Inside the emotional, exhilarating end of Army's 14-game losing streak to Navy
The Black Knights' win in the 117th Army-Navy Game will be remembered for a long time
BALTIMORE -- This is what the end of 15 years of frustration looks like.
The cadets flooded the field, sprinting to form a mosh pit as they waited to finally hear Navy's alma mater play first after Army ended its 14-game losing streak. Army coach Jeff Monken got hoisted in the air by his players. Later, he emotionally said this win was "for every solider in every foxhole in the world," a game West Point and its followers have waited for since two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"It's surreal," Army wide receiver Edgar Poe said. "I still can't believe it's real."
This is what the end of 15 years of dominance looks like.
Navy third-string quarterback Zach Abey, thrown into an impossible situation by making his first career start against Army, had tears in his eyes in the locker room. A year ago, Abey was in the stands watching this game. Now Navy superintendent Vice Admiral Ted Carter was comforting Abey minutes after Army's 21-17 victory.
Keep your head up, Carter told Abey. This is your team now. The players in the locker room will look to see how you handle this loss. Either you'll throw in the towel, or you'll stand and fight for your brothers.
Abey nodded. He stared ahead. Other Navy officials sought out Abey to offer a few words. Teammates hugged their new quarterback and told him to keep his head up.
"I take a lot of responsibility for the game," said Abey, who threw two crucial interceptions. "Obviously, in the first half, I made some bad decisions. I feel horrible for the seniors because I told them before the game that I would give it my all for them, especially for [injured quarterbacks] Will [Worth] and Tago [Smith], knowing how much they wanted this and I could have gotten it for them."
This is what trying to hold on to 15 years of dominance looks like.
With Army leading 14-0 at halftime, Navy players left the field hearing chants from cadets in the stands of, "Navy sucks! Navy sucks!" Army was in complete control. The mood in the Navy locker room was disbelief.
The dry erase board still showed Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo's meticulously-written pre-game messages. Before the game, Niumatalolo initially wrote "Protect the rock" as the key on offense, but he erased it with his finger and instead chose the phrase, "Perfect ball security."
Navy responded by starting with the game with a fumble and an interception. Then Abey threw one more pick right before halftime.
"I don't know what to draw up here," Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper told his offense at halftime, standing before the dry-erase board and dropping his marker to the ground. "I don't. Anything I can't draw? Nothing. Just freaking play. Make good decisions. It's that simple."
Jasper pulled Abey to the side and asked if he's good with the signals. "You don't need to make a huge play," Jasper told Abey.
Navy's depleted roster was evident in the locker room. Injured team leaders on crutches or scooters -- Daniel Gonzales, Will Worth and Toneo Gulley -- were the ones telling the Midshipmen this game wasn't over yet.
"They played their best ball in the first half, all right?" said Worth, Navy's latest injured quarterback. "Now it's our turn to finish this out. Everybody just relax, do your job, play by play, and we're going to make this 14-point lead be gone right quick. Let's go!"
Army lost a fumble on its first drive. Navy touchdown.
Army went three-and-out on its second drive. Navy field goal.
Army fumbled on its third drive. Navy punted but had the momentum.
"I don't know if it's necessarily the best football," President-elect Donald Trump told CBS in the third quarter, "but it's very good."
Abey settled down. He wasn't trying to force big plays anymore. Then he ran into one. Army missed four tackles as Abey brilliantly turned an option run into a zig-zag 41-yard touchdown scamper early in the fourth quarter.
Navy 17, Army 14. The Streak was still alive.
This is what grabbing 15 years of frustration by the throat looks like.
Down 17-14, Army put together a 12-play, 80-yard drive over 6:42 for the winning touchdown. Monken, a former Navy assistant who lived with The Streak on the other side, faced fourth-and-1 at the Navy 18. He could have tried a field goal for the tie. He gave the ball to Andy Davidson for a 7-yard run, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's winning 9-yard touchdown run.
"To come from behind was fantastic," Monken said. "It was just a very fitting end to the game. They gained some momentum in the second half, but momentum is just attitude. Our guys maintained the right attitude so we didn't lose the momentum and didn't let them take the game over."
This is what losing your grip to 15 years of dominance looks like.
Navy punted. It defied all logic in this game, yet that was the call. The Midshipmen trailed 21-17 with only one timeout left. It was fourth-and-4 from the Navy 40 with four minutes left. Army had just driven 80 yards.
Niumatalolo said he initially thought he was in four-down territory, but the Midshipmen's third-and-5 fullback run only gained one yard. Niumatalolo sent the punt team on the field. Navy never got the ball back again.
"I thought if we didn't get [the first down] there then the game was definitely over there," Niumatalolo said. "I was hoping we could have stopped them on third down and make them punt again. If I felt like we had been running the ball better ..."
His voice trailed off, as if he believed his hands were tied given Navy's struggles on offense yet recognizing he would be second-guessed by punting.
"It was just a feel. If there was anything I felt like I could hang our hat on to get that kind of yardage, I would have done it," Niumatalolo said.
This is how 15 years of frustration looks like to honor a fallen teammate.
Army was playing for starting cornerback Brandon Jackson, who died Sept. 11, 2016, in a car crash. Jackson was there Saturday, the first game she's attended since her son died.
Jackson's mom spoke with Army after the game and was presented mementoes. "To be able to share that victory with her, and for her to see how much Brandon means to these guys was really special for all of us," Monken said.
As the Black Knights have done since Jackson's death, they ran onto the field behind linebacker James Gibson (who wears No. 2) and slotback Christian Drake (who wears No. 8). Put them together and they equal 28 -- Jackson's number.
Army adopted Jackson's motto following his death: "Scared money don't make no money." Army finally made money against Navy.
This is what it looks like when reality hits that 15 years of dominance has ended.
Niumatalolo apologized to his players for not getting them better prepared. He reminded them how much ball security matters. He told them to accept the loss with class.
"It's a weird feeling," Niumatalolo said later. "Tip your hat to Army. We've won so many games. I just want to win with class. Don't make excuses. I felt like there were times in the past we won and whatever -- something happened or a bad call. Tip your hat and move on."
Abey, looking dazed, did what the Navy superintendent told him. He wore a brave face publicly for his team. He answered questions at a news conference. Then, in a hallway outside the locker room, he did interviews with CBS, CNN and local reporters as some joyous Army players greeted their families and friends nearby.
Media members kept trying to get one-on-one interviews with Abey. Finally, a Navy official ended the attempts. There's only so long one can wear a brave face when the loss cuts so deep.
"I'm proud of you," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk told Abey. "Thank you," he responded.
Keenan Reynolds, Navy's record-setting quarterback from 2012-15, grabbed Abey in the locker room and pulled him close to whisper in his ear.
Keep your head up, Reynolds told Abey. Remember how this feels. You've got a lot of football left in your career. One game doesn't define a man. You played as hard as you could and that's all you can ask of a man.
Abey nodded. He went to his locker, sat in a chair and stared blankly straight ahead.
The Streak was over. The next chapter to Army-Navy was born.
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