he could contribute.  
 
Those who come to mind include players like former special teamers Matt Williams, Anthony Piccioni and T.J. Costello. Most of the time, they were backups.  But whenever they took the field – in the split-second of a long snap, or during the downfield rush of covering a kickoff – each in his own right was All-America.  
 
On this year’s Mids, the same could be said of Greg Zingler, regularly holding for PAT’s and field goals; Kevin Campbell, entering once as a lead blocker for a Dobbs’ TD; or Jack Hatcher, enduring all those scout team reps for a once-in-a-lifetime carry against Missouri.
 
Or any number of others.
 
That’s what, as coaches routinely remind us, separates football.  In every phase, there are 11 players.  A few might be standouts.  There may even be a playmaker capable of turning nothing into something special on any given snap.  But success over a game, a season, a decade, hinges on all 11. Everyone has a role that must be fulfilled.  
 
Such teamwork defined the better part of the last 10 years for the Midshipmen.  Expecting it to continue – and given no reason to think otherwise – it’s why we can envision, more than dream, even bigger and better things down the road.  
 
It’s why suggesting a preseason ranking or proposing a Heisman candidacy isn’t out of the question.  And it’s why we’re likely to continue experiencing nights like Sept. 2, 2000 only in our memories.