Photo: Paul Carothers
#AFAN (Air Force/Army/Navy) stories: My series is about more than academy football players. These stories are about future officers selflessly committed to serving their country during a seemingly endless war on terrorism. There are only 0.5 percent Americans making up the military. Throughout our history Cadets and Midshipmen have answered the call to serve in times of war, but this is a generation of volunteers.
--- “I get to work daily with heroes that joined the military AFTER we were attacked on 9/11, AFTER the war started in Afghanistan and AFTER the war started in Iraq. I would like to think I’m that brave, but I’m not so sure."
-- Phil McConkey, 1979 Navy grad and New York Giants Super Bowl champion
By TOM SHANAHAN
Imagine the number of impressive future officers Ken Niumatalolo has guided and observed as Navy's football coach the past 12 years. Then, factor in Niumatalolo’s time as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator, making this his 22nd season overall in Annapolis.
Absorb that for perspective before hearing his comment on the leadership of outside linebacker Paul Carothers, a backup until making his first career start in last week’s 34-25 win over Air Force. The senior turned in a breakout performance, recording a career-high 12 tackles with a sack.
“If you thought of a Naval Academy graduate, you’d think of Paul Carothers,” Niumatalolo said. “If you thought of a Navy football player, you think of Paul. He symbolizes what our country is about. He’s a great American. Our guys look up to him as one the hardest workers.
“I’m really happy for him. He played a great game. He played lights out. He’s one of our team captains and team leaders. For him to have a great game in our biggest game of the season (to date), I’m really happy for him.”
His teammates have noticed, too. And not just during the Air Force game. At the start of the season, Carolthers’ peers voted him one of four captains despite his backup role.
When Navy (3-1, 1-1 AAC West) plays Tulsa (2-3, 0-1 AAC West) at 7:30 ET Saturday at H.A. Chapman Stadium, Carothers joins fellow captains Malcolm Perry, a third-year starter at quarterback and running back; linebacker Nizaire Cromartie, a second-year starter; and center Ford Higgins, a second-year starter.
Carothers, in a phone interview, paused for a moment upon hearing Niumatalolo’s quote read to him.
“I didn’t know he said that – that’s an honor,” he said. “A lot of people here have the potential to be right there with me. There are a lot of different qualities on this team. I look up to him as a coach and a father-figure – deeper than as just a coach. He has so much respect among us as a coach, a family man and because he does what’s right for his community. He has a perspective that makes it easy to follow him. There is a purpose and flow in football and life. I admire him.”
And just like that, a backup player seamlessly invoked Navy’s “brotherhood” approach of all teammates (and coaches) supporting each other regardless of class, role or stardom on the team.
Over the years “Coach Niumat” – as the players affectionately call him – might have similarly praised another Midshipmen, but that doesn’t make this particular quote any less a noble distinction.
Carothers, 6-foot-1, 222-pounder Flowery Branch, Ga., well understands the weight of such words. His Annapolis history includes two brothers that are Navy graduates, Michael (2012) and Mathew (2015). Although they didn’t play football, Carothers elevates them for their path.
“They got in the hard way,” he said, again deflecting praise, this time with self-deprecating humor about gaining admission to the elite academic institution.
Carothers’ father-figure reference to Niumatalolo might sound like a cliché, but it is spoken from the experience of having a father he looked up to and losing him during his freshman year, on Nov. 18, 2016. That was the date Patrick Carothers was killed while serving a warrant as a U.S. Marshal in Georgia.
A day later, Navy defeated East Carolina 66-31, clinching the AAC West title. Carothers had yet to make his mark on the team (he didn’t earn his first varsity letter until his junior year), but Niumatalolo opened his post-game comments expressing support for one of their players suffering a family tragedy.
The next game, a 75-31 win at SMU, the players wore “PC” decals on their helmets for Patrick Carothers.
“It was amazing to see ‘PC’ stickers on the back of the helmets,” Carothers said. “There was mourning, tears and broken hearts in our family. We had never been through something like that. My Dad was our hero – a huge part of our lives. He always encouraged us and gave us a kick in the butt when we needed it. It was all out of love.
“We got through it with the support of our communities — whether people knew us or not – in our high school community, church community and from the Naval Academy. It’s one of the many things that are different about the academy from other places.
“I’m sure it is the same way at the other academies. Last summer West Point lost a cadet (Christopher J. Morgan, a wrestler, was killed in a rollover training accident on June 6, 2019). Those stories bring back the hurt to me but also the joy of communities coming together in times of trial. It’s a beautiful scene.
“I don’t mind talking about what happened. The greatest attribute for my family to overcome this has been our faith in Jesus Christ. Death is a real thing that happens. Nobody has the answers for why these things happen. I sought peace through Jesus Christ. I still suppress emotions, but I’m much better than I was two years ago. The challenge has increased my faith instead of relying on myself or someone else.
“I appreciate you asking. I like moments like this to share my life (formally) or just in conversation.”
Carothers is one of many academy players over the years that have played little until emerging in their junior or senior season. And among that cast, it’s surprisingly common for one to play well in one of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy games just as Carothers performed.
Asked for an explanation from such players, a typical answer is pointing out the motivation to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in the round-robin series among the service academies. These are intense games between Army, Navy and Air Force, which even the most veteran football people don’t fully understand until they attend one.
Former college and NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who won a Rose Bowl in the 1976 season as UCLA’s head coach, rebuilt the Philadelphia Eagles into a Super Bowl runner-up in the 1980 season and won a Super title with the St. Louis Rams in the 1999 season, learned this once he worked between coaching stints at a TV analyst for the Army-Navy Game.
“It’s the only game where you see all 22 players knock each other down on the opening kickoff.”
Except that’s not quite right. Army and Navy players freely admit their games against Air Force are equally intense despite not having the 100-plus years of history and the pageantry with a national stage at the end of the season.
Vermeil needs to re-state that it is “one of three games.”
But Carothers offers a simpler explanation for the feat. All three academies play a triple-option offense. As a scout team player, Carothers drilled against Navy’s triple-option starting offense daily.
“All of those years on the scout team practicing against our offense helped me,” Carothers said. “I was seeing all the keys, all the stances when they were going to pull and I knew how tight I had to fit. Coach New (defensive coordinator Brian Newberry) had a great game plan.
“I was thankful I could just go out there and play. But as a starter I got another play and another play. I was comfortable I could run free and hit people because I trusted my teammates.”
It’s been a long wait to develop into this year’s role, but Carothers declines any credit. He admits he was impatient in his early years.
“I used to get frustrated when I didn’t make the travel team or I was just on special teams, but then I realized I was getting better,” Carothers said.
He realized in that he was helping Navy win football games. He stopped worrying about whether he was on the travel team, making the two-deep depth chart or slated to start.
“I worked hard,” he said. “I really attribute it to having a positive attitude when coming hard to practice and working hard every day.”
As a junior, he earned that coveted first varsity letter, although that reward wasn’t a focus.
“I can’t even tell you right now how I earned it,” he said before interrupting the phone conversation in Senior Associate Athletic Director for Sports Information Scott Strasemeier’s office to ask him how he qualified.
“When I was a freshman, that was part of my identity — to get into games,” he said. “But I’ve grown and matured and have some perspective. What’s most important for me is not to be selfish, to be a selfless player pushing the person ahead of me. You can make them better and yourself better. I’ve learned that over the course of my time here.”
Plenty of people have noticed, from the head coach on down, whether he matches his 12 tackles against Air Force or just competes hard in practice.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
— Book on Michigan State’s leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty’s untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; “History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”