For Navy's Middleton, football is the simple part

For a few hours each day -- and especially on Saturdays -- Wyatt Middleton's beautiful mind is at rest. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, at peace.

This does not occur when he's sleeping, or daydreaming. It does not happen in front of a television, or with a book in his hand. Instead, this tranquility of the brain takes place on a football field.

There, the world is simplified into straight lines and sharp angles.

There is no quantitative analysis, robotics engineering or applied physics. There is only the game, and the men who play it. For these rare moments of mental serenity, Middleton is grateful.

"I've taken a lot of math," Middleton said this week. "Calculus 3, differential equations, engineering statistics. I see a lot of numbers. So when I get on the football field, I try to keep things pretty simple.

"Football is my way of getting away from it all. When I'm on that field, it's a mental break. It's just me having fun."

A number of smart men will be on the field today when Navy takes on Notre Dame at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Fighting Irish and the Midshipmen boast some of the highest academic standards among all NCAA Division I football programs. But Middleton, even among that select group, deserves elite status. He's a systems engineering major, and his 18 credits this semester include classes such as engineering design methods, applied sensors and actuators, mobile robot design and quantitative methods for management.

"Have you seen some of the classes he's taking?" Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "I can't even pronounce half of them."

But Middleton -- a senior Mids safety originally from Norcross, Ga. -- in many ways represents the ideal that the Navy football program has been striving toward in recent years: intelligence combined with legitimate athletic ability.

Middleton might spend the next 10 years building robots for the Navy, but he also might spend the next decade carving out an NFL career.

A four-year starter for the Mids, he's regarded as one of the best defensive backs the academy has suited up in the past 20 years. There is a decent chance he could follow in the footsteps of his older brother, William, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Furman and now plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Thanks to players such as Middleton, Navy has turned around what was, historically, the most lopsided rivalry in college football. After losing an NCAA-record 43 straight games to Notre Dame from 1964 to 2006, the Midshipmen will be vying for their third win over the Irish in the past four years. Only two senior classes have accomplished that feat: the 1936 class and the 1964 class.

How did the turnaround happen? You can trace some of it back to 2007, when a skinny freshman safety recorded 14 tackles in a 46-44, triple-overtime victory over the Irish.

"It's funny, but as a freshman, I felt like I didn't really have that much pressure on me," Middleton said. "You don't have many responsibilities. You're just there to make plays and have fun."

In 2009, he had eight tackles and a fumble recovery as Navy upset 16th-ranked Notre Dame, 23-21.

"This series used to be all Notre Dame," Middleton said. "But things have changed. We play pretty well against these guys. I love playing against them."

The Midshipmen's victory in 2007 was a cathartic win, Middleton said.

It finally ended the dreaded talk each year about the streak and whether it would last forever. It gave hope to future generations of Navy players. The academy even canceled classes the Monday after the win to celebrate.

But in many respects, the 2009 victory was more important to Middleton. In 2007, the Irish were not very good. They finished the year 3-9, the worst record in school history.

But in 2009, Navy won in South Bend even though it entered the game a three-touchdown underdog.

In Middleton's eyes, winning last year was proof that Navy's football program, which less than 10 years ago was one of the worst in college football, was here to stay.

"That was a huge confidence booster to our program," Middleton said. "We knew it would mean a lot to future Navy football players as well."

Playing against Notre Dame has always had a touch of added significance for Middleton, because the rivalry between the two schools is a family affair. His sister, Kellie, played softball at Notre Dame and was an all-Big East outfielder who graduated with a double major in biology and psychology in just three years. He made several trips to South Bend while she was enrolled.

"It's a great school," Middleton said. "It's a beautiful school. It has a lot of personal meaning to me when I play them. My sister has a lot friends, and she knew people on the football team. So it was almost like a personal thing where I'm playing against people my sister knew, so I always thought that was pretty neat."

Kellie Middleton left Notre Dame with two years of eligibility remaining because of an injury and enrolled at Georgia, where she became a two-time All-American while earning her master's degree in public health. She's now attending medical school at Pittsburgh, a path that might seem daunting until you begin to understand just how focused and driven the entire Middleton family is.

Middleton's father, Al, grew up in New York City and was one of 14 children. Almost all of them eventually earned advanced degrees. Al Middleton played basketball at Gannon University, and eventually became an electrical engineer and is now the CEO of his own company, Everel America. But that success could not have occurred without the struggle that preceded it.

"My parents did a great job of raising us and really setting a foundation for each of us," said Middleton, who worked throughout his youth building playgrounds and decks with his father. "If you want something in life, you have to work for it. You can't give in to all the pressures, or decide it's too hard to achieve. Growing up, we saw that. My dad worked two and three jobs, my mom was working two and three jobs. It wasn't until I got older that I really started to notice things like that. Sporting events were just a chance to have fun. And I think we saw how much happiness it brought to our parents' eyes, so it turned into something that felt like it could help any situation."

Middleton was a good football player at Marist High School, but it wasn't until he arrived at the academy after a year at the Naval Academy Prep School that he truly blossomed.

"We watched film on him in high school, and he was mostly playing outside linebacker," Green said. "He was such a good tackler in the open field, we thought he might be able to move to defensive back, and it turned out to be a pretty good call. We've used him in so many ways. We put him in man, in two-deep, we put him down in the box, we bring him as a blitzer off the edge. We just saw as a freshman how much flexibility he had. And I don't think I've ever been around someone who worked as hard as he did to get better."

Some of Middleton's time at the academy feels like a blur of textbooks, lectures, essays and equations.

He decided early on to major in systems engineering because he wanted to work in technology, but at times it was almost overwhelming.

"Being at the academy, things can get pretty tough. There are times when you feel like giving up," Middleton said. "It took a lot of work for me. And there were times when I was like, 'Why didn't I take something easier? Why am I taking all these hard classes?' I'm studying so much, I'm not asleep until 1:30 a.m., and then I'm getting up at 6:30 a.m. When you work that hard and you still do poorly on a test, you start to think, 'When am I going to catch a break?'" You could take the easy way out, which is switch your major or get into an easier class, but I think it's a good life lesson. You can't cut corners in life, so there is no point in doing it in school or football."

Middleton's future might include any number of possibilities. His specialized track involves designing and programming robots to do specific tasks. When he graduates, he'll be a commissioned officer in the Navy for a time, and after meeting certain qualifications, he'll likely begin work toward getting a master's degree in engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in California or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From there, he could design ships or weapons systems for the Navy.

"Robots are the future," Middleton said. "We're already making major advancements in technology with medical robots and industry robots that are going to be really helpful, doing jobs that are too dangerous or too difficult for humans to do. I'm a really technical guy, a hands-on guy. I've always been interested in the idea of someone building and programming robots to do those kind of things."

That career could also be delayed a bit if Middleton draws enough interest from NFL general managers. The man who hopes to design robots off the field still moves with a unique human grace when he's on it.

Naval Academy graduates who hope to pursue a professional football career are granted extended leave to do so after serving 18 months.

"I don't know what's going to happen in the future," Middleton said. "But I know I've set myself up so that nothing but greatness can come."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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