Tough season has tested Navy offensive captain Anthony Gargiulo

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

At the beginning of August, Anthony Gargiulo was one of four players on the podium for Navy football’s annual Media Day event. Navy’s starting fullback and offensive team captain expressed boundless enthusiasm and fervent optimism for the upcoming season.

“Obviously, we all had high hopes, especially coming off the summer training we had been doing,” Gargiulo recalled. “We were definitely confident and really thought we had a good team – not just talent-wise, but in terms of grit and determination as well. We felt like we had something special going.”

Needless to say, Gargiulo never envisioned what has happened this season – both personally and team-wise. Navy is already assured of a losing season while Gargiulo lost his starting spot.

“We definitely did not picture going 2-7. We certainly never expected to lose to Cincinnati as bad as we did,” Gargiulo said. “Looking at it now, we recognize we have played a bunch of really good teams. We understand that we’re not playing any pushovers, especially in this conference. It’s been a real grind, one good team right after another.”

As one of two team captains charged with holding the team together in face of unprecedented adversity, Gargiulo is proud of the approach the Midshipmen have continued to take on a daily and weekly basis.

“We’re still fighting, still battling. We’re not giving up or blowing off the rest of the season,” Gargiulo said. “To be honest, that’s all we can do. Obviously, our record is not anywhere near what we want it to be. That hasn’t altered the mentality or work ethic of this team.

“Seeing that guys are willing to dig deeper and are willing to work harder is important to me personally because it shows they’re not giving up on the season,” Gargiulo added.

Gargiulo and defensive captain Sean Williams meet regularly to discuss the best ways to motivate the team. Nothing would be more uplifting than a big win and Navy has a golden opportunity to get one on Saturday at No. 12 Central Florida (8-0).

“We look at this game Central Florida as a great chance to get things turned around and believe we can beat that team,” Gargiulo said. “I still have a lot of confidence in the ability of this team. I think if we come out clicking on all cylinders we have a good chance.”

BITTER PILL

Gargiulo acknowledges he has not always been as upbeat as he should be during this disappointing season. The 6-foot-2, 239-pound powerhouse has managed a mere 233 rushing yards through nine games.

In hopes of finding a spark at the fullback position, Navy installed sophomore Nelson Smith as the starter beginning with Game 4 against SMU. That decision was a real blow to the pride of Gargiulo, who got just two carries during a 51-21 rout of Lehigh on Sept. 15.

“It definitely hurt and was difficult to swallow. As a senior captain, you’re not expecting the starting position, but you definitely want it,” Gargiulo said. “You feel like you fought for it, had earned it and put in the time to deserve it.”

It was nothing short of a shocking wakeup call when the New Jersey native was informed otherwise by fullbacks coach Mike Judge.

“Sadly, I was woken up quickly to the fact that wasn’t the case. I was told that I wasn’t performing at the level I needed to in order to be the starting fullback for this team,” Gargiulo said. “So I took that as a challenge and made a renewed commitment to doing everything I could to be the player and leader this team needs.”

Truth be told, that positive approach was not the initial reaction of Gargiulo, who does not deny being angry about the sudden demotion. Navy’s offense struggles this season have certainly not been solely the fault of the fullback, but rather the result of a wide range of factors.

“It definitely was difficult with me being the type of person I am, a fiery Italian who always wears his emotions on his sleeve,” Gargiulo said.

“It was tough at the beginning to contain my emotions. I knew that I had to find a way to fight through those feelings, especially when it came to being in front of the team,” he added. “I could not come across as someone who was sulking. In my role as captain, I have to always set an example that we all have to do whatever is best for the team.”

Judge, who has coached the Navy fullbacks for 11 years, did not relish delivering the message that a change was forthcoming. Judge understood how important it was for Gargiulo, as offensive captain, to have the starting job.

