Following is a link to my recent story about 2000 Olympic gold medalist Laura Wilkinson’s adoption of a special needs child from China, written for TeamUSA.org. I hope you enjoy reading it nearly as much as I enjoyed writing it. Laura and her husband, Eriek, as you can see, are blessed with a beautiful family: http://www.teamusa.org/News/2013/February/04/Laura-Wilkinsons-Twist-Of-Fate.aspx.
On February 16, I’ll rejoin Chris Spatola, a two-time All-Patriot League guard at West Point (’02), to broadcast the Army-Navy men’s basketball Star Game in Annapolis for the CBS Sports Network. Last month Chris and I enjoyed the opportunity to call the season’s first encounter of Midshipmen and Black Knights with basketball Hall of Famer Reggie Miller. Following are highlights (courtesy of navysports.com and CBS Sports Network).
Following is a link to my feature on Paralympian David Prince for Team USA. org: http://www.teamusa.org/News/2013/January/17/David-Prince-And-His-Paralympic-Addiction.aspx
Mindful of his own senior, as well as someone else’s, Ken Niumatalolo exhibited the essence of Army-Navy.
The following was first posted to http://www.navysports.com on 12/11/12.
By Bob Socci
A half minute earlier, Army head coach Rich Ellerson took the one timeout he’d left his team for the waning seconds of the 113th football encounter of West Point Cadets and Navy Midshipmen.
If only to delay the inevitable. And for half of the 69,607 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, prolong the misery. During the stoppage, the stadium’s massive video boards featured a close-up of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, which for the 16th straight year would belong to someone else.
When the break ended, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was about to be named most valuable player, took the game’s penultimate snap. There was need for merely one more kneel-down to seal the Mids’ 11th consecutive win in the series.
In that moment, as the final seconds elapsed, Ellerson’s counterpart, Ken Niumatalolo, was compelled to do two things. The first involved one of his veteran leaders. The second, one of Army’s.
As a sophomore, John Howell caught the longest pass in Army-Navy history, running the last of his 77 yards toward the same south end of The Linc where the Mids now aligned in victory formation. Howell had shredded the ligaments stabilizing his right knee in late September, suffering an injury sure to be career-ending. For weeks, he rehabbed from surgery mindful of a single goal: to recover enough to run out of the locker room with his Academy brothers one last time, in time for Army-Navy.
Howell made it. He was at the head of the line forming in the stadium tunnel, carrying a Marine Corps flag. Emerging into the open air of South Philly, Howell jogged — as his teammates charged — along the Mids’ sideline.
That remained his vantage point for the football theatre ongoing into early evening. Howell had watched Navy rally for a late 17-13 lead, before seeing Army threaten to eclipse that advantage.
But 14 yards from possibly stopping their skid against the Mids and recapturing the CIC title for the first time since 1996, the Black Knights fumbled their chance away. In the sudden change of circumstances, Niumatalolo saw an opportunity to give Howell more than he could ever wish for.
Reynolds knelt twice, before and after Ellerson’s last timeout. Then, for the final act of Army-Navy: Episode 113, Niumatalolo sent Howell onto center stage to stand over Reynolds’ right shoulder.
In the third line of fine print in the game summary, as part of the Mids’ participation report, “33-Howell, John” will always mark the time Niumatalolo helped a senior re-define the end of his playing career.
To the surprise of no one who knows him, it was a classy gesture by Niumatalolo. So was his next. Once Reynolds’ knee dropped to the ground, Niumatalolo sought out Ellerson and went searching for Trent Steelman.
Steelman was Army’s four-year quarterback and career touchdown leader. And in the eyes of the rival coach, an all-time competitor. When Niumatalolo finally got to Steelman, he said as much.
“To be honest, I don’t really remember much, I was pretty torn up,” an understandably emotional Steelman told reporters. “I think he said that I was one of the toughest players he’s ever seen and just a great player, and I respect him for that. He’s a great coach.”
