By Tom Shanahan
GoBlackKnights.com Senior Writer
Scene 1: Lincoln Financial Field, Dec. 8, 2012
The ultimate Philadelphia Story an academy football player hailing from the City of Brotherly Love can write is to claim the MVP award upon winning the Army-Navy Game. Philly turf – be it either the long-ago demolished JFK Stadium and Veterans Stadium or the modern edifice of Lincoln Financial Field – has been the traditional neutral home for the century-old America’s Game rivalry.
Army slotback Raymond Maples, a West Philadelphia Catholic High alumnus, was crafting such a homecoming story a year ago until Navy rewrote the final scenes. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder ran for 156 yards on 27 carries, playing the lead role of MVP to acclaim as Army drove from its 17-yard line to the Navy 14 with 1:04 remaining.
But that was before “The Fumble.” Navy recovered the loose ball at its 14-yard line to preserve a 17-13 victory in the 113th Army-Navy Game before 69,607 at Lincoln Financial Field, including Vice-President Joe Biden.
With the Midshipmen’s recovery of an exchange between quarterback Trent Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon, the invitation to receive the MVP award at the annual Philadelphia Sportswriters Dinner was symbolically walked over from the Army sideline to Navy’s and delivered to Keenan Reynolds, the Navy quarterback. Reynolds, not Maples, the hometown kid, was feted on Jan. 28 seated with Philadelphia sports luminaries that included baseball legends Larry Bowa, Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins and basketball legend Bobby Jones.
That’s the simple Philadelphia Story – one that is merely a sports tale for the small screen.
But for the Philadelphia Story to fit the big screen with military reverence and pageantry, the MVP role must be played by a Cadet or Midshipmen in his junior or senior year. At the academies, the difference between a freshman and sophomore and a junior and senior is pledging a full commitment to a military career. Cadets and Midshipmen can walk away after their sophomore year without an obligation.
Maples was fully committed as a junior in the 2012 season, rolling up a second straight 1,000-yard season with 1,215 to go with 1,066 as a sophomore. He averaged 101.2 yards a game and 5.4 per carry.
But the Philadelphia kid considered leaving West Point. He would have otherwise missed the junior season casting call or another audition in 2013 had he decided a military life wasn’t for him.
Scene 2: Camp Buckner, West Point
Every West Point Cadet – with the possible exception Gen. Douglas MacArthur – reaches a point when they wonder if they’ll make through the rigors of academy academics and military training to graduation and their commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Maples hit that crossroad as his sophomore school year was winding down. Football wasn’t the problem. Maples lettered as a freshman with one start before his breakout sophomore season.
He had to decide if he was he a football player who attended West Point or a West Point Cadet who played football. He asked himself if he was cut out to be an Army officer.
A West Point colonel in the superintendent’s office provided Maples with the experience that allowed him to work out the answer. In the summer after his sophomore year, Maples was assigned to serve as a Brigade Tactical Officer at Camp Buckner. He was in charge of training younger Cadets.
“Ray had self-doubts he was prepared to take on a leadership role with young Cadets,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. “Ray had an epiphany during the summer when he was called upon to lead a squad. He found out he not only could do it, he was good at it.”
Maples, of course, had a long history of opponents reacting to him on a football field as a 1,000-yard rusher in high school as well as college. But directing and ordering people was new characteristic to learn.
“I lacked the confidence to speak up in front of people and voice my opinion,” Maples said. “When you’re forced to play that role with everyone looking to you for direction, you don’t have a place to hide. That opened me up. I did a pretty good job. I finished with B-plus grade. I shocked everyone. No one thought I’d have that high of a score.”
Scene 3: West Philadelphia Catholic
Raymond Maples was one of three 1,000-yard rushers on West Philadelphia Catholic’s 2008 team that rolled to a city championship and a state runner-up finish.
But in the backfield he was the “other guy” among the three tenors of West Catholic Philadelphia football. Maples ran the ball inside while the other two ran outside and broke off runs in the open field to draw the attention fit for highlight videos and big numbers.
Curtis Drake was the dual-threat quarterback and a highly rated recruit who accepted a scholarship offer from Penn State of the Big Ten. The legendary Joe Paterno recruited him as an all-around athlete, telling him he envisioned him as a wide receiver with some quarterback wildcat plays designed for him.
Rob Holloman was the speedster running back who went to Kent State of the Mid-American Conference.
Maples, despite his production, was the proof that even in this sophisticated Internet age college recruiting, talented players slip through the cracks. He had no offers from a Football Bowl Subdivision school at the time Army hired Ellerson on Dec. 26, 2008. By then, Ellerson and his staff were scrambling to find available talent and reached out to him.
