Smooth sailing

Mids' big win dedicated to player who recently suffered difficult loss

Navy 34 Army 0

December 07, 2008|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,

PHILADELPHIA - Before the game, Jeff Deliz grabbed his cell phone and starting punching buttons. He sent a text message to his good friend that read, "This one's for you."

Deliz, a senior defensive back for Navy, turned off his phone and wrapped tape tightly around both wrists. With a black marker, he scribbled "18" - Rashawn King's number - on each.

Then he took the field at Lincoln Financial Field and helped his team deliver one of the biggest beatings in one of the nation's best rivalries. Navy topped Army, 34-0, in the 109th meeting between the military academies, a game that seemed to have it all.

The only thing missing, in fact, was Rashawn King and his father, Drexel.

The Midshipmen's bus pulled into town Thursday night. At the hotel, King was immediately told to call his mother back home in Raleigh, N.C. Two days before Army-Navy, the game father and son had been looking forward to all season, Drexel King had died of an apparent heart attack. He was just 48.

Engulfed in emotion, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo still managed to put it into proper perspective yesterday, noting that Drexel's "passing was more than just a parent of a player."

"Drexel King was a father figure to many players on our team," Niumatalolo said.

Truth is, Drexel counted many of the Mids as his own. He attended games at home and on the road. He threw tailgate parties after games, feeding his son and his teammates. After the senior game last month, he took a giant group of players to a nice celebratory meal in Annapolis.

"It was like he was a second father almost," Deliz said. "Like he'd known you forever. Every time I saw him, it was a big hug, handshake. No matter how well I played or how bad I played, he always encouraged me."

Deliz is closer to King than most. Both seniors, both defensive backs. Next year, Deliz is slated to be a Navy pilot and King is headed for the Marine Corps.

The two have been rooming together on the road since they were freshmen. Because their numbers are sequential -- 17 and 18 -- they've shared neighboring lockers since then, too. On Thursday night, Deliz didn't know why King didn't come straight to the hotel room. When King finally arrived an hour later, Deliz started teasing his friend about his tardiness. He noticed right away that something was wrong.

He was told about Drexel, and it took a few minutes to find the words. "I almost felt like a part of me was lost, too," Deliz said.

Friday morning at 4:30, King left the hotel and caught the first flight to North Carolina to be with his mother and sister. It wasn't easy to miss Army-Navy his senior year, but there really wasn't a decision to be made. Players and coaches knew King and his father shared a special relationship. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green says he noticed it right away, when he started recruiting King five years ago.

Drexel was an Army veteran himself and had once handed his son a West Point brochure. He was proud, though, when King enrolled in the Naval Academy.

"Army wanted him really badly," Green says. "Air Force wanted him. A lot of people wanted him. We were fortunate to get him."

Not just the football team benefited, but the school did, as well. Last week, King was named chief of staff for the entire brigade, which makes him one of the highest-ranking Mids next spring.

In the 26th company, he was a squad leader. He was assigned to mentor freshmen. One of them is teammate Jabaree Tuani. "We definitely wanted to win this one for him and his father," Tuani said after yesterday's game.

They all did. They talked about it before the game, dedicating yesterday's performance to a teammate who couldn't be there and to a father who always was. They scribbled "18" on their wrists, put a sticker with the initials "DK" on their helmets and then turned in the kind of performance that coaches don't even dare to dream about.

King's defensive unit posted its second straight shutout (the first time in more than 20 years Navy managed that feat). Army had only seven first downs and never even crossed the Mids' 20-yard-line.

As soon as the game ended, Navy's sports information director, Scott Strasemeier, fired off a text message to King back in North Carolina: "That one was for your dad."

King responded: "Thanks so much. My mom and I are rejoicing over the win."

Army-Navy isn't special simply because of the result, the pageantry or even the storied history. It's the symbolism, but mostly, it's the very essence of the participants. Players at the service academies embody the spirit of team better than any other group in any other sport. They win together. And they suffer losses together. Both on the field and off.

"The brotherhood that we preach daily at the Naval Academy ... it's real," Niumatalolo said. "It's alive."

The game is always big, always important. The stakes don't really change, though. On the field and long after graduation, the Mids and cadets always seem to know what counts.

"We played for him today," Deliz said poignantly. "We played for our brother."

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