College football fans around the country watched Jalen Hurts come off the bench following an injury to Alabama starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the SEC Championship against Georgia and lead a fourth quarter comeback to win the game for the Crimson Tide.
There has been no shortage of folks congratulating Hurts for being the poster boy of sticking it out in the era of transfers. Count me in the crowd that believes that each and every situation is different, and therefore we shouldn’t try and say what is right for one player is right for another. The example Hurts has set is bigger than that, though.
People say all the time that sports builds character. The problem is that we don’t ever really define what that means or what that looks like. In fact, the limited academic research that has been done on the topic would suggest that participation in sports actually serves as a detriment to one’s moral character, causing young people to adopt a “win at all costs” mentality and focus on many of the wrong things.
If we are going to ever really demonstrate the opportunities that participation in athletics provides to actually build character, meaning to actually develop proper moral habits (consistent actions) in our lives, we have to actually be intentional about focusing on the values and virtues that lead to becoming the person we want to be.
This is where Jalen Hurts can serve as a shining example of accountability, of ownership, of commitment, of work ethic, of discipline, of confident humility, and of resiliency for people young and old across the country. His willingness to stay, to continue to grind, to get better, to remain humble yet confident in who he is as a person and a player, and to bounce back on one of the biggest stages in the biggest moments in his sport are the things that Hollywood movies are made of.
However, Hurts isn’t the only quarterback in college football with a chance at redemption on the biggest stage. Zach Abey, Navy football’s renaissance man, finds himself in a very similar situation as the Midshipmen prepare to take on Army in America’s Game next Saturday in Philadelphia.
For those unfamiliar with Abey’s story and career path to this point, let me fill you in on how the senior and future Marine Corps officer went from being thrust into the spotlight prematurely in 2016, to a dominating starting quarterback in the first half of 2017, to being benched for a more electric playmaker at the end of last year and beginning of 2018, to being back under center to close out Navy’s season this year.
Abey emerged on the scene in 2016 in a role that would be tough for anyone. Navy had a tremendous season brewing behind quarterback Will Worth and its high-powered triple option offense. Worth, originally the backup, was thrust into the starting role in week one when starter Tago Smith suffered a season ending knee injury against Fordham. Navy fans were left to wonder what would happen following the departure of Keenan Reynolds and the young man who had waited his turn to start in Smith.
All Worth did was help Navy to a 9-2 start that included upsets of then number six Houston and Notre Dame and guided them to the AAC West Division crown and a berth in the Championship Game against Temple. The week prior to the Championship Game, Abey saw his first significant action of his career against SMU once the win was securely in hand. Zach actually led the team in rushing that day with 111 yards on just seven carries and scored his first career touchdown as the Mids beat the Mustangs 75-31.
The next week against Temple was a nightmare scenario for Navy all wrapped up in one play. Senior captain slotback Toneo Gulley and Worth were both injured on the same play in the first half, and just like that, Abey was forced into the toughest of situations as his team trailed 21-0, and the pressure was now squarely on his shoulders. With only 12 career carries to his name at that point, Abey was unable to complete the dramatic comeback as the Mids fell 34-10 to the Owls and their Cotton Bowl hopes were dashed.
To make matters worse, they still had to play their biggest rivals in Army the very next week, and now Abey would be making his first career start against the Black Knights in the biggest game of the season with a 14 year winning streak on the line. A fumble on the first drive by Shawn White on the fifth play of the game would be the longest drive Abey would be able to generate in the first half. Twice he led one play drives in which he threw an interception and the other two drives of the half were three and outs. Navy trailed 14-0 at the end of the second quarter and the streak was in serious jeopardy.
However, Abey emerged from the locker room much more comfortable running the offense and after a couple rushing touchdowns and a field goal, all of the sudden Navy found itself up 17-14 in the fourth quarter. Army would counter with a touchdown on the ensuing drive to go up 21-17, however, and Abey was unable to lead the Midshipmen to another score.
14 years of winning and the streak was suddenly over, but Navy fans had seen a glimpse of what Abey could bring to the offense. He followed that up with a terrific performance in a 48-45 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl. It was his first 100/100 game in which he accounted for 159 yards passing and 114 rushing to go with three total touchdowns. It wasn’t the end to the season Abey or his team envisioned but everyone was optimistic about what he would bring to the offense with two more years still to play.
Abey entered his junior season the clearcut starting quarterback and led Navy to a 5-0 start and a #25 ranking before a five turnover game against Memphis ended the Mids’ perfect start to the season and begin a downward spiral that saw them lose six of their final eight games. Navy fans knew Abey was banged up but they did not know the extent of an injury that kept flaring up as his shoulder would pop in and out of place.
