ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Ricky Dobbs' country needs him. A year from now, the Navy quarterback will be stationed on a ship, perhaps in Norfolk, Va., perhaps in San Diego, perhaps overseas, beginning at least a five-year career as a Naval officer.
In the meantime, college football needs Dobbs and the rest of the 2010 Navy football team. A sport that spent much of the past year ensnared in headlines about money -- be it the billions in television revenue driving conferences expansion or the tens of millions in potential pro salaries at the heart of various player-agent scandals -- could desperately use a feel-good story to remind us of the more wholesome traits it purportedly celebrates.
There are no NFL scouts descending on Annapolis, no budding superconferences looking to add Navy football to their "inventory." But with the glimmering sails of the Chesapeake Bay as a backdrop, an unranked team quietly goes through two-a-days amid whispers of a potentially special season.
More specifically, said Dobbs, "We want to have a perfect season."
Laugh if you want, but it's possible.
Following decades of futility, Navy football has undergone a notable resurgence over the past seven seasons, reaching annual bowl games, dominating rivals Army and Air Force and ending four decades of failure against Notre Dame by winning its past two games in South Bend. Even so, the Midshipmen have largely flown under the radar nationally, a blip in the sport's BCS-obsessed landscape.
From the first game of last season, however, there were signs that this might be a new breed of Mids. Their triple-option offense had long caused problems for middling opponents, but on the first Saturday in September, Navy walked into the Horseshoe in Columbus and came within a failed two-point conversion attempt of tying sixth-ranked Ohio State in the final minutes, surprising even their own coach.
"I was petrified that we were going to get demolished," said Ken Niumatalolo, Navy's third-year head coach, who took over for mentor Paul Johnson in 2008. "I'm never someone for moral victories, but it gave our kids great confidence that we can play with people, and I think it spurned on a lot of the other victories."
By season's end, those victories would come to include a 23-21 win at then-No. 19 Notre Dame and, most impressively, a 35-13 Texas Bowl blowout of Missouri, which capped a 10-4 season in which the Mids finished just outside the Top 25.
The common denominator in those games: Dobbs, a rising senior who has emerged as Navy's most celebrated quarterback since Roger Staubach and who is on several preseason Heisman lists.
In his first season as starter last fall, Dobbs led Navy to just its third 10-win season in history, broke Tim Tebow's NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (27), and became just the third Navy quarterback to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season. He accounted for four touchdowns against the Buckeyes, threw a 51-yard score in South Bend and racked up 296 total yards in the bowl game.
He did that, mind you, despite playing the last six games with a broken kneecap.
"He's by far the best passer we've ever had," said Niumatalolo. "We're still an option team, we're still going to run the football, but his ability to throw the football gives us a new dimension."
Including Dobbs, Navy returns six of its top seven rushers from last season, a scary proposition for a triple-option team. Also returning are a slew of veteran defenders, led by fourth-year starting safety Wyatt Middleton, who have helped the Midshipmen improve from 98th to 34th in total defense over the past three seasons.
And then there's the schedule. If ever Navy hoped to run the table, this is the year. The Midshipmen open with in-state rival Maryland, one of three ACC foes they'll face (along with Wake Forest and Duke), all of which finished with losing records last season. Navy faces just five teams that reached bowls last year, and two of those, East Carolina and Central Michigan, are undergoing coaching changes. Its two biggest challenges figure to be at Air Force (Oct. 2) and vs. Notre Dame at the Meadowlands (Oct. 23).
Middleton recently recounted a story from 2006, the year he, Dobbs and several of their future teammates spent at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., to gain admittance to the academy. One night, Dobbs got a group together and proclaimed that as Navy seniors, they would finish in the top 10 and play in a BCS bowl.
"I remember saying, 'I don't know, man,'" said Middleton. "Maybe we should take it a day at a time. Maybe we should get to the academy first."
Four years later, that scenario seems a lot less far-fetched. It's hardly surprising the notion came from Dobbs, a natural-born leader with a perpetual smile on his face and a slew of admirers at the academy, where he was named vice president of the Class of 2011. In Annapolis, Dobbs is a regular speaker at area youth clinics, and this summer in his native Douglasville, Ga., community leaders awarded him the key to the city.
