Navy's football team resumed practice on Tuesday - one week after the death of a teammate - and head coach Ken Niumatalolo hopes a return to routine will hasten the healing process.
The Midshipmen had not put on the helmets and shoulder pads since freshman slotback Will McKamey collapsed during practice on March 22 and was airlifted by medical helicopter to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma facility. After undergoing cranial surgery to relieve swelling and bleeding on the brain, the 19-year-old never regained consciousness and died while in a coma on March 25.
Niumatalolo said there are no plans to make up the four practices that were cancelled last week and is merely hoping the basic elements that go along with football will help the players get over the tragedy. The Midshipmen will conclude spring camp on April 11 as scheduled, meaning they will not use all 15 practices that are allowed each spring by the NCAA.
"Last week, we took some time off to mourn. We let guys do things voluntarily like throw the football or lift weights and we tried to do some things as a team," said Niumatalolo, who took all the players out to Sunday brunch at Buddy's on Main Street in Annapolis.
"Our approach now is: the way we can honor Will, one of our brothers, is to come out here and get after it on the field. Our hope is that this would be therapeutic and help us. Hopefully, coming back and hitting, tackling, catching the ball - just doing what these guys do - would help us heal."
Niumatalolo said he spent many sleepless nights trying to determine what to do football-wise. Should Navy take a month off or simply cancel spring practice altogether? The seventh-year head coach realized there is no right or wrong when dealing with the unfathomable.
"There's nothing that prepares you for something like that. I've been coaching 25 years and there's no blueprint," said Niumatalolo, who held a team meeting every day last week so the players could bond and discuss their feelings. "We just have to continue to press forward and do the best we can. I don't think anyone knows the timetable or what to do and how to do it."
Niumatalolo led a contingent of more than 50 coaches, players and support staff from the Navy football program to McKamey's funeral, held at Grace Baptist Church in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. During the service, the head coach thought about his own three children and how he would deal with losing any one of them.
"I went to the funeral yesterday and thought about just what you said. It's not supposed to happen that way. Parents aren't supposed to bury their kids," Niumatalolo said. "Our thoughts are still with Will's family - Randy and Kara and their children. They have been super strong."
Randy and Kara McKamey have expressed many times over the last week that they are relying on their belief in God to help them understand losing a son with so much promise at such a young age. Randy McKamey is the head coach of varsity football at Grace Christian Academy, where Will was a two-time All-State selection as a running back.
Assistant coach Ashley Ingram has recruited Tennessee for Navy since joining the staff in 2008. Ingram had met Randy McKamey previously while visiting the school and got to know him much better while trying to convince his son to attend the academy.
"There's no doubt that, on a personal level, it's been very tough on me. I got to know Will and his family very well during the recruiting process," Ingram said. "You've heard all these things about Will McKamey, and I can tell you that he's everything that everybody said he was and more. Just an absolutely wonderful young man from a great family."
Ingram spent considerable time at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore to support the McKamey family and came away humbled by the way they handled a devastating situation. Following their son's death, Randy and Kara told members of the coaching staff that Will would have wanted them to stay the course and move forward.
"I know without a doubt that Will and his family are devout Christians, and there is some comfort for them to know that he's in a better place, that he's in heaven. They are people of great faith, and that's where their strength comes from," Ingram said.
"While they are strong, they are hurting. I know there will be some tough times to come as life progresses. When the spotlight fades and the newspaper articles stop there will still be a rough road ahead," said Ingram, who intends to make regular visits to Grace Baptist Academy to visit Randy McKamey whether or not Navy is recruiting a player from the small private school.
One positive throughout the terrible ordeal has been the way members of the Navy football family have come together on behalf of one of their own. Niumatalolo talked about Major Robert Green, a Marine Corps officer who serves as military liaison for the Navy football program.
Green was a constant presence at the hospital during the four days Will McKamey was being treated in intensive care. When the youngster passed away, it was Green who accompanied the body on the flight back to Knoxville. During the viewing on Monday morning, Green stood vigil alongside the casket for several hours.
"I'm very proud of everybody, from our captains and our seniors to all of our plebes," Niumatalolo said. "It just makes you feel good to know that we've got good people. This program is surrounded by good people."
Team captains Noah Copeland and Parrish Gaines have led the way as upperclassmen within the football program made sure to be there for members of the plebe class that knew McKamey the best.
"We definitely felt obligated to help our younger brothers out through this hard time. Everyone on the team rallied around each other," said Gaines, calling McKamey's death "something that you're going to think about for the rest of your life."
Following McKamey's death, the hash tags #livelikewill and #IWILL began trending on Twitter. Copeland and Gaines thought the latter slogan was particularly appropriate and the football team subsequently adopted it as motto for a 2014 season that will be dedicated to a player who never appeared in a varsity game.
"I feel like it embodies our team, too. Just as far as all the things we have to do on and off the field," Gaines said. "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 in order to be at practice on time. I just thought it was symbolic and perfect for our team."
Will McKamey collapsed during football game as a senior in high school and spent several days in the hospital while doctors monitored swelling and bleeding on the brain. Surgery was not required and eventually four neurosurgeons cleared McKamey to continue playing football at the collegiate level.
Several sources have told The Capital that doctors affiliated with the Navy football program had reservations about McKamey returning to the sport and that the family was asked to sign a waiver.
According to multiple sources, McKamey was participating in light drills early in the Saturday practice session when he came to the sideline and complained to a trainer that his head hurt. McKamey then removed his own helmet before collapsing.
Navy assistant coaches carefully reviewed videotapes of that practice as well as previous ones in an effort to determine whether McKamey suffered some sort of collision or contact that would have precipitated the brain injury.
"It's hard enough that the kid passed away. The hardest part is that we wish we knew what happened. Nobody knows what happened," Niumatalolo said. "That's on the backburner right now. There's a family that just buried their son Monday. That supersedes everything."