“I thought he was an under-rated player,” West Philadelphia Catholic coach Brian Fluck said. “He was a bigger back with speed who hit the hole hard. I thought he could play at a Big Ten or an ACC school and definitely at a MAC school. I knew he would get better and better as the years went on because he had a great work ethic.”
Fast forward to 2013 and Maples is no longer “the other guy” – he’s the lead tenor of the West Philadelphia Catholic trio. He has a chance to become only the second three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Army football history – a decorated tableau that includes three Heisman Trophy-winning backs, Doc Blanchard, 1945; Glenn Davis, 1946; and Pete Dawkins, 1958.
“We were very good friends in high school and still are today,” Holloman said. “I think we brought the best out of each other, competing in practice. I’m definitely not surprised in his success so far in college. I always thought that we would both have great college careers, and he is clearly doing that at Army.”
The careers of the three 1,000-yard rushers at West Catholic are a cautionary tale for high school recruits caught up in the disproportionate attention the recruiting game attracts for a teen-age kid.
Drake, the most heavily recruited of the three, has found the least success at the next level. He started his Penn State playing days with promise as a freshman under Paterno, but he was out of college football by the summer of 2012 season when Bill O’Brien took over the program. His career stats totaled only 200 yards receiving and 76 rushing.
Drake played a limited role with promise as a true freshman in 2009, missed 2010 with a broken leg and was involved in a locker room fight with starting quarterback Matt McGloin at the end of the 2011 season. That was the tumultuous season that ended with the eruption of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the subsequent dismissal of Paterno and Paterno’s death shortly thereafter from lung cancer.
O’Brien moved Drake to defense in 2012 spring drills and then announced on June 1, 2012 that Drake was no longer on the team and wouldn’t return in the future. He didn’t provide a reason, but Drake told Philadelphia Inquirer the cause was poor academics.
Holloman started his career at Kent State but after only 14 carries for 94 yards in 2011, he transferred in 2012 to Central Connecticut State. He enjoyed success at the Football Championship Subdivision school, rushing for 1,104 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games.
Maples’ career has been ascending every step of the way playing for Army. He has proven himself to be as reliable as a tapped Vermont maple tree’s steady drip, drip, drip of a sweet essence to fill a bucket.
“I couldn’t be more blessed,” Maples said. “It’s sad what happened to Curtis, but Rob is doing well. I always felt I had the potential. My faith in God pushed me through it. My family and friends played a huge part in keeping me focused and reminding me I had goals to achieve.”
Scene 4: Kimsey Athletic Center, West Point
In late December 2008, newly hired Army football coach Rich Ellerson gathered his staff in the football offices of the Kimsey Athletic Center to map out a recruiting strategy. They had a month to put together the Class of 2009 recruits.
Maples was one of the promising players they identified as available. They made a late rush to recruit him and gained a commitment on Feb. 5. Until then, Maples’ offers have been limited to FCS schools Richmond, Appalachian State and William & Mary. But that was only after Maples pushed hard for his commitment and he backed out on a pledge to Richmond.
Ellerson inherited 13 verbal commitments in the Class of 2009 from former head coach Stan Brock’s staff before he was hired, but none of those players are on Army’s 2013 roster.
Of the 13 seniors listed on the 2013 two-deep depth chart, only four are Class of 2009 recruits. All four, including Maples, committed to Ellerson after he was hired and spent a year at the USMA Prep School before joining Big Army in 2010.
Of the other nine seniors on the two-deep in 2013, eight were direct West Point admits in the recruiting Class of 2010. Jarrett Mackey was a Class of 2008 recruit who received an NCAA medical redshirt season to play in 2013 after he missed all but one game the 2011 and most of 2012 with two knee injuries.
The irony of Maples lasting as one of only four seniors from the 2009 recruiting class is he might not have made it through the recruiting filters Ellerson now has in place.
First among Ellerson’s filters is he wants his recruits to understand their future is as a U.S. Army officer. He won’t take commitments from players on their visit to West Point’s alluring campus. He wants them to return home and think through the magnitude of their decision, especially in a time of war.
“We got here at the 11th hour,” Ellerson says of the 2009 recruiting class. “To be honest with you, the recruiting process we had then wasn’t as mature as the one we have now. We didn’t have the message defined.”
What also helped Maples commit it to West Point is he listened to his high school coach.
Maples was no different than any other high school kid who grows up picturing himself playing big-time college football and then moving on to an NFL career. The academies short-circuit those dreams with a five-year military commitment upon graduation, although academy grads can seek an early release to make an NFL roster (in exchange they must fulfill time served on reserve duty). Collin Mooney, Army’s single-season rushing leader with 1,339 yards in 2008, spent three years on active duty before making the Tennessee Titans’ roster in 2012 as an undrafted free agent.