His likely career track in the Navy will be as a Surface Warfare Officer, which, at its pinnacle, consists of commanding a ship. His self-professed motto: "Nothing is unattainable. Nothing is impossible." It's a line of thinking that seems tailor-made for Navy's 2010 season, but which is the product of Dobbs' entire life.
Dobbs' parents separated when he was 2. His mother, Barbara Cobb, battled a drug addiction, and for years she, Dobbs and his older sister Tici were constantly moving from apartment to apartment. Only years later did Dobbs figure out why.
"She always put us first," Dobbs said of the woman he calls his best friend. "When it came time for Christmas in December, she didn't pay rent. She'd move somewhere else so we could have the Christmas we wanted."
Dobbs' uncle, Thomas Cobb, took notice of Dobbs' throwing arm at an early age and began coaching him in youth football. Dobbs, who would eventually go to live with his uncle, soon became a sensation.
"People were coming to watch a little league team like it was a [junior high] team," said Cobb. "We were running shotgun formations, trips left, at 9 and 10 years old. And he was making plays. Basically, the whole community here put their arms around him."
The attention wasn't lost on Dobbs. "I'm a firm believer in 'It takes a village to raise a child,'" said Dobbs. "I was raised by Douglasville the community as a whole -- and not even what society would say the good parts. I was raised by the lowest of lows, the drug addicts, the alcoholics. A lot of them had opportunities [themselves] but got caught up in the streets. But every time I came around, they'd stop what they were doing, because they wanted me to succeed."
Come spring of his junior year of high school, Dobbs dealt with a new obstacle: Colleges weren't keen on a then 6-foot, 175-pound quarterback. Schools like Georgia Tech (pre-Paul Johnson), Wake Forest, Southern Miss and Vanderbilt wanted him, but as a receiver. But Navy assistant Brian Bohannon (ironically, now at Georgia Tech) relentlessly recruited him.
Dobbs was initially reluctant about the military commitment, but became enticed by the prospect of guaranteed post-graduation career opportunities. Cobb, who'd long envisioned his protégé playing for a Southern powerhouse, knew Navy's culture of discipline would help Dobbs thrive.
The nation's high schools aren't teeming with four-star recruits who happen to be budding military enthusiasts. Niumatalolo's program relies almost entirely on guys like Dobbs, overlooked recruits who want to play football and are confident enough to handle the rigors of Academy life (see sidebar).
"We're the guys people say, 'We can't do this, we're limited here,'" said Dobbs. "But we come out with a chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong. You can measure 1-2-3-4-5 stars, but you can't measure or label the size of one's heart."
In Dobbs' case, even Navy's coaches undersold him. Up until the day Dobbs replaced injured starter Jarod Bryant against SMU in his sophomore year, Niumatalolo wasn't sure he'd be a powerful enough runner in Navy's offense. He hadn't shown it in practice.
He wound up running 42 times for 224 yards and four touchdowns.
"None of us took into account his belief in himself," said Niumatalolo. "He's a very spiritual kid, a very religious young man. He believes he can do anything. He's willed our team back into games."
Dobbs' official bio on Navy's website mentions his "personal goal of becoming the President of the United States in 2040 after serving in the military and winning a Super Bowl." Upon learning he'd been born on the same day (Jan. 31, 1988) that Doug Williams became the first and only black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Dobbs announced his intention to become the second. He thought he'd be making history in the White House, too, before Barack Obama beat him to it.
"I've felt a sense of being the 'first' something, or the 'next' something, since I was born," he said. "I kind of felt it was my destiny."
How about the next Staubach?
It's a long shot, for sure. Option QBs tend to be discounted in general (Georgia Tech's Joshua Nesbitt barely registered on the meter despite leading an 11-win team last year), and particularly those from Navy. Most Heisman voters are unlikely to even watch Dobbs play much outside of the nationally-televised opener against Maryland and the Notre Dame game.
But the mere fact that he's being mentioned causes Dobbs to shake his head in wonder.
