West Point accountability includes fumbles
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West Point accountability includes fumbles

Dixon accepts blame for fumble that was blamed on Steelman in Navy loss

Everyone watching wondered what happened when Army coughed up the football on a hand-off from quarterback Trent Steelman to fullback Larry Dixon in the final minute of last year's Army-Navy Game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

The Black Knights were just 14 yards from the Navy end zone and the verge of capping a potential dramatic 83-yard game-winning touchdown drive that would have gone down in Army-Navy lore for clinching the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

Steelman took the snap, pivoted, put the ball in Dixon's stomach and the bruising fullback plunged into the line. But Navy's Barry Dabney emerged from the pile of bodies with the ball to secure the victory in the 113th Army-Navy Game.

What happened?

The question was on every sportswriter's mind, but in the modern-day sports world, locker rooms are closed. Only a handful of players are brought out to a press conference in a room down the hall from the locker rooms.

One of three Army players seated at a table with a microphone before him was Steelman, a senior who had just seen the last of four chances in his career to beat Navy snatched and swallowed by the jaws of defeat.

What happened?

The question was put to the four-year starter -- who during the season heard more criticism than he deserved for Army's trouble with fumbles.

"I'm honestly not sure what happened there," Steelman said. "It was a simple triple-option play. No way am I going to put something like that on Larry, so put it on me."

Steelman, about to graduate as a second lieutenant, took the bullet. Accountability is what Cadets are trained for at West Point.

In another era, with sportswriters free to roam the locker room and ask follow-up questions as they still are in the NFL, Dixon would have found a crowd of writers circled around his cubicle. Instead, with the locker room off-limits, he dressed in silence and with his head hung low.

But had Dixon been forced to face the music, he would have answered questions the way he did months later when he heard such a query was put to him after a fall camp practice in preparation for the 2013 season:

"The fumble was my fault," Dixon said. "Trent is an amazing player and even better leader. Being the guy he is, he took responsibility, but it was my fault."
Accountability. That's what Cadets accept.

For weeks afterward, Dixon suffered with the agony of such a costly mistake. He replayed the fumble over and over in his mind. He watched video over and over and remained perplexed.

"I'd wake up sad and angry," he said.

The only conclusion he finally came to is he made a simple but common mistake akin to a receiver running before he caught the ball -- a scene that plays out from playgrounds to NFL stadiums.

"I got excited about the end zone and took the ball for granted," Dixon said. "I thought I had it and I didn't. I should have been focused on getting the ball secure before you run."

Steelman's words taking the blame that bitter afternoon went out across the nation's media outlets on video, on the Internet in digital type and the next morning in newsprint. But they knew in the Army locker room.

"I've got the best teammates in the country," Dixon said. "No one put me down about it; no one brings it up. My teammates knew it was me, but everyone was supportive."

Dixon finally snapped out of his funk after a few weeks of beating himself up.

"I use it as fire," Dixon said. "I came to the realization that I can't change what happened. I have to use the facts as a catalyst to make me better. If I get tired in practice or lackadaisical, I remind myself I have to work on my fundamentals and on my conditioning. I can't be tired late in a game."

It's not surprising Cadets such as Steelman and Dixon accepted accountability for the same fumble, but maybe that's giving West Point too much credit in Dixon's case.

"They do teach you to be accountable here, but it's something I learned a young age from my mom," said Dixon, whose mother, Laura Ashley, was a chief petty officer in the Navy. "My mom taught me you admit a mistake and you move on. A big part of moving on for me was admitting it. I didn't want it to be a negative in my mind, so I had to admit it and try to move on."

Dixon, a 6-foot, 238-pounder from Bremerton (Wash.) Olympic, has moved on to his third year as the Black Knights' starting fullback entering the 2013 season opener against Morgan State on Aug. 30 at Michie Stadium.

He assumed the starting role with five games remaining in his freshman year when he finished with 87 carries for 542 yards and five touchdowns. He had a long of 57 yards with an average of 6.2 yards per carry.

Dixon approached a 1,000-yard season in 2012 on a team with two other 1,000-yard rushers (Steelman and Raymond Maples) when he played in 11 games and finished with 140 carries for 842 yards and six touchdowns. Only once was he tackled for a loss as he averaged 6.0 yards a carry. His career high was 136 yards when the Black Knights nearly upset eventual Mid-American Conference champion and Orange Bowl participant Northern Illinois before falling 41-40 in the season's second game.

Dixon had many high-points in his 2012 season, but he also knows The Fumble will continue to haunt him inside. How much he lets it hold him in the past depends on whether he takes his mom's advice and moves on.

"I've worked to turn that into a learning experience," he said. "I've turned that into a hunger in the offseason. A lot days you might want to slack off, but then you think about it. It's been through my head a million times."

That's when Dixon moves on to the next drill. Soon enough the next game and the next Army-Navy showdown will be here. Laura Ashley's son will move on and be accountable.


Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."