“That was the hardest meeting I’ve ever had with a player. I’ve known Anthony for six years now, going back to when I was recruiting him out of Colts Neck High,” Judge said. “So it was tough to sit down with Anthony and tell him we were going in a different direction. It really hurt me to have to do that, but I felt strongly it was in the best interest of the organization. For this program, it was the right move at the right time.”

When Gargiulo reacted poorly to the news and allowed the disappointment to impact his leadership qualities, Judge did not pull any punches in setting the senior straight.

“Coaches don’t vote for captains, players do. Those guys down in the locker room selected Anthony to be their leader and he needed to act like it,” Judge said. “Anthony needed to be able to put his ego aside, put his personal feeling aside and ask himself what was best for this team at this moment.”

Gargiulo’s anger probably bubbled over after the Air Force loss, an important service academy contest in which he did not touch the ball one time. The Midshipmen were humiliated by the Falcons, 35-7, and the offensive captain certainly felt like he could have made a difference.

“Given all the situations and circumstances, I think Anthony has handled it fairly well. There were a couple weeks there that were rougher than others,” Judge said. “We’ve had a lot of heart-to-heart talks and I think it’s helped Anthony compartmentalize things to the point that he’s now in a much better place than he was after the Air Force game. He’s learned to handle things a little differently than he had been.”

BATTLING BACK

Gargiulo has not rushed for more than 40 yards in a game this season and has been limited to single-digit carries in seven straight contests. Again, Navy’s overall offensive struggles are the biggest reason for that lack of production as no skill player is posting impressive statistics.

Smith has started six straight games and ranks second on the team in rushing with 319 yards. The 5-foot-9, 212-pounder, who is quicker and more explosive than Gargiulo, is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

“I wouldn’t say Anthony ever got benched. That was never the intent and is not how we see the situation,” Judge said. “It’s just that we felt Nelson might provide a different skill set.”

That being said, Gargiulo has begun to show signs of breaking through, averaging almost seven yards per carry in the Temple, Notre Dame and Cincinnati losses combined. Ironically, Gargiulo’s best outing came in his first game as the backup, gaining 40 yards on nine attempts versus SMU.

“Anthony has turned a corner mentally, which is allowing him to perform at a higher level

I’m encouraged by the direction he’s heading,” Judge said. “I think Anthony has actually been playing at a higher level than Nelson the last few weeks, and that has translated into increased game reps. There is a chance Anthony will wind up starting again before the season is over.”

Nothing has come easy for Gargiulo throughout his collegiate career. There was a time not too long ago when the happy-go-lucky youngster known as “Garge” was buried on the depth chart at fullback.

Knowing the work ethic and character the future Marine Corps officer possessed, Judge was confident he would do the right thing for both himself and the team.

“I’ve said this a number of times: Anthony has earned everything he’s gotten here – from practice repetitions to playing time to becoming the captain,” Judge said. “He earned all that through his actions and he needed to continue to do that. He could not allow one setback to continue to derail everything that he’d done.”

Gargiulo, who has battled through a deep thigh bruise that really bothered him against Houston, has tried to look at the big picture beyond football. He is going to graduate from the Naval Academy with a quantitative economics degree and eventually head to The Basic School at Quantico, Virginia.

“I try to reiterate to everyone that we have been given a great opportunity here at the Naval Academy, and that means outside of football,” he said. “We need to make the most of this experience on every level because one day football is going to end and we have to go out into the real world and do grown men type of stuff.”

Being voted captain of the Navy football team is something to be proud of and Gargiulo’s name will always be listed in the Navy media guide as having held that title in 2018. On the down side, future generations will see that he was captain of one of only two losing teams since 2002.

“Unfortunately, that fact hits me in the face every time I look in the mirror,” Gargiulo said. “The way I look at it, and the way my parents and others have reminded me, is that the bonds we have all made and the friendships we have developed are more important than a losing season. I can honestly say that it’s been a real honor to have been part of this organization for the past four years.”

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