"I see this as a way of God showing the world that nothing is impossible," he said. "Because a player coming from Navy, nowadays, being mentioned in the Heisman race? Anything like that is a testimony that anything is possible, anywhere."
Once upon a time, it wasn't all that unusual for the service academies to be mentioned alongside the likes of USC or Alabama. Five Army and Navy players won Heismans between 1945 and 1963, most recently Staubach, whose '63 team finished No. 2 in the polls before losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The Mids haven't played in a January bowl or finished in the top 15 since.
While Navy doesn't get nearly the same attention as, say, Nebraska, football is as much a part of the school's identity, if not more so. Students are required to attend all home games, in uniform, with the entire Brigade marching from campus on to the field of nearby Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. They paint the statue of Tecumseh on campus before big games, and shouts of "Beat Army" can be heard nearly year-round.
Critics lament that the school has taken its obsession with athletics too far, tacitly accepting the blights of big-time football that come with success. The school came under fire in 2006 during the explosive rape trial of then-starting quarterback Lamar Owens (he was acquitted). Linebacker Kenny Ray Morrison was convicted of sexual misconduct by a military court shortly thereafter. Last spring, Niumatalolo dismissed two veteran receivers for detrimental conduct, one of whom, Marcus Curry, had previously tested positive for drug use.
In a controversial op-ed for TheNew York Times in May, Bruce Fleming, an English professor at the academy, argued that the service academies are essentially outdated relics that need to be "fixed or abolished" and that "The academy's former pursuit of excellence seems to have been pushed aside by the all-consuming desire to beat Notre Dame at football."
Navy backers would counter that the troublemakers were just two of a staggering 160 players on the roster. In another old-fashioned tradition, Navy still fields a jayvee squad, which plays its own schedule. Navy also abides by another antiquated football ritual: its players study. Since the NCAA began compiling its Graduation Success Rate in 2005, Navy football has ranked No. 1 nationally four times, coming in third last year at 93 percent. By comparison, last season's BCS Championship Game participants, Alabama and Texas, checked in at 67 and 49 percent, respectively.
No one would portend that Navy can compete at the same level as the 'Horns and the Tide. "We've been successful because we understand we're smaller and shorter than people," said Niumatalolo. "If we start thinking anything differently, than we're in trouble." Navy's primary goal remains winning the annual Commander-in-Chief's Trophy (as it has the past seven seasons) and qualifying for a bowl game. This year, the school has a deal to face the Mountain West's No. 2 team in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
With military personnel located throughout the country, Navy has become a boon to the bowl business in recent years. The school sold more than 20,000 tickets to last year's Texas Bowl, helping that game set an attendance record (69,441) and outdraw the Sugar and Orange bowls. It's done the same for nearly every bowl it's played in over the past seven years, selling more than 150,000 tickets and generating spikes in TV ratings.
It's that national following that allows Navy fans to dream of what many might think impossible: a BCS bowl berth.
"When we were freshmen, we set a goal as a class," said Middleton. "When it will be our time to shine, we want to do something different than any Navy team has ever done."
The Midshipmen would have to reach the top 14 to be eligible, which, with their admittedly lightweight schedule, would likely require an undefeated season. Navy has no individual BCS exemption like Notre Dame, nor is it eligible for the berth guaranteed to the highest-ranked non-AQ champion. But the major bowls would fall all over themselves for an undefeated Midshipmen team, not just for their ticket sales, but also for their All-American story.
Niumatalolo, like all coaches, preaches a one-game-at-a-time mentality. As the Mids struggled through the first of two practices on a sultry August afternoon, he repeatedly reminded them of opening-week opponent Maryland. Later, however, in the tranquillity of his office, the former Hawaii quarterback conceded he had the makings of "a special group."
"Football is the ultimate team sport," Niumatalolo said. "Unfortunately, there's so much catering to young athletes nowadays. It's great to see the young men that aren't getting the pampering be successful. To me, that's what college sports is all about. To me, it's a feel-good story that a bunch of guys that aren't selfish can be successful."
Maybe, just maybe, Navy can be successful enough that the overlooked quarterback from the wrong side of the tracks can lead his team to the Rose Bowl before riding off to sea.