“We should all be proud as Americans that that guy is going to go protect our country,” Niumatalolo explained in his own press conference. “They don’t get any tougher than Trent Steelman. Four years starting at West Point, a military service academy. I know everyone in our locker room has nothing but respect for that young man.”
This was Niumatalolo’s 15th Army-Navy game. His first two ended as Steelman’s last two, in absolute anguish over an excruciatingly close outcome.
In 1995, he was an assistant to Charlie Weatherbie, who eschewed a late chip-shot field-goal try that could have separated the rivals by two scores. The Black Knights mounted a goal-line stand and marched 99 yards to a 14-13 triumph.
The following season, again with Niumatalolo assisting Weatherbie, the Mids relinquished an 18-point lead and failed to score on two late, deep drives. They fell by a 28-24 final.
Fifteen years later, Niumatalolo’s fourth Army-Navy experience as head coach ended with a six-point victory, thanks to a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in Landover. After his fifth, last Saturday, he expressed the kind of bittersweet emotions evoked only when Cadets compete with Midshipmen.
Brother of an Army colonel, Niumatalolo understands that while other rivalries are fueled by differences, this one is defined by commonality. He preaches humility and respect, for the competition and the game itself. As do his players.
“It’s amazing because we have the utmost respect for those guys,” senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel said, as a member of the eighth straight class of Mids to record a career sweep of their mirror images. “I tell them when I pick them up, ‘I love you brother,’ and I don’t even know them.
“You can see it in their eyes that they go through the same things that we do. They are from the same backgrounds, the same families and they fight and claw the same way that we do. To beat those guys is a privilege and an honor. Nobody out there is going to give anybody an inch.”
Per usual, Wetzel, an Academic All-American, is correct. Army earned every one of the more than 14,400 inches amounting to its 400-plus yards of total offense, including 203 more rushing yards than Navy. And the Mids earned what they got against a high-pressure defense, despite being frustrating into six punts and a fumble that led to the Black Knights’ lone lead.
Navy also earned the win. It made more plays and fewer mistakes. In the end, performance equaled precedent.
The precocious Reynolds rallied his offense, exactly as he’d done at Air Force in early October. He prolonged the go-ahead drive with a throw to Geoffrey Whiteside — freshman to sophomore — converting a 3rd-and-8. Two plays later, he deked a pair of pass-rushers to escape up the right sideline for 11 yards. He then dropped a perfect pass onto the sure hands of Brandon Turner.
The 49-yard strike set up one more Reynolds run, from eight yards out, with 4:41 to go. He slipped a hit and beat an Army cornerback to the pylon, angling right toward the Brigade of Midshipmen in the stadium’s northeast corner.
On the ensuing drive, the Mids lived up to their defensive credo, to make `em snap it again. Freshman cornerback Kwazel Bertrand made the first of two touchdown saving tackles. Senior Tra’ves Bush delivered the other.
Bertrand slipped in pass coverage, yet lunged from all fours to trip receiver Chevaughn Lawrence at the Navy 40. Further downfield, at the Mids` 19-yard line, Bush reached out for a one-handed takedown of Raymond Maples. For the umpteenth time in his Navy career, he was the right man in the right spot.
After Bush’s stop, the Black Knights had to snap it again, and again. The gritty Steelman picked up a first down at the 14-yard line. But on the next play, the 11th of the series and Army’s 72nd of the contest, the Cadets dropped the ball.
Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon mishandled the mesh. The football squirted loose. And Barry Dabney, in his only rep of the day, got his hands around it, to help the Mids hold on. Army was undone again by a fumble.
It was the Black Knights’ fifth of the game and third recovered by Navy. It was their eighth lost this season inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.
Not long after, with little time to stop the tears that flowed from such a heart-wrenching end to his career, Steelman asked the press to pin the turnover on him. Dixon did the same. Filling the unenviable duty of answering for the indescribable, each `manned up’ to spare the other of fault.
Then, you expect nothing less of a Cadet or Midshipman.
And what of Ellerson? In his post-game presser, he was succinct.
“It was a mesh fumble,” he said. “It was a quarterback-fullback mesh; it’s fundamental.”
