The decisive moment of Saturday's thrilling Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field took only a split second but will lie heavy in the Black Knights' hearts for a long time to come.
With a first down at the Navy 14, on what he surely felt would be a drive to the winning touchdown, quarterback Trent Steelman thought he had executed a routine handoff to fullback Larry Dixon. But in an eyeblink, the ball was on the ground and Steelman was throwing himself in desperation on a pile where Navy nose guard Barry Dabney had a death clutch on the ball.
The turnover, with 1 minute, 4 seconds to play, sealed the Midshipmen's 11th straight victory in the classic series, a 17-13 win behind freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, and enabled them to leave South Philadelphia with the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for defeating Army and Air Force.
For Steelman, who started 46 games in four seasons but went 0-4 against the Mids, the mistake, one for which he took the blame, was his worst nightmare.
"It's just unfortunate," he said. "I don't know how else to put it. I feel like we deserved that game in every way possible, but it just didn't happen. We were wearing them down and there was nothing that was going to stop us. But that's life. Things don't go your way sometimes."
Army (2-10) held a 418-297 edge in total offense, rolling up 370 yards on the ground. West Catholic graduate Raymond Maples rushed for 156 yards on 27 carries and Steelman added 96 yards and a touchdown.
But the Black Knights lost three fumbles. In addition, a missed 37-yard field goal attempt by Eric Osteen with 6:57 to play and Army holding a 13-10 lead meant the team had to score a touchdown at the end to win.
The game's ultimate playmaker was Reynolds, who hadn't even watched his first Army-Navy game until last year.
Reynolds led the Mids (8-4) on the decisive 80-yard drive after Osteen's miss. He picked up more than half of the real estate with a perfectly thrown 49-yard pass to Brandon Wright to the Army 8, and scored on the next play, with 4:41 remaining, by outrunning a defender to the pylon.
"Before the drive started, I told the guys, 'This is the one. We're going to go down and going to score,' " said Reynolds, who was named the game's MVP. "I couldn't have done it without the guys on this squad. Brandon came up with a huge catch, made a big play for us."
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he wasn't surprised what Reynolds accomplished in such a pressure-packed atmosphere.
"The kid knows what he's doing," he said. "He is a very, very good football player. He listens, he's coachable. His legacy will be, will he stay hungry and stay humble? If he does those two things, he has a chance to go down as one of the best quarterbacks we've ever had here. The kid made some huge throws."
Army coach Rich Ellerson said that the Black Knights expected to win "from the beginning to the end" but that turnovers and the kicking game kept it from happening.
"Those are the things that correlate with success," he said. "Those are the things that are fundamental to the game. The scoreboard will reflect those things."
Running back Raymond Maples faced conflicting emotions Saturday after a tense Army-Navy game that ended in disappointment for his team.
The junior for the Black Knights, a graduate of West Catholic, was thrilled to play such a prestigious game in front of family and friends in his hometown. He was proud to shake hands and speak briefly afterward with former high school teammate Jake Zuzek, a guard for the Midshipmen.
But Army's 17-13 loss hurt. Although Maples rushed for a game-high 156 yards on 27 carries, he lost a second-quarter fumble at the Navy 38 after catching a pass from Trent Steelman, and the Mids converted the turnover into their first touchdown.
"I had a good day, but I also had a turnover, and that hurt us," Maples said. "In games like this, every turnover, every yard counts. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn't turned the ball over? I had over 100 yards, but I'll remember that fumble I had."
Maples ended the season with 1,215 yards, a vital contribution for a team that set an academy record with 4,438 rushing yards. He and Steelman became Army's most productive rushing tandem ever, combining for 2,463 yards.
Maples said he was proud to have two players on the field at the Linc representing West Catholic. Of Zuzek, he said, "I have mad respect for the kid."
He said the two "spoke a couple of words but not too many."
As for the finish, Maples said, "It hurts, not just because we've been practicing and practicing. Every year it feels like we're getting closer, but we just can't capitalize at the end. Honestly, I think that's what it comes down to, capitalizing at the end."