PHILADELPHIA — It happened in the first quarter of Navy's wild overtime victory over San Jose State two Saturdays ago.
It happened in the last regular season game before the Midshipmen get to play in their version of the Super Bowl, next week's 114th Army-Navy Game.
It's something that happens just about every week somewhere in the football world, but it shouldn't have happened to this kid.
Senior wide receiver Matt Aiken pulled in 10-yard pass and felt a shoulder pad crash into his left leg. He knew right away that something was wrong, because he already knew way too much about what football can do to the inside of a healthy knee. He would find out within minutes that his anterior cruciate ligament was torn and his football career was over.
"I was just in shock, honestly,'' he said at Wednesday's Army-Navy press luncheon at Lincoln Financial Field. "I've had so many problems with my other knee in the past. It's one of those things that is kind of hard to explain the feeling you have after an injury, especially an ACL. You know your season is over."
He wasn't the only one. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo saw the hit and then saw it in the eyes of everyone who was attending to Aiken on the sideline. Knowing what his offensive co-captain had been through with a pair of injuries to his right knee over the previous two seasons made it just that much harder to accept.
"There was a bad feeling when I saw him go down,'' Niumatalolo said. "He had a great game the week before. I was really excited for him. He's been a great leader for us. I remember the doctors working on him on the sidelines. I just looked at them and they gave me a look … You just feel bad for the guy. He has just worked so hard."
Aiken knows there are more important things in life than college football. He's getting ready to embark on a career as a naval officer, and there will come a time when it won't matter so much whether Navy beat Army for the 12th straight year, but this is not that time. If you play football for either one of the nation's two oldest military academies, Army-Navy really is the reason for the entire season.
"One of the things I thought about," Aiken said, "was that I was going to miss this game and the bowl game."
Except that he won't. Aiken will be in uniform to lead his team onto the field at "The Linc" on Dec. 14. He'll be at midfield for the coin toss. He won't be able to play a down in either of the two remaining games, but he's still got a job to do as one of Navy's co-captains and he has delayed surgery to repair his knee until after the Armed Forces Bowl later this month.
"He's taking it very well,'' said fellow co-captain Cody Peterson. "He's staying positive, but it's tough. He's a very good player and he's a great leader on the team, but he can still be a leader and he can help out from the sideline. He's very level-headed. He shows great poise all the time. He's like a rock for those guys on offense."
Still, it won't be quite the same as competing side-by-side with his fellow seniors in his final Army-Navy Game.
"It definitely hurts,'' he said. "It's disappointing, but it's one of those things where you've got to stay positive. You've got to be there for the guys and be there to motivate them, so you can't let it get you down too much."
Call it a star-crossed career if you want, considering the chunk of the 2012 season he missed and the fact that the opportunities to catch the ball in the triple-option offense are few and far between. Aiken insists that it has been anything but. He won't be following his brother Danny into the NFL [Patriots], but he has no regrets about his decision to play Academy football and spend at least the next five years serving his country.
"Definitely not,'' he said. "Honestly, I've gotten the best experience out of college football that I think I could have possibly gotten. Especially being able to be captain this year and see all these guys grow as football players and as people. That's definitely one of the greatest things I could ask for."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.