To a subsequent query about the Reynolds throw and Turner catch, Ellerson replied with his unhappy recap of what, in his view, decided the outcome.
“That wasn’t the difference,” Ellerson asserted. “The difference is the kicking game and turnovers. Those are the things that correlate with success; those are the things that are fundamental to the game. The scoreboard will reflect those things. It will reflect the kicking game; it’ll reflect turnovers.”
And it will reflect the fact that Navy ensured itself at least eight wins for the ninth time in 10 years and claimed its eighth CIC title in that same span. Already, the Mids had earned a ninth bowl bid in those 10 seasons.
It will also reflect a 2-10 finish to the Cadets’ 12th season of four or fewer victories in the last 15 years. They are now 17-32 overall under Ellerson; 5-19 since posting their only winning record of the past 16 seasons (7-6 in 2010).
Yet in the weeks before, and minutes after the scoreboard went final, there was scant acknowledgement by Ellerson of what Navy’s accomplished, remarkably, for so long. Already, as evidenced by pre-game comments Niumatalolo made to a radio audience, the Mids sensed a disrespect uncharacteristic of Army-Navy.
Shortly after Ellerson returned to his locker-room office, he gave them their first bulletin board pin-up for 2013. Speaking to reporter Sal Interdonato of the Middletown, N.Y. Times-Herald Record, here is some of what Ellerson had to say:
- “Give (Reynolds) some credit. He made some good plays and he’s hard to tackle. But, he’s not that hard to tackle…We were there. We have people in position to make plays in that game. If we do those things that are fundamental, we beat them by three touchdowns. We’re better than that bunch. We lose the turnover by two.
- “We are playing a good football team. We have them right by the throat. We could have put them away in the first half. We didn’t have to wait until the end…They are better than Air Force, but they are a touchdown better than Air Force. We are better than they are. It’s (expletive). It’s (expletive).”
You can be the judge of whether Ellerson’s implications are an indictment of others, but not himself.
On CBS, analyst Gary Danielson found Army’s play-calling “questionable” on two crucial drives, when it appeared Ellerson was willing to put the onus solely on a placekicker in only his second start.
Ellerson’s been steeped in Army-Navy his whole life. His father and two older brothers were West Point grads; one of them the captain of the ’62 Cadets. He’s also experienced it from the other side, as a Naval Academy plebe.
He’s obviously a bright coach, good enough to go 56-34 in his prior stint at Cal Poly and smart enough to understand the fallacy inherent when comparing results. He should also beware of the hypocrisy of such analysis.
The Mids who faced Air Force on the road were 1-3, had yet to launch the Reynolds era and had to defend 200-yard-a-game Cody Getz on two healthy ankles. As for Army’s win over the Falcons, the Black Knights have every right to relish every bit of their 20-point triumph — even if, to borrow an Ellerson phrase, Air Force lost the turnover by five.
Thirty years ago, Ellerson was an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of Hawaii, when he helped recruit a quarterback by the name of Ken Niumatalolo from Honolulu’s Radford High. Ellerson had wound up playing for the Warriors, after transferring from the Academy.
Asked why he left Annapolis by New York Times writer Joe Drape for his book, Soldiers First, Ellerson replied: “I was nineteen — I had no excuse, sir.”
Assuming he returns for the 114th Army-Navy game, Ellerson will do well to remember that phrase. He’d do better to emulate the kid he once coached, and the young men he now coaches.
One points to himself in defeat, while thinking first of the players in victory. The others, as one of their own might say, fight and claw, never giving an inch.
And should they come up short, offer no excuse, sir.
Writer’s Note: Last Saturday marked my 16th Army-Navy football broadcast for the Navy Radio Network. While I call play-by-play for the Midshipmen, I also remain a great fan and admirer of the Cadets.
Following is a link to my recent story on the comeback of Team USA skeleton racer and Olympian Noelle Pikus-Pace: http://www.teamusa.org/News/2012/December/05/Noelle-Pikus-Pace-All-In-The-Family.aspx.
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.”