Embracing the West Point culture, Darnell Woolfolk leads Army's program-changing senior class
After arriving as an in-state prospect without any ties to the Army, Woolfolk has become a team leader
Every cadet at the United States Military Academy forges a special bond with their classmates during their time at West Point. But few in the long and storied history of Army West Point's football program have been able to pair that built-in camaraderie with an athletic experience quite like Darnell Woolfolk and the rest of the Black Knights' senior class.
This year's group has made a program-changing impact on Army football. Aafter going 2-10 in their freshman season, 8-5 as sophomores and 10-3 as juniors, the Black Knights now sit at 7-2 going into the final three games of the regular season. This group snapped a 14-game losing streak in the Army-Navy series in 2016 and won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1996 last year by sweeping both Air Force and Navy.
After outlasting Air Force in a 17-14 thriller at Michie Stadium last Saturday, Army has guaranteed at least a share of the trophy as it looks for a third-straight win against Navy next month. An Army win in that game would mark the first back-to-back outright wins for the Black Knights since the Commander=in-Chief's Trophy was first established in 1972.
Woolfolk carried the ball nine times and got the score on a 21 play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took 12:55 off the clock to start the game for Army. He also had one of the biggest plays of the game, turning a fourth-and-1 carry near midfield into a 52-yard gain that set up a touchdown that extended the first half lead to two touchdowns.
When Air Force started making its charge back into the game, there was no nervousness on the Army sideline. Woolfolk says this team never flinches, is always looking to overcome adversity and never, ever quits.
"The culture at West Point allows us to get closer with each other," Woolfolk said. "Doing the summer training together, doing our morning workouts together. I think all of that compiled really brings people together. I think all of the hard things that we've had to do, and all the things the underclassmen have to do, and then learning from the upperclassmen, I think it just brings us closer."
Football teams for decades have used military influence in its team-building to replicate that bond in college football at a high level. Coach Jeff Monken has used this built-in culture at West Point, those bonds that are forged and the trust between cadets, to help teach the edge it takes to win football games. Where the never quit, never flinch attitude that Woolfolk credits to the West Point community is best seen on the football field is how Army finishes games, and under Monken, the Black Knights are 25-2 when leading after three quarters.
While some cadets arrive with deep family ties, Army wasn't on Woolfolk's radar until he received a scholarship offer to come play football. Woolfolk was a star fullback and linebacker for three state championship teams at Maine Endwell High School in Endwell, New York, less than a three hour drive away from West Point.
"It started off I got an offer from Army. I knew of it, so my parents did a lot of digging and I did a lot of digging," Woolfolk explained. "Honestly, I wanted to pursue criminal justice, at least that's what I thought when I was in high school. Once I got the offer from Army, I thought I could play [Division I] football and I get to do basically bigger and better things than criminal justice [like] being able to serve the people of the United States."
As a senior, Woolfolk not only finds himself embracing the final year of football with his teammates but looking ahead to life after school. It's a process that not only determines your next big step in life but reflects the work that you have put in during your time at the academy.
"November 14 I find out what branch I'm going into," he said. "So I put in preferences for the branch that I want, and it's draft style based on your class rank. You kind of get to pick but not exactly. All of the grind that I've been doing in the classroom is going to reflect what I do when I get out of West Point."
For the record, he hopes to end up in combat arms.
Woolfolk's embrace of a West Point culture that was unfamiliar to him prior to that life-changing scholarship offer reflects well on how Monken, now in Year 5, has meshed his vision for the football program with the community. The seniors on this Army team have made historic gains for the program, but their discussion of that success is much more grounded in the grind than celebratory in nature. One day they all will be welcomed back as alums and celebrated for their contributions to getting Army back on the map in college football, but for now, Woolfolk remains focused on the day-to-day work with his brothers.
"It starts with the grind on the practice field," Woolfolk says when asked about these final weeks of his college career. "Just being able to see all my closest friends every day, in the locker room. Our goals haven't changed, all of our goals are still attainable and that's a positive thing. It keeps everyone focused, being able to see those goals. It might sound cheesy, and everyone in the country might say this, but we want to win the rest of our games, get to a bowl game and win that."
Everyone in the country might say that, but Woolfolk, and Army, are one of a dozen (or less) teams actually in a position to accomplish all of those goals.
Army hosts Lafayette on Saturday in Michie Stadium at noon ET on CBS Sports Network. And don't miss the Army-Navy Game on Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. ET on CBS.
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