Navy linebacker Brye French had never met Brendan Looney, only hearing stories about the former academy lacrosse star and his two brothers from longtime coach Richie Meade. Then one day during French's sophomore year, Meade told his team that the eldest Looney brother had died in Iraq.
French, who had come to Navy to play both lacrosse and football, began to understand the reasons he was in Annapolis when he heard about Looney's death in a helicopter crash. It was further clarified for French when the lacrosse team attended the funeral of Navy SEAL from Silver Spring.
"This place teaches you about sacrifice. Who cares how much you play — [it's] whatever you can do to help the team," French, now a senior and one of Navy's football team captains, said after practice Monday. "Brendan Looney made the ultimate sacrifice; he set the ultimate example."
On Saturday in Philadelphia, when Navy (7-4) plays Army (2-9) for the right to take home the Commander in Chief's Trophy, French will wear a patch on his uniform representing SEAL Team 3, the unit Looney was serving with when he was killed.
It marks the second straight year French has honored Looney by wearing the patch against the Black Knights.
"I never met him, but it's definitely a privilege to wear his patch," French said of Looney, who came to Navy as a football player from DeMatha before switching to lacrosse.
All Navy players will wear patches representing individual units or in a few cases the entire Marine Corps. Sophomore offensive guard Jake Zuzek will wear the patch representing the USS Midway, the legendary aircraft carrier on which his grandfather served.
The Army players will also wear patches in the game at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Black Knights have never won (0-9) and the Midshipmen are looking for their 11th straight win in a rivalry now in its 113th year.
"Our captains and our seniors involved [did] this on on their own," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "I'm grateful that they're willing to pay tribute, that they're not just football players, they come to the academy to serve their country and in a small way pay tribute."
Navy senior slotback John Howell, whose season and playing career ended when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the team's fourth game against San Jose State, said the idea of wearing a patch was motivation to get healthy enough to put on his uniform and possibly run out of the tunnel for the last time.
"Just dressing alone feels great. To the extent that my knee was [injured], being able to suit up after two months is a great feeling," said Howell, a native of Hatfield, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia. "If I could run out, that would just add to it, being home in Philadelphia. It would definitely be a nice way to end my senior season."
Howell will wear a patch representing J.P. Blecksmith, who on Veterans Day in 2004 became the second former Navy football player to be killed in combat in Iraq. Blecksmith died a little more than two months after Ronnie Winchester was killed.
Initially Howell had inquired about getting a patch representing any infantry unit, but hearing that one of the officers at the academy had Blecksmith's patch intrigued him.
"I knew he played football, but seeing that he was the first officer killed in action at Fallujah in Operation Phantom Fury, I told them that I would be completely honored," Howell said. "They are going to take a picture and send it to his dad."
Niumatalolo was the offensive line coach when Blecksmith was finishing his career at Navy as a wide receiver; Blecksmith caught a pass in the 2001 Army-Navy game after starting out as a strong-armed quarterback out of high school in California.
Asked what he remembered about Blecksmith, Niumatalolo said: "Just a typical Navy football player. Unselfish, hard-nosed, good person, never said anything, just worked as hard as he could. We moved him to wide-out, and he didn't say a word, symbolic of the kind of kids we have here now."
French was a plebe when he started hearing the stories about the Looney brothers, Brendan in particular, from Meade.
"Coach Meade in practice would always reference the Looney brothers, particularly Brendan and how influential he was … that he set the example, everything he embodied — commitment, hard work, toughness, love," French said. "When he passed away, you could tell it hurt Coach Meade."
French said Looney's funeral was "very touching" and sees how he will carry on Looney's mission when he goes into the Marines after graduation.
"He was one of us — an athlete at the academy, who in a few short years, he paid the price for our freedom," French said. "It's kind of a cliche when you hear that, but he lived it with countless others, including his best friend [Travis Manion, a former Navy wrestler who was killed in action]. It's an honor to represent him."
Kevin Looney said Tuesday that the Army-Navy game has long been a part of his family's life, even before his three sons all went to the Naval Academy. The elder Looney said he plans on being in Philadelphia on Saturday. Having French wear the patch representing his late son's unit is meaningful.
"It's always good that we know he won't be forgotten," Looney said, "and that's the one thing the Naval Academy and the SEAL community is good about — remembering all those that have fallen, not just Brendan, but all of them."
Note: Navy senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel was named to the Capital One Academic All-America first team by the College Sports Information Directors of America. Wetzel, who carries a 3.89 GPA in systems engineering, is the eighth Navy player to be named a first-team Academic All-American; offensive lineman John Dowd was chosen in 2010 and 2011. After playing sparingly his first three seasons, Wetzel has a team-high six sacks — two shy of a single-season program record — and has made a team-best 13.5 tackles for loss among his 63 stops. He has also forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.
J.P. Blecksmith's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. The Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun