BALTIMORE -- Navy trails Army 7-0 on Dec. 13, the date of the 115th meeting of the historic rivalry. The Midshipmen take possession at their own 30 with 2:11 left to play in the first half. The cadets are a sea of gray in the right corner of the far end zone. They hold “Beat Navy” and “Never quit” signs. They chant and scream. They bounce up and down like popcorn kernels. M&T Bank Stadium shakes. Keenan Reynolds, Navy’s junior quarterback, doesn’t seem to notice. He looks to the sideline, then stands under center.
He’s comfortable in that spot. Since he started playing football at the age of five for his father, Donnie, with the Grey-Mar Pirates in Antioch, Tenn., Reynolds has played one position -- quarterback. Though Donnie, who played safety at Tennessee-Martin, stopped coaching Keenan’s teams once he entered middle school to “give him some space,” he continued to mentor and train Keenan before and during each season. “I used to tell Keenan football is a year-round sport,” the elder Reynolds says. “If I could get him ready before camp started, then I wouldn’t have worry about what he was doing when I wasn’t there.”
There was nothing to worry about. David Martin, the head coach at Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tenn., for 21 years, said he never had a freshman start at quarterback -- until Reynolds, that is. Two weeks into summer practice before Reynolds’ freshman year, the team’s senior quarterback asked Martin for a meeting. He wanted to play another position. “He told me that it was clear Keenan had beat him out so I needed to find him another spot,” Martin recalls.
Martin wasn’t sure about starting the freshman against rival Ravenwood until he consulted with Benny Cunningham, the team’s star senior running back who now plays for the St. Louis Rams. “Don’t worry, coach,” Cunningham assured him. “You can trust Keenan with the ball.”
Back at M&T Bank Stadium, Reynolds takes the snap and does something most Navy fans don’t see very often. He drops back to pass.
Heading into Navy’s Dec. 23 matchup against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl, Reynolds leads all FBS quarterbacks with 1,182 rushing yards. Navy’s triple-option attack ranks second in rushing yards per game (345.1). Not surprising, it’s also second-to-last in passing yards per game (86.8).
But Reynolds’ production wasn’t always so one-dimensional. Goodpasture ran a Wing-T offense and asked Reynolds to move the ball with both his arm and his legs. “Whatever was required of him to do to help us win, he did,” says Martin. “Whether that was passing or running.”
But recruiters were less concerned with Reynolds’ ability to lead the Cougars to back-to-back district titles or his two-time all-state selection or his membership in the National Honor Society. They focused on his height. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Reynolds has never looked the part of the prototypical college QB.
When recruiters flocked to Goodpasture to make their pitches for Cunningham, Martin used to tell them, “I got a another one you need to have a look at.” But before his senior season, Reynolds had just one scholarship offer -- Navy. Then Vanderbilt visited. So did Memphis. But those schools wanted him to move from quarterback, possibly to receiver. That wasn’t an option in Reynolds’ mind. He’s a QB.
Reynolds whizzes a pass across the middle to Jamir Tillman, who catches the ball in traffic on Army’s defense for a 39-yard gain. It’s only the Midshipmen’s third first down.
As Reynolds drives the Midshipmen down the field, his mom, Jackie, watches from the club level of the stadium with Donnie and a contingent of six other family members. She crosses her fingers and toes as she always does when the score’s close.
After Reynolds chose Navy over Air Force and Wofford, Jackie wasn’t sure she could take having her “baby” so far away from home. On induction day when Reynolds marched into Bancroft Hall with the rest of the plebe class and the doors slammed shut, Jackie swears the echo could be heard in Tennessee. “What do we do now?” she asked Donnie after they returned home.
She wrote -- everyday. Jackie delivered the hand written letters to the local post office herself to make sure they got sent to Annapolis. When she couldn’t think of anything to write, she would transcribe Bible verses like Philippians 4:13 -- “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” -- hoping they would help Keenan persevere.
But there’s one place she can always see him -- commanding Navy’s triple option attack on Saturdays in the fall. She’s been to every one of her oldest son’s games except one -- his first against Notre Dame in Ireland (all the hotels were booked). She was in Philadelphia last December when Reynolds ran for 136 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-7 win against Army to help extend the Midshipmen’s winning streak against the Black Knights to 12. She was in California last year when Navy played San Jose State and Reynolds ran for seven touchdowns and scored eight total, including a final 25-yard run to clinch a 58-52 triple-overtime win and break the FBS single-game record for rushing scores by a quarterback.
So how did Reynolds go from a two-star recruit to an unheralded freshman to one of the most accomplished players in Navy’s history? Coach Ken Niumatalolo doesn’t hesitate to offer his answer. “His preparation is not like a binge diet where you starve yourself then eat McDonald’s for four days,” says the eight-year head coach of the Midshipmen. “Keenan doesn’t cut corners. He comes to practice and meetings every day to put in the necessary work.”
It’s a work ethic that goes back to the training sessions at Rock Springs Park where Reynolds ran sprints, lifted weights and did conditioning drills with other players, including Florida State sophomore sensation Jalen Ramsey, all under Donnie’s watchful eye. “We would never let each other jog or slow down,” Ramsey says. “We always pushed each other since we both had the goal to play D-I. We were always leading the pack.”
That determination is why when Reynolds’ teammates and coaches are asked to describe him, the first words after “humble” or “reserved” are usually “meticulous” or “perfectionist.” It’s why Reynolds went to practices and sat in on meetings at Annapolis during spring break of his senior year in high school. “I was kinda confused,” says Noah Copeland, Navy’s senior co-captain and starting fullback. “Most kids go to the beach or on vacation with there family for spring break. I definitely wouldn’t have done what he did.” Reynolds’ response? “I was hungry to learn. I wanted to be the guy.”
He never panics under pressure, even when quarterback Trey Miller went out with an ankle injury against Air Force and Reynolds was forced to play as a freshman. With Navy trailing by eight with nine minutes left, Reynolds led a 75-yard drive, capping it off with a 15-yard touchdown run, the first of his now record 62. Navy won 28-21 in overtime, and the kid who was overlooked because he was a few inches too short hasn’t looked back since.
“Everybody was telling me how amazed they were and how monumental it was for him to do that as a freshman,” Jackie says. “But I wasn’t that surprised. That’s just Keenan.”
“We knew we had something special at that point,” says Ivin Jasper, Navy’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
They still do. His coaches Martin, Niumatalolo and Jasper compare Reynolds to Russell Wilson (also 5-11) and expect to see him playing on Sundays, maybe for his hometown Tennessee Titans, after he finishes his service requirement.
Five plays later, Navy has advanced to the Army nine-yard line. Reynolds drops back and fakes a pitch. He rolls right and throws into the end zone between two defenders, putting the ball where only Tillman can catch it. They connect again for a touchdown.
The cadets are silent.
At halftime with the score tied 7-7 the Midshipmen sit in the visitors’ locker room as the coaches go over the game plan. Reynolds stands up. He has something to say. “I’m not going to let Army come in here and beat us on our court,” Copeland remembers Reynolds saying with more emotion than Copeland had ever seen in the junior. “We can’t be the ones who break the streak. We can’t let our seniors go out like this.” Reynolds finishes and gets ready to lead the team back onto the field, where he would run a fourth-quarter touchdown to seal a 17-10 win and get the opportunity to sing the alma mater second again. But as he heads back out for the second half, Reynolds isnt’ concerned about that yet.
He has to get back to work.