Photo: 1) Nizaire Cromartie; 2) Charlie Sanders
Nizaire Cromartie presented himself to Army and Navy as an easy target on the football recruiting trail. The academies seek guys like him -- undersized athletes carrying a chip on their shoulder to prove they can mature into a Division I player.
Cromartie, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound defensive end as a senior at Greensboro (N.C.) Dudley, fit the profile. Another box he checked was a strong academic foundation that the academies require.
The deal breaker, though, for Army and Navy coaches when pursuing such prospects, is to find an overachiever willing to accept the demands of a military lifestyle as an option. Cromartie checked that box, too.
No hard sell was needed to spell out the long-term benefits of a free education at an elite academic institution and graduating with no college debt and a guaranteed job.
“If you ask anybody, I’m not a picky person,” Cromarite said. “The challenges weren’t a big ordeal to me. It was not only a chance to play Division I football, it was a great institution. I didn’t consider the academics a challenge.”
Not even boot camp mere weeks after high school graduation gave him pause.
“Boot camp was an eye-opener, but it didn’t really cross my mind,” he said. “That is part of paying back for a free education and a great opportunity. All I was thinking about was the long road and my transition into being a man. My father had emphasized to me, ‘Don’t pass up a free education at a great institution.’ ”
Thus, the only choice left for Cromartie was choosing between the two storied football programs (Air Force also looks for athletes like Cromartie, but the Falcons don’t recruit North Carolina as much as Army and Navy).
Army was on to Cromartie first, but once Navy joined the recruiting battle, he soon leaned toward the Midshipmen. The Annapolis, Md., campus on a Chesapeake Bay harbor was closer to home and the football program was coming off yet another winning season.
In Cromartie’s senior high school season, Navy’s 2014 record of 8-5 was the Midshipmen’s third winning record in a row and 11th in the past 12. Army’s 2014 mark of 4-8 was its fourth straight losing season and 17th in the last 18.
True to form, the Midshipmen went 11-2 in 2015 while Cromartie attended the Navy prep school and 9-5 in 2016 when he played as a freshman mostly on special teams.
Navy did drop to 7-6 in 2017 during his sophomore year, while he saw extensive playing time as a pass-rushing defensive end, but overall it was still a winning record with a bowl trip.
Cromartie’s junior year in 2018 began with him earning a starting job. The coaches shifted him to outside linebacker in spring ball and quickly adapted, having added 25 pounds to high school frame to play a 6-2, 240.
But then came an unexpected fall, a thud to 3-10. It was only Navy’s second losing record in head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s 11 seasons leading the program.
“We all have a bad taste from the season last year, but we’re not focused on the negativity of the losses,” Cromartie said. “Our focus is on sticking together as a team. We’re making sure we’re on the same page. That’s the most important thing. That’s where it starts. If you don’t have unity it’s easy for guys to go different ways, and the next thing you know you’re team is divided.”
That has made this spring has been unlike any other for the seniors, but for the defensive players it is about more than turning the page. They’re turning the pages to learn a new playbook, too.
Once veteran defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson retired at the end of last season, Niumatalolo began an overhaul. Brian Newberry was hired as defensive coordinator and Brian Norwood as co-defensive coordinator.
Newberry arrived from Kennesaw State with a 4-2-5 scheme. He will also coach the safeties.
Norwood, who previously coached at Navy from 1995-99, was Kansas State’co-DC until Bill Snyder retired following the season.
In all, there are five new defensive assistants. Newberry brought two Kennesaw State aides with him, Kevin Downing (defensive ends) and P.J. Volker (inside linebackers). Jerrick Hall (nose guards and defensive tackles) joins the staff from Elon University.
Cromartie embraces the changes, saying his role as pass-rusher remains essentially the same but with more pass coverage responsibilities. That will help disguise his role play-to-play.
“I was the main rush guy last year and a lot of teams knew when I was coming or I was dropping,” he said. “With this defense, the quarterbacks and offensive linemen won’t really know. It’s disguisable.”
Cromartie was fifth on the team in total tackles with 58, but the new scheme is designed to allow him to bump his team-leading totals in sacks (3.5) and tackles for a loss (5.5). Leading a team is always noteworthy, but those are modest numbers in the big picture of a winning team. He is eager to play that role now that he’s a senior that he has developed into the player Navy’s coaches envisioned.
“I’ve grown a lot from being overlooked in high school without ideal college size,” Cromartie said. “I questioned myself my freshman year if I was big enough, but as my reps increased size became irrelevant. It’s not the biggest component of being able to play football. It is knowing where the football is – not how tall they are or how much they weigh.
“My sophomore year we played against Notre Dame and guys that went onto the play in the league (NFL). That’s when I knew I could be one of those guys that goes on the field first.”
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Since Cromartie is a Dudley grad, I asked him about his high school’s unique history and one of its most decorated athletes, the late Charlie Sanders.
Sanders escaped segregated North Carolina as an All-Big Ten tight end at Minnesota (1965-67), which launched his NFL career as a Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end with the Detroit Lions (1968-77).
Dudley is one of only six North Carolina high schools that remained open after desegregation in 1969. Most segregated black high schools with inadequate facilities were either closed or converted to elementary or middle schools. One of the other high schools to remain open was E.E. Smith in Fayetteville, whose distinguished alums include Jimmy Raye, a Sanders rival in those days in both high school and college.
Raye rode Michigan State coach Duffy Daughety's Underground Railroad. In 1966, he was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title when Spartans and Notre Dame were named co-champions by the National Football Foundation following their 10-10 tie in the Game of the Century.
In my research for the book “Raye of Light,” I came across a photo in the Greensboro Daily News (now the Greensboro News and Record) of the 6-foot-4 Sanders and the 5-foot-10 Raye battling for a rebound. Raye was a prolific high school scorer that finished with 23 points that night. But Sanders won that battle for the rebound, scored 24 points and won the game
“My high school coach, Stephen Davis, talked to us about Charlie Sanders,” Cromartie said. “Kids appreciate more what’s in the moment more than history, but our coach told us about Charlie Sanders all the time.”
Minnesota coach Murray Warmath and Daugherty were both progressive coaches willing to recruit the segregated South. Warmouth's learned of a handful of players, including Carl Eller of Winston-Salem, through personal contacts in North Carolina.
What distinguished Daugherty's Underground Railroad from other progressive coaches was his network throughout the South. Michigan State gained a reputation for playing multiple black athletes and black high school coaches in the South contacted Daugherty with information, knowing he would give their players a chance. Daugherty's separation based on his reputation has been largely overlooked by history and is one of the themes the story behind "Raye of Light."
The stories of Sanders, Raye and their historic high schools are necessary reminders of how recent was segregation and how far we have progressed despite hurdles remaining to to clear in race relations and creating equal opportunities.
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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."