After leaving the game against UCF with a concussion, the shoulder injury showed up in an abysmal performance against Temple, the same team Navy had faced in Abey’s first real action the season prior in the AAC Championship game. The next week, Abey was not able to play and sophomore Malcolm Perry got the start against SMU and electrified the Navy faithful at home. Perry rushed for 282 yards and 4 touchdowns including a 92 yard scamper that left fans salivating over what he could bring to the offense.
The following week against Notre Dame, after coming in for Garret Lewis, Abey nearly helped lead the Midshipmen to the upset in what would have been the biggest victory of his career to that point, but the Mids lost 24-17.
The coaching staff decided to start Perry a couple weeks later against Army and he once again showed off his speed and athleticism with a 68 yard touchdown run and another 46 yard run that nearly resulted in another touchdown. Navy would lose 14-13 on a missed field goal at the end of the game, but Perry rushed for 250 yards and that was enough to convince Coach Niumatalolo that he was the answer moving forward.
Abey, who had been waiting a year to get revenge on Army after his first career start ended with a loss to his team’s biggest rival, only carried the ball two times for three yards as his starting job was taken from him officially. The irony is that Abey would end up scoring five touchdowns in a 49-7 rout of Virginia in the Military Bowl after replacing Perry due to an injury, but still, the writing was on the wall for the rising senior heading into his final year.
I’m not the first person to write about Abey’s team-first attitude, his willingness to do whatever it takes, to fulfill whatever role he is needed to perform in order to find a way onto the field. He’s also not the first person to have switched positions mid-career and been praised for making the conversion. But for a guy who has never played wide receiver in his life to make the switch during spring practice and become a starter at his new position from day one in Division One football is impressive.
Abey began this season in just that role, serving as one of the starting wide receivers for Navy after losing his quarterback job, but still serving under center in goal line situations. In fact, in the first six games he played this year (missing two for injury), Abey accumulated 10 rushing touchdowns. However, the revolving quarterback door continued to spin as Perry showed flashes but struggled throughout much of the season and Lewis never did enough to grab hold of the job.
Sitting at 2-6, Navy turned the reigns back over to Abey. His first start against Cincinnati could not have gone much worse as the Mids were shutout 42-0. The first half against AAC Champ UCF wasn’t much better. But starting in the second half of the game against the Knights, Navy began to see once again what Abey brings to the offense as the Mids scored 21 points following intermission to just 14 for UCF in a 35-24 loss. Abey followed that up with a 37-29 victory against Tulsa the following week, snapping a seven game losing streak and finally producing a nearly complete offensive performance. A late decision to go for a two-point conversion and the win proved successful for Tulane the following Saturday in New Orleans, otherwise it might be a two-game winning streak for Navy heading into this Saturday’s matchup.
So, let’s recap: Forced into action in the 2016 AAC championship game and following that up with his first career start the next week against Army, Zach Abey takes over the quarterback role under the toughest of circumstances and is unable to get a victory in any of his first three outings. He gets Navy off to an impressive 5-0 start in 2017, but a nagging injury and series of poor performances gets him benched in favor of Malcolm Perry and he loses his starting job. He finds his way back onto the field as a wide receiver and goal-line QB this year, no doubt envisioning that he would score the deciding touchdown against Army and finally get his redemption. That’s how this story was supposed to be written.
And yet, here we are, six days away from the biggest game of Navy’s season, and Abey is once again the guy under center leading his team from the quarterback position. He is back in Philadelphia where he first got his shot and came oh so close to overcoming first half nerves to secure victory number 15 in a row for the Midshipmen. He is back where he was benched and saw little action in the snow last year in a second straight loss to Army. He is back to put the final touches on a career that has seen him rush for 39 touchdowns, good for fourth all-time at Navy, despite all the challenges he has faced. Zach Abey is back with a final chance at redemption.
From all accounts, he never complained about losing his job. He never sulked about his situation. He found a way to help his team and he did what any good Marine would do; he put the needs of the many ahead of his own. But Zach Abey’s football story isn’t over just yet. He gets one more shot at Army. He gets one more shot at being the quarterback Navy needs to right the ship. He gets one more chance to be thrust into the limelight on the biggest stage for a team in need of an uplifting victory in a season that has not lived up to Coach Niumatalolo’s lofty standards.
So, yes, what Jalen Hurts did yesterday was incredible. I tucked it away in the back of my brain for that moment when my four year old son first tells me he wants to quit something. But don’t think he’s the only quarterback with a chance to reemerge from the fire a little scorched but better prepared for the challenges in front of him. If you thought what Hurts was able to do was impressive, I implore you to tune into CBS on Saturday at 3:00 and watch another quarterback looking to write the fairytale ending to his own narrative.
And even if he can’t pull it off, just know that the Marine Corps is in better hands because of Zach Abey’s football story. It is, after all, one filled with character building moments for a young man destined to be one of our country’s finest leaders!