Army quarterback Trent Steelman leaps over a teammate while running the ball against Temple earlier this season. Steelman will be starting his fourth Army-Navy game on Dec. 8. (Danny Wild / USA TODAY)
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WEST POINT, N.Y. Army quarterback Trent Steelman was destined to be a star. His dad knew it nearly two decades ago.
A week after Trent started playing flag football, his coach took Bob Steelman aside at practice and made a heartfelt plea.
"He said, ‘I'm not going to say anything negative about your son, but you need to put him up with the older kids in tackle football because he's going to kill somebody out here,'" Bob Steelman recalled. "So they threw him out of touch and put him in tackle as a 6-year-old."
And so began a love affair with a game that means the world at West Point. Now a senior and facing the final game of his tenure beating Navy on Saturday, something the Black Knights haven't done in a decade.
The two academies meet on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
"It'd be the perfect ending," Steelman said, "to a season where we've seen so many ups and downs."
Army (2-9) has struggled against its rivals for what must seem like eons to the Black Knights. For the first time since 2005, both teams enter the 113th game in this storied rivalry with wins over Air Force, and the winner will decide who gets the Commander In Chief's Trophy, emblematic of supremacy among the three schools.
Navy (7-4) beat Air Force 28-21 in overtime in early October and Army beat the Falcons 42-21 at Michie Stadium last month. That halted Army's 13-game losing streak in service academy games, and now the Black Knights are focused on winning the coveted hardware for the first time since 1996.
Despite many heart wrenching losses, the 6-foot, 207-pound Steelman gives Army a legitimate chance this time. He has rewritten the Army record book with his keen mind and powerful legs, and he has directed the Black Knights' ground-gobbling triple option attack with precision and poise:
He is the only player in school history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and pass for more than 2,000.
He leads the team with 1,152 yards rushing, a season record for any Army quarterback. His 755 rushes for 3,224 yards and 268 points are career records for the position.
He has reached the 100-yard rushing mark in a school-record five straight games, and another against Navy would tie the academy's single-season record set in 1990 (Mike Mayweather).
Steelman has a school-record 44 rushing scores, one more than the mark set nearly six decades ago by the great Glenn Davis.
And he will become the first Army quarterback since the days of Davis and Doc Blanchard to start four times against Navy.
The latter is a feat in itself when you consider that Steelman's dream of playing Division I football nearly was dashed despite a stellar high school career in Bowling Green, Ky.
Although Steelman led Bowling Green High to three straight state championship games, winning 36 of the 40 games he started, colleges were more interested in his baseball skills. Keep in mind, he passed for more than 5,663 yards and 52 touchdowns, and rushed for nearly 1,700 yards and 30 more scores while there.
"His competitiveness didn't start when he got to West Point. He was an extremely valued leader who endeared himself to his teammates because he did everything humanly possible to win football games," Bowling Green High football coach Kevin Wallace said. "We were hopeful that schools would recognize that he could throw the ball, too.
"But his height and the fact that he had pretty much been an option quarterback his whole career is something that worked against him in terms of recruiting."
Army reached out at the 11th hour and Steelman jumped at the chance, though he had no idea what he was getting into when he entered the prep school. It