With heavy hearts and a new slogan to help remember their fallen teammate, the Navy football team returned to practice Tuesday in Annapolis.
It came 10 days after freshman slotback Will McKamey collapsed from a brain injury on a nearby field and was flown by medical helicopter to Maryland Shock Trauma, where he died last Tuesday night.
It came the day after more than 50 midshipmen, team members and coaches, as well as athletic director Chet Gladchuk and Vice Admiral Mike Miller, the academy's superintendant, attended McKamey's funeral in Knoxville, Tenn.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose Midshipmen had not practiced since the initial incident on March 22, said nothing he experienced in his 25-year career could match what he went through during the past week.
"It's been tough on us, but it's really been tough on the [McKamey] family," Niumatalolo said after practice. "Last week we took some time off to mourn. There's nothing that prepares you for that."
Niumatalolo said that the team would not make up the four practices it missed among the 15 allowed each spring by the NCAA.
"I thought it was most important ... for our team to heal," Niumatalolo said. "It's obviously still ongoing. There are things way more important than football, things way more important than spring ball."
Niumatalolo said that the team met every day last week and went to a local restaurant for breakfast on Saturday. Niumatalolo said he spent a few "sleepless nights" thinking about McKamey and what he should do with his team following McKamey's death.
After the funeral at Grace Baptist Church, which was attended by nearly 2,000, Niumatalolo decided that it would be part of his team's healing process to get back on the field.
Asked if he could tell whether his team was able to use its first practice in more than a week as a way to heal, Niumatalolo said: "I hope so. That was the hope, that this would be therapeutic.
"You have sleepless nights thinking, 'Should we stay out the month? Should we cancel spring ball?' Hopefully us coming back and hitting each other and tackling, catching the ball and doing what these guys do would help us in the healing process."
Junior captain Parrish Gaines said that it was during the past week when he began seeing the motivational slogan #IWILL on social media. He talked with his several teammates about it and said that the Midshipmen have adopted it for the upcoming season, which it will dedicate to a player who had never suited up for anything more than a junior varsity game at Navy.
"I feel like it embodies our team, too, and the Naval Academy," Gaines said Tuesday. "All the things we have to do on and off the field. I will study all night even though we have early practice tomorrow, I will rush over here from sixth period and get dressed in two minutes. I feel it was symbolic and I feel that it was perfect for our team, also."
Though many of his older teammates didn't know McKamey that well, if at all, the freshman's death has certainly appeared to strengthen the bond of a team that was close already.
"We felt obligated to help our younger brothers out through this hard time, even some juniors like me, we felt we needed to help them out," Gaines said. "The team rallied around each other. That's what we have to do in tough situations like this."
Said senior fullback and captain Noah Copeland: "We made sure we did things together as a team."
As the parent of three children, including two sons who played or currently play football, McKamey's death hit Niumatalolo extremely hard. The circumstances surrounding his collapse — bleeding and swelling of the brain for the second time in the past 18 months — are still not completely clear.
"It's hard enough that the kid obviously passed away, that's paramount to anything," Niumatalolo said. "The hard part is that we wish we knew what happened. Nobody knows what happened. That's on the backburner, there's a family that buried their son Monday. That supercedes everything."
twitter.com/sportsprof56Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun