Photo: Air Force linebacker Connor Healy and his brother Patrick are starting inside linebackers.
“Brotherhood” is a unity term many college football teams try to foster to account for the difference between a winning and losing season.
Some team personalities, though, are unable to grasp the intangible element. At those schools, players throw it around too loosely. And for some individuals, it’s too deep of a concept. Read: Winslow Jr., Kellen, University of Miami tight end, 2003.
Winslow declared himself “a f------ soldier” while standing before writers in the post-game locker room following a win over Tennessee. He had been asked if he felt sympathy for the opponent he had injured on a block he threw. Winslow said this while American troops faced insurgent counterattacks in the Iraq War.
Since then, it’s no coincidence you rarely if ever hear players and coaches in college or the NFL use the analogy of “when the bullets start flying” referencing a season opener. It also most likely played a large role with college programs moving toward closed locker rooms. Instead, selected players are brought to a designated room for post-game interviews.
But at the service academies “brotherhood” is transferred to the football field. The players first develop the bond at boot camp before arriving at their respective academies: Army, West Point; Navy, Annapolis; and Air Force, Colorado Springs.
Once football season begins, football practice is their break from academics and military training. That includes the summer with survival training.
“The brotherhood thing is real here,” said Air Force junior linebacker Patrick Healy. “We spend time with each other inside football and outside football. We grow close as friends and brothers. Whatever happens, we move forward with it.”
The team unity is important to service academies matching up with more talented opponents. Air Force faces the biggest task of the three on Saturday at No. 4 Michigan State. Army (0-2) is at home against Wake Forest (1-1) and Navy (1-0) at home against East Carolina (1-1).
The Falcons’ defense takes “brotherhood” a step further in the form of the Healy brothers. Connor and Patrick start side-by-side as inside linebackers in the Falcons’ 3-4 scheme.
Connor, a 6-0, 225-pound senior, is a returning starter. He was second in tackles last year with 90, including 5.5 tackles for a loss and, three sacks and one fumble recovery.
Patrick, 6-1, 225-pound junior, is one of seven first-year starters on a revamped Air Force defense.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” Patrick said. “A couple of times you have to take a step back and appreciate the opportunity we have together. It’s so rare.”
Patrick and Connor were teammates in high school on a state championship team at Denver Mullen under veteran coach Dave Logan, a former Cleveland Browns wide receiver.
“When (Connor) committed, I took a little time, but I knew Air Force was the place I wanted to be,” said Patrick. “I committed my junior year to be a Falcon.”
Air Force has beaten Morgan State (63-17) and San Jose State (37-16), but the Falcons play their first game without starting quarterback Nate Romine. He is out for the year with a knee injury. That puts more pressure on Air Force’s defense if the offense can’t control the ball.
“Obviously, they have more skilled and athletic players,” Patrick said of facing the Spartans. “We have to prepare for them, but every week you have to be conscious of different personalities of teams and what they’ll throw at you.”
Black Knights sophomore safety Rhyan England is one of four sophomore starters on a defense along with only two seniors and five juniors. But England, the team’s leading tackler, says the Black Knights can recover from their 0-2 start despite their youth.
“We’ve been in position to win,” England said. “Whether we’re rookies or veterans, we’re playing for a reason. Coach (Jeff Monken) wouldn’t put players out there if they couldn’t play. We are focused and hungry for that first win. You can see it in practice. Everyone cares about it each other and the brotherhood.”
Army lost its opener at home to Fordham (37-35), a lower-level FCS team, and fell last week at Connecticut (22-17). UConn was one of the Black Knights’ wins in last year’s 4-8 season.
Wake Forest also is a young team trying to improve upon last year’s 3-9 record. The Demon Deacons start as many as six sophomores or freshmen on offense and three sophs or frosh on defense.
England, who was recruited as an offensive back and switched to defense, started five games last season. He says the young team is optimistic about the remaining 10 games.
“The game has slowed down for me this year,” he said. “I understand the concepts better and I have trust in my teammates. I believe in this program. We believe we can win every game we play.”
The Midshipmen’s first conference game after 134 years of independent football includes a new trophy will be on display at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium Saturday against East Carolina. Navy’s traditional prize is Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy that is a round-robin series among the service academies.
The AAC traveling trophy visiting Annapolis represents an historic moment.
“It’s very exciting,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told gonavysports.com. “It’s exciting in two ways. Obviously it’s the first conference game for our school, but also we’re playing a very good opponent.”
East Carolina, which lost its starting quarterback for the year in fall camp, opened with a 28-20 win over Towson State and nearly won at Florida last week before falling 31-24. A Gators’ pick-six on a pass thrown by junior quarterback Blake Kemp was the difference. Kemp otherwise threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns.
Navy opened with a 48-10 win over Colgate but had a bye last week. The Midshipmen are led by NCAA recording setting fourth year quarterback. Keenan Reynolds has 65 rushing touchdowns that are the most by a quarterback. His total is 12 shy of overall NCAA record-holder Montee Ball of Wisconsin.