Eckel takes cue from `Rocky,' plays knockout role in Philly

December 07, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

PHILADELPHIA - It was homecoming for Navy's Kyle Eckel. He grew up in Haverford, Pa., and calls south Philadelphia his home. He swears there is no better food on earth than a Philly cheese steak, and about 30 friends and family members attended last night's game to cheer him on.

And Eckel didn't let anybody down.

On a night when the U.S. military academies took center stage on the college football field, Eckel grabbed much of the spotlight in Navy's 34-6 win over Army before an announced crowd of 70,844 at Lincoln Financial Field.

Going into the game, Navy led the nation in rushing, averaging 323.09 yards, and everyone knew Eckel was a major key to holding down the Midshipmen.

But Army couldn't stop Eckel. The junior fullback rushed for two touchdowns and 152 yards on 29 carries, and twice he led Navy on drives that resulted in touchdowns, one in the first quarter, and the other to start the second half.

He virtually finished Army off with 12:42 left in the game when he burst off left guard and broke three tackles en route to a 16-yard touchdown run that put Navy ahead 27-6.

The victory earned Navy the Commander in Chief 's Trophy, but there was only one player in command of yesterday's game. It was Eckel who scored two touchdowns in his third straight game.

"Kyle played big," said Navy coach Paul Johnson of the game's Most Valuable Player. "He is a huge competitor. He has tremendous strength and balance for a big guy, and he's hard to tackle. Kyle played a great game today, and he's been great for us all year. He's a big part of our success this season."

It was a great homecoming celebration because Eckel loves Philadelphia. Ask him about his favorite teams and he'll say Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and 76ers.

He brags so much about Philadelphia that teammates want to enforce a gag rule. His favorite movies are Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III and Rocky IV, from which he can recite any lines.

There is speculation that he has seen the movies about 25 times, not just over his life span, but this year alone.

"We weren't underdogs today, but we were at the beginning of the season," said Eckel. "We'll probably be underdogs in the bowl game. But you have to bring that mentality of those movies into the season and work hard.

"We learned. We knew we had good players, but they were young last year. You've got to lose to learn how to win, so they say. We've been losing for a pretty long time, so we've learned a lot."

When he was a youngster here, Eckel knew there was usually a special game in town at least once a year, but he didn't know which teams were involved or what the game meant. Now, he knows.

"I was pretty confused when I was younger," said Eckel, who could see Veterans Stadium from where he grew up. "I saw the paratroopers and Seals parachute in, but I was really not sure what was going on.

"I knew there was a football game, but I didn't know if there were sailors playing or whatever. I really missed out. It was the big game. There are other rivalries, but this is bigger than football. People are watching us all over the world.

"And to play like this in front of them [family and friends], it's special," said Eckel. "It's special, just special. [Playing in Philadelphia] was great. We try to do the same thing every week, but this had a little more meaning for me because I got to play in front of my friends and family, and it's Army-Navy."

Eckel is a throwback. Despite the snow, rain and slush, he seemed at home last night. There is nothing stylish about the way he runs. He is just a 5-foot-11, 235-pound plodder who can wear teams down mentally and physically.

He can run the 40-yard dash in 4.55, bench-press 455 pounds and squat 450. Next preseason, he'll be one of the top 10-rated fullbacks in the country. Some NFL team might want to give him a shot.

Granted, the Mids were only playing Army (0-13) yesterday, but Eckel has played a lot of this season with a shoulder injury.

Yesterday was the seventh time this season he's rushed for more than 100 yards. He has run for a total of 1,178 this season.

"Kyle has had a great year," said Navy quarterback Craig Candeto, leader of the Mids' triple-option offense. "He's been that guy inside for us. Sometimes, I'll look back and he'll have two or three guys hanging on him, and he just keeps breaking tackles. He's awesome."

Navy scored on its first possession of the game, going 74 yards on 14 plays. Eckel had seven carries for 32 yards during the drive, all up the middle.

He was just as dominating in his team's opening drive of the second half, this one 12 plays for 80 yards that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Eric Roberts. Eckel ran five times for 29 yards.

Eckel capped his evening with two touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, one of 16 yards and another of 12.

The only thing left was for him was to take a look around the stadium and celebrate with his fellow Mids and with friends and family. He tried to downplay the evening following the game, but he finally had to admit it.

This was special. Homecomings don't get much better than this one.

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