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Safety first for Navy defense


For 2 1/2 seasons, he labored in relative obscurity in the Naval Academy's football program. Then, one day last fall, Christopher Michael Lepore made a pronouncement come true and he was never to be a secret again.

Now, the senior free safety has shown up on numerous preseason All-America lists -- the first Navy player to be so cited since Napoleon McCallum in 1984 - and has already been invited to the postseason Gridiron Classic in Orlando, Fla., and the Hula Bowl in Honolulu.

In addition, he is on the initial list for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation's best defensive back.

Lepore's visage has flooded the Annapolis-Baltimore-Washington corridor as the focal point of the academy's advertising campaign to sell season tickets.

All because of one October afternoon in Indiana.

Lepore burst onto the national scene at Notre Dame Stadium where -- after his sophomore year at St. Edward High in North Olmsted, Ohio -- he had visited with some football teammates to soak up the atmosphere.

That night, he returned home with an envelope full of grass from the field and told his father, Bob: "We got to go down on the field and walk around. I am going to play there one day."

Dad was somewhat skeptical, but the vow became reality when Lepore almost single-handedly led Navy to its first victory over Notre Dame since 1963 before a questionable fourth-down spot gave the Irish a first down and they eventually scored the winning touchdown in a 28-24 thriller.

Lepore had 20 tackles, a sack, forced and recovered a fumble to set up a field goal and blocked a punt that was recovered for a touchdown. Announcer Dick Enberg dubbed Lepore the best safety he had seen all season.

"It was bittersweet because lost in the end," Lepore said. "I knew what Notre Dame meant, growing up watching it on TV, the tradition, Touchdown Jesus, the whole thing. You can't get any higher in college football. I made some plays, but I could have made another one. It wasn't enough."

When Navy launches its 2000 season at home tomorrow against Temple, Lepore will be the leader of the secondary, inheriting the role from graduated Jaime Doffermyre. Despite missing one game with an injury, he registered a team-high 127 tackles last season, 24 more than Doffermyre and saved a victory over West Virginia with a last-minute interception.

"I'm a senior and I should know what I'm doing," he said. "I'll tell the cornerbacks and the safeties where to be. I have to assume it is my job to lead."

Lepore receives a lot of good-natured ribbing from his teammates because of his newly gained fame and takes it in stride.

"The guys have given me a hard time about it, especially the offensive linemen," he said. "I think they are just disgruntled because they do all the work and don't get any of the glory. Being on the billboard was great for my parents more than anything. They eat that stuff up."

He said all the attention is "nice and surprising, but I just want to win football games. Everything else is just icing."

At 6 feet and almost 200 pounds, Lepore relishes contact and has a propensity for producing big plays. He is not overly swift but has a keen eye for the ball and always seems to be in the proper place.

He regards the defense's performance as the key to Navy's success because Navy's option offense already presents problems to opponents who seldom see it during the season.

"It's really up to us. We need to improve, no matter what the offense does," said Lepore of the 3-4 alignment that made Navy tougher to score on last season.

A computer science major, Lepore developed his competitiveness through bouts with his younger brother Steve, who was the leading basketball scorer at Northwestern last season and is sitting out this year after transferring to Wake Forest.

"Both of us always wanted to, had to be, better than the other," Chris said. "If it wasn't for he and I pushing each other competitively, I don't think we would be where we are right now."

Eventually, Lepore's goal is to coach, preferably at the high school level. He aspires to be a graduate assistant at Navy next season if possible to point him in that direction.

No matter what the future holds, he will always have the recollections from that warm autumn day in South Bend when the leaves had turned, the stadium was full and the game was stirring, if heartbreaking at the finish.

"I appreciate it now, but it's something I can appreciate more when I'm 50 years old and I can show the tape to my kids," he said. "It was one of the best times of my life."

The grass he took from the stadium is long gone, but the memories will never go away.

Navy schedule

Date Opponent Time

Sept. 2 Temple 7

Sept. 16 at Georgia Tech 3:30

Sept. 23 at Boston College 12

Sept. 30 Texas Christian 12

Oct. 7 at Air Force 3

Oct. 14 vs. Notre Dame-a 12

Oct. 21 Rutgers 12

Oct. 28 Toledo 12

Nov. 11 at Tulane 6

Nov. 18 Wake Forest 12

Dec. 2 vs. Army 12

a-at Orlando, Fla;

b-at Baltimore

Navy at a glance

Coach: Charlie Weatherbie (6th season)

Last year: 5-7

Conference: Independent

Radio: WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (1300 AM), WMAL (630 AM)

Stadium: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial (30,000)

Offense: Triple option

Defense: 3-4

Top returning players: QB Brian Broadwater, FB Raheem Lambert, WR Brandon Rampani, OT Hoot Stahl, LB Shaka Martin, DE Brad Wimsatt, LB Ryan Hamilton, CB Davede Alexander, S Chris Lepore

Top newcomers: NG Andy Zetts, PK David Hills and Justin Willis, LB Jake Bowen

Strengths: The team will operate behind an all-senior offensive line that is big, strong and seasoned. Fortunately, Navy had a solid quarterback replacement for injured Brian Madden in Broadwater and Lambert is a long-ball threat at fullback. Lepore is an All-America candidate and Wimsatt the new leader on defense.

Weaknesses: A big question mark at place-kicker, where newcomers Hills and Willis have been alternately good and erratic. Zetts and Josh Brindel have a heavy load in replacing David Ryno as the nose guard, the team is thin at slotback and overall depth could be troublesome.

Strongest opponent: Texas Christian. It is risky not to say Notre Dame here, but the Horned Frogs have 41 lettermen back, including 18 starters, from an 8-4 team that climaxed its run with a victory over East Carolina in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.

Key game: As usual, the finale against Army represents the pinnacle of the Navy season. At PSINet Stadium on Dec. 2, the Midshipmen may be playing for the Commander-in-Chief Trophy and a bowl bid and will be playing for military pride and bragging rights.

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