Fluck, the veteran West Philadelphia Catholic coach, sat down Maples and explained what Army offered him as the first person in his family to attend college. He would play Division I football and be guaranteed employment for five years after graduation. There was no NFL employment guarantee that came with a commitment to a Penn State or another major college.
He explained the long odds of an NFL career with the story of one of West Philadelphia Catholic’s all-time great running backs, Curtis Brinkley. He was a 1,000-yard rusher at Syracuse in 2008, but he went undrafted in 2009. He’s hung around the league as a practice squad and backup player with only 227 career yards rushing.
“I told Ray the life of an NFL players is only three or four years, and then what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” Fluck said. “A great high school and college career doesn’t mean you’ll make it in the NFL. I told him the guarantee he had was at West Point. It’s a life-changing opportunity.”
Maples wasn’t the first kid to hear such a lecture from Fluck – nor was Fluck’s advice unique around the nation among other high school coaches devoted to their athletes – but the difference was Maples was the type of kid who listened. The message didn’t go in one ear and out the other.
After Maples’ 1,000-yard season in 2011, Fluck asked him how many Army running backs had two 1,000-yard seasons. The answer is now three, counting Maples’ addition to the list. After 2012, he asked how many have had three 1,00-yard seasons. Maples’ goal is to answer, “Two.”
“I still believe I could have done what I’ve done at West Point at another school, but I couldn’t be more pleased playing at Army compared to another university,” Maples said. “I feel I’ve proved myself. At another university, I might have had a chance to be drafted in the NFL, but then I might have only played two or three years in the NFL. At West Point, I have a five-year guaranteed job, but I also still have the chance to be drafted. It’s win-win here.”
Closing scene: Lincoln Financial Field, Dec. 14, 2013.
An act still to be written in Maples’ career is his final homecoming scene in Philadelphia in the 114th Army-Navy Game. He hopes, of course, the team’s final act is a bowl trip, but no game tops Army-Navy in the life of an academy football player.
Maples has produced in all three of his Army-Navy appearances despite the Black Knights still mired in an 11-game losing streak to the Midshipmen. As a freshman he posted a then-career high 66 yards rushing on 13 carries. In 2011, when the game was played in Landover, Md., he carried 13 times for 82 yards.
After playing in Landover, the home of the Washington Redskins in a game attended by President Obama, Maples says the only thing better than an Army-Navy Game is America’s Game in his hometown. His fourth Army-Navy game will be his third in Philadelphia this season.
“It’s a great experience with everything that leads up to the game,” Maples said. “The whole season leading up to the game is special. I couldn’t feel more thrilled or excited to be a part of it in Philadelphia.”
His 156 yards last year is his third highest single-game total behind a pair of 159-yard performances. Despite his heroics, Maples is haunted by his fumble, but his turnover was not “The Fumble” that fans remember and history has recorded in Army-Navy lore.
“The Fumble” was an exchange between Steelman and Dixon that popped loose with Navy’s Barry Dabney pouncing on the ball in the shadow of the Navy end zone. Reynolds trotted onto the field with Navy’s offense to run out the game’s final minute.
The fumble Maples wishes he had back happened early in the second quarter when the game was scoreless. Army moved the ball from its 22-yard line across midfield with first-down runs of 10 yards by Steelman and 7 yards by Maples to the Navy 39.
Maples then caught a 6-yard pass and turned up field, but Navy’s Josh Tate ripped both the ball loose from his grasp and a tendon from a finger on his right hand. Tate recovered the ball and Navy converted the turnover into a 7-0 lead.
“The guy tore the tendons off my (right baby) finger and it was bent,” Maples said. “But the adrenaline was pumping and I kept playing. I didn’t really feel it. I had a huge fumble, but you have to keep pushing. You’ve got to have a short memory. We were on the edge of winning.”
After the fumble, Maples carried the ball 20 more times for 106 yards to finish with his 10th career 100-yard game.
Nobody remembers Maples’ fumble as a turning point – except Maples. He does because he’s a future Army officer and has to be accountable. He’s a now a “firstie” – West Point vernacular for a senior -- who brought up the fumble in an interview.
Similarly, Steelman took the blame for The Fumble on the handoff to Dixon. That’s what Cadets learn when they arrive at West Point as a plebe: “No excuse, sir!”
Accountability has been drilled into Maples, and at Camp Buckner in the summer of 2012 as a Brigade Tactical Officer he drilled it into those younger Cadets he was leading, teaching and mentoring.
“If you’ve talked to Ray over the years, you know he is a different young man than when he arrived here,” Ellerson said. “He’s a remarkable guy, and it’s amazing to me how he’s matured as a young man. He’s a competitor and a leader.”