Keegan Wetzel was not the type of young man you would have pegged as a major college football player. At least not in his sweat-soaked number “48″ jersey on that hot day in the summer of 2009. Skinny, freckled, and sitting alone at the end of a row of white clothed picnic tables, he hungrily scarfed down several hamburgers just like any other college freshman would amidst a crowd of complete strangers.
It was the Blue and Gold BBQ to conclude the last preseason scrimmage of the summer, and as was customary for media members and fans, the crowd descended on the hungry football players like bargain hunters on a Black Friday sale. I had made the rounds, and was about to head home when I spotted Wetzel and remembered him from an interviewed I had done with him earlier that year. Myself a college student about to leave the insecurity of dropping out of school with matched insecurity of transferring to a school in a state 2000 miles away, I approached the spacing Wetzel with nothing on my mind save to say ‘hello.’
I did, and I told him who I was, reminding him of the interview. I don’t know if he recognized or remembered me. He seemed nice — quiet, but nice — and left in that awkward silence of two young men with more weighty matters on their minds, I quickly congratulated him on his scrimmage performance and then walked away.
It took me the better part of three years to walk away from writing about Navy football. But even before starting out as a freelance writer while a college sophomore in 2008, I had been a Navy fan all my life. I wasn’t so sure that was the case anymore when this season started. I had a sour taste in my mouth. Not only from the hassle of Sports Information Directors who didn’t understand my predicament as a freelancer, nor solely from the consuming feeling that my dream as a writer was about to expire, but also because of events surrounding the players themselves. Whispers of scandals and dismissals had really shaken my faith in the program and what it stands for. Not that players hadn’t been thrown out for cheating or drugs before — but because, when those players suddenly became young men who looked me in the eye and used my name in the postgame press conferences — their sins and struggles started to become personal. And after basing my life around a dream of becoming a college football writer and storyteller, the thought that I would have aided and abetted in some kind of lie hit me just as hard emotionally as it did professionally.
Throughout the last three months, however, something has happened on the field to remind me why I’m still a fan. Why I’ll always be a fan.
Keegan Wetzel brought his lunch. And he’s done it each and every week.
Watching this young man play has been a privilege. From the first snap in Navy’s blowout loss to Notre Dame, to last Saturday dominating win over East Carolina, Wetzel has knifed through linemen, launched himself into passes, and downright set his sights on every opposing ballcarrier. What’s more, he’s almost always managed to track them down.
Coming into the season he was the last guy expected to be the leader for a Navy team that began the season with an auspicious 0-2 start. He played sparingly in only one season before his senior year this fall, in the process battling through a concussion. This year, with the team in need of something, anything, to give it a spark, Wetzel stepped up. He has done it while carrying an impeccable record in the classroom and in the Hall, and he’s one of the major reasons Navy sits at 5-3 and is on the verge if heading back to the postseason. He’s also the major reason why I’ve remembered what it is I love about Navy – and more broadly — college football.
It’s about the people. The young men who I have, for better or worse, grown up with. It’s about the young men who I first interviewed as a wide-eyed writer in 2009, thinking the chance to talk to soon-to-be college football players was just about the coolest thing a human being could do. It’s about remembering the excitement in their voices when they first found out they had a scholarship, or the anticipation on their faces as they donned their pads for the first time at their first summer scrimmage. It’s about the pain and exhaustion I saw on their faces as they gave it their physical and mental all during a freezing December evening practice, and the slow tear drop down their faces that I, as a humbled member of the Press, witnessed time and time again in the deep recesses of stadiums across the country after narrow losses and disappointing climaxes.
When the season began, I decided that I didn’t want to go to Navy games with my dad. In doing so, I decided to break a tradition of one of the few things we had been able to do together without fighting over something. For the better part of the year I stayed away from Annapolis on game day. I didn’t want to run into people who knew me as a sportswriter, and I didn’t want to explain how I just needed to get away from that past image of myself. Still, a part of me never stopped pulling for the Blue and Gold. Watching, and rooting from home, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing something those first several weeks.
I couple of weeks ago I figured out was that something was. I was missing the roar of the stadium when Wetzel made a tackle. I was missing the dejected looks on the opponent’s face when the formerly undersized, unknown linebacker dropped them him for a loss. More than anything else, I think I was missing me, and the wonder and excitement I had as a young man with the privilege to live out a dream, and share in the excitement and accomplishments of those like Keegan Wetzel.