As most of my friends well know, I am an obsessed Keenan Reynolds super-fan. Keenan is the outgoing senior quarterback for the Navy football team, who racked up killer statistics in his four-year Navy career, with records and statistics impressive not just for a service academy player, but remarkable for any elite NCAA Division 1 player. He finished fifth in the Heisman voting and I blogged about my extreme disappointment that he was not invited to the ceremony in New York City in What the Heisman Trophy Says About Us
Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I am so fanatical about Keenan. Certainly, his is a good underdog story, and we all enjoy the David beating Goliath tales. I also feel a pseudo- (or maybe psycho-) maternal affection for him, since he was my son’s classmate at Navy. (I find myself inexplicably tearing up over news of him, which is both touching and a little weird.)
But it may also be partly due to (my perceived) current shortage of inspirational national leadership. I am usually a political junkie, especially during presidential election years, but I can barely bring myself to follow this election. The news terrifies and depresses me. Instead, following coverage of Keenan Reynolds, who to me represents the good in our country and an example of a healthy role model, has been a welcome distraction. And it is frankly deeply comforting when, sometimes, good things happen to the good guys.
It all started because our son was one class ahead of Keenan at Navy, so we attended the majority of Navy’s home games with Keenan at quarterback. We met many of the players, including Keenan, multiple times at various events. It is easy to develop a maternal-like fondness for Navy players, as they are all such inspiring young men, each with compelling life stories and aspirations. I blogged about my growing obsession in The Basketball Tripleheader: My Life as a Groupie
But even among this impressive group, Keenan stood out as a leader of leaders. I believe he is an example of what we should look for, and nurture, in our leadership:
Humility and Presence
Keenan was given his first start at quarterback as a freshman (highly unusual at Navy), took full advantage of the opportunity, worked his tail off, and never looked back. I probably read or saw every interview featuring Keenan (as previously mentioned, I’m obsessed). As he became more and more successful on the field, I half expected a cockiness or arrogance to emerge. Instead, I watched, incredulously, as he developed steadily and surely from a somewhat reticent teenager (suddenly thrust into the spotlight of leadership) to a humble yet confident, engaging and endlessly impressive young man.
I recently read an interview with Scott Strasemeier (Sports Information Director for Navy), who marveled that Keenan, in his four remarkable years at Navy, has been under intense scrutiny and given countless interviews to the press, and that he has never once made a mistake. Not one flubbed speech or misstatement or missed opportunity to give credit to others. In fact, it was Keenan’s consistent insistence on deflecting praise from himself to his teammates and coaches, to putting the team’s success first, that initially made me such a fan.
Flexibility, tenacity and patience.
I am impressed with how Keenan has handled adversity. He has openly shared that playing in the NFL has always been a dream of his. However, he recognized and accepted that the five-year military commitment required of Navy midshipmen would be a significant hurdle to overcome (although recently there have been allowances made for exceptional athletes to facilitate their professional athletic careers). He stated emphatically that he would be honored to serve his country, pursuant to his own personal commitment, in whatever capacity he was needed, even if that meant never playing football again.
I learned this year that there is something called the NFL Scouting Combine, which is apparently a big try-out for college players. Keenan was not invited. He was invited to the East-West Shrine Game in January (another great opportunity to shine for the pro scouts), but as a running back not a quarterback. Despite all his records and success as Navy quarterback, he was deemed too small with too little arm strength for the pros. He later recounted that his father called him, somewhat angry that Keenan was not given a chance at quarterback, but Keenan was grateful for the opportunity to play, in any position. He reportedly wowed the scouts in practice but had to skip the game because of a back strain.
Accepting that the only chance he would have in the pros would be in a position other than quarterback (the position he played his entire life), Keenan worked out as a wide receiver with the Tennessee Titans and the New England Patriots and attended a pro day with the Baltimore Ravens, and began working with a punt receiver coach. All the while meeting his academic and military obligations at Navy, and consistently deflecting questions about his future and restating his commitment to the needs of the Navy.
Loyalty, Poise and Values
What most impresses me about Keenan, and what I believe is the bedrock of his leadership, is that he lives by a durable set of personal core values. His upbringing with strong, supportive parents, extended family and a faith community has provided him a solid internal and external support system.
A good leader should have exemplary character and must be trustworthy. A good leader “walks the talk” and in doing so earns the right to have responsibility for others. Keenan, as a “plebe” (freshman) quarterback, was put in a position of leadership on the field over others who mostly outranked him off the field. He had the strength of character to lead, not from ego, but through loyalty to his teammates, poise under pressure, an exceptional work ethic, and a selfless drive to make the team and his teammates better. He earned the respect of his teammates.
Good Things Happen to the Good Guys
After four years of watching Keenan blossom at Navy, it has been exciting to now see him recognized on a national level:
- Even though he didn’t play at the East-West game in January, he was made a unanimous captain for the East team. Also during this game, he won the Pat Tillman Award, which “is presented to a player who best exemplifies character, intelligence, sportsmanship and service. The award is about a student-athlete’s achievements and conduct, both on and off the field.”
- On February 28, 2016, the Naval Academy announced that Keenan Reynolds would be the last player to wear No. 19. Besides Keenan, only Roger Staubach, Joe Bellino, and Napolean McCallum have had their numbers retired by the school.
- Following what I considered a regrettable snub by the Heisman committee last December, I was delighted to see Keenan honored with the James E. Sullivan Award on April 10, 2016. Presented by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), this award is given to “the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.”
Past recipients have included Tim Tebow, Michael Phelps and Peyton Manning. Keenan attended the ceremony with his mother and his speech (which of course made me cry) was a model of humility and grace, giving credit to his family, his faith, and his teammates for his success.
- On Saturday, May 30 (I watched the NFL Draft live on my iPhone, something I have never done and never thought I would) in the 6th round, with the 182nd pick overall, the Baltimore Ravens selected Keenan Reynolds, as a wide receiver. I cried tears of joy as I watched the video feed of Keenan taking the call from the Ravens flanked by his mom, dad, little brother, and teammates.
- The Secretary of the Navy has recently recommended that Keenan be allowed to play full-time with the Ravens, and that he fulfill his military commitment through the Reserves. The Secretary of the Defense must still approve this recommendation, but by all accounts, it is considered a formality.
I admit I am somewhat torn (as are many in the military community) as to whether Keenan should be allowed to play pro football full-time and immediately, without any active duty service commitment. Part of me would rather have someone of Keenan’s caliber protecting our country (his service selection was cyber-security) as opposed to knocking heads on Sunday. (And what if he gets a concussion? my psycho-mom-self worries.) However, it has been a joy, and an opportune diversion to watch the development and emergence of this fine young man. Wherever he lands, either in the sports world, the military, government, or business, he will be a beacon of light, and it soothes my spirit to know that we are producing the next generation of quality young leaders like Keenan Reynolds. And you bet I’ll be rooting for him on Sundays!