The Right Play

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I was always the logical one of the bunch.

Always.

Growing up, my friends were the usual suspects. There was the risk-taker. He was the one with a crazy amount of adrenaline who seized every moment to do something outrageous. Then there was the troublemaker. He was the one who always questioned authority and anybody who tried to give him directions.  

Then there was the logical one.

That was me.

I was always looking into a situation and gaming all the possible end results. I mean, of course I cared about immediate gratification, like most kids do. But I was more careful than the other kids about some of the decisions I made. To be honest, I wasn’t much of a risk-taker. Even then, some of my moves were more calculated. I was always wary of how the little things you did could create a ripple effect in your life long term.

That’s why it was so easy for me to make the decision to play football at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I remember going through the recruiting process like it was yesterday. Things were coming down to the wire my senior year and I was picking between a list of schools.

Then my grandmother passed away.

This was supposed to be a great time in my life. The feeling of being a sought-after player was awesome. Who wouldn’t love all the compliments and attention from big-name coaches? It was a great feeling to know that my talents were in such demand. I should have been feeling on top of the world, but I just couldn’t focus. All I could think about was the great woman my family had just lost.

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My grandmother was like a second mother to me and my younger brother. She did everything for us. On those hot and humid days back home in Tennessee, she would take me to and from two-a-day summer workouts at Goodpasture Christian School. From serving as our regular babysitter to our carpool wrangler, she was a superhero without the cape.

The day after her funeral service, I remember sitting down in the living room with my parents to discuss my future. It was strange to have to think about colleges, but with the deadline to commit a day away, I had to make a decision. From Wofford in South Carolina to UT Martin in my home state of Tennessee, I had a great number of options. But there was one lingering question in the back of my mind. A question I would have looked for advice from Grandma to answer.

Which of these colleges will make me a better person?

Football was something I loved dearly, but I didn’t want it to be the only thing that defined me. I wanted to be ready for life when I was 40, not just when I was 22. I got a lot of attention from a few schools during recruiting, but I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a coach from a major conference who was recruiting me.

Looking back, I know I made the right decision, even though I was still a bit nervous at first to play for Navy.

“You’d be dumb to not go to Navy.”

This was a coach who was  trying to convince me to play at his school telling me that I would be a fool to pass up on the chance to play for the blue and gold.

Now fast-forward to today. I can’t help but think about all the possible outcomes my college career could have had. My mind, almost as a reflex, likes to go through the what ifs.

Looking back, I know I made the right decision, even though I was still a bit nervous at first to play for Navy.

Ok, I was really nervous.

For an 18-year-old leaving home for the first time, playing college football at any major school program is overwhelming. But at a service academy, it’s even more so. Aside from academic work and military responsibilities, every minute of every day is scheduled. Everything, from our wake up hours to our daily meal times, is structured. But I got through it with the help of my teammates, my coaches and the fans.

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Oh, let’s not forget the fans.

The fans at the Naval Academy are die-hard. They give us unconditional support. I remember the first time I felt it. It was freshman year and we were playing Air Force. We were down 21–13 in the fourth quarter. I called a Spread 10 Husky, which is a midline triple-option play. My first option was a handoff to a running back, but as I reached out to hand the ball off, the middle linebacker was locked in on the running back, so I pulled it back. My second option was to pitch the ball to my slotback, but I saw the rest of the defense rushing to him, so that was out the question. Once the safety had committed to the fullback, I went to my third and final option: myself. I tucked the ball and jetted outside.

I crossed the 20-yard line and it was off to the races. All I saw in front of me was the Navy blue end zone. As the line blocked, I remember dodging a safety right before crossing the goal line.

Touchdown.

It was a rush of adrenaline. It was a feeling that I can’t quite express. Seeing all the midshipmen in the student section rejoicing and throwing their hats in the air capped off one of my greatest on-field moments.

But that is just half the reason this ride has been unbelievable. The other half is the bond I shared with my teammates.

We called it the Brotherhood.

The success we had is a credit to the leadership skills we learned at the academy. We were a tight unit on and off the field. We had this motto that we liked to repeat: 1–0. We always focused on winning one game at a time and taking one practice at a time. Looking ahead, or worrying too much about what happened yesterday, could lead to losses. Everyone — from the players to the coaches to the equipment staff — really bought into that. We all had the same mindset.

And a chip on our shoulder.

Navy players have a lot in common. Most of us were under-recruited — not big enough, not fast enough. But we were just as competitive as everybody else. More than anything, Coach Niumatalolo gave us a chance to show that we could play. We all had the burning desire to show what we could do. That’s why we were so successful. Coach knew how to get that passion to compete out of his guys.

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It’s rare to have a coach that you can learn something from every day. People always ask me what the main thing that I picked up from Coach is, and my answer is always the same: humility.

Coach is a very humble and sincere person who embodies the spirit of military service.

One time we were practicing at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, preparing to face Temple. It was 89 degrees, and we were going through walk-throughs. I mean, it was so hot that we were drenched in sweat. You would have thought we had just come out of the swimming pool in full pads.

As we were leaving to head back to the hotel, we were driving past the security guards at the facility, who were in full uniform, also drenched in sweat — just from standing outside. Before our caravan of buses pulled away, Coach told our driver to stop. He jumped out to bring bottles of water to the security guards.

Everybody at the Naval Academy is expected to serve. Nobody was above this rule— not football players or anyone else.

None of us were surprised.

That’s just the type of person Coach is.

Everybody at the Naval Academy is expected to serve. Nobody was above this rule— not football players or anyone else. The opportunity to serve my country is the No. 1 reason I came to Navy. And to be honest, it’s a strange spot to be in. On one hand, I could very well be taken in the NFL draft this week. I could follow a path similar to the one taken by long snapper Joe Cardona, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Navy last year. He’s the standard for me right now. He was able to appear in all 16 games as a rookie for the Patriots while still on active duty. During the week, after he was done with football, he had to drive an hour south, from Foxborough, to Newport, R.I., to work at the Naval Preparatory Academy. I feel that I could make a similar arrangement work in my favor.

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On the other hand, I have also accepted the possibility of never playing organized football again.

And no matter what happens, I have no regrets.

I know I put everything I had into my time as a midshipmen and a football player. And if I don’t get drafted, I can say at least I tried my best. If my best wasn’t good enough, I can live with that.

As my time comes to an end at the academy, I think about my last moment in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Usually, when I walked through the tunnel after a game, I would give away my headband, or maybe a jersey or an arm sleeve, to a fan. But that final time was different. As much as I loved the Navy fans, I didn’t give anything away. I wanted to keep those memories. As I looked at the crowd one last time as a player, I realized I had made the right choice coming here.

The logical one.

I know my grandmother would be proud.

To everybody at Annapolis, thank you for four great years and all the lasting memories.  

Beat Army!

-Keenan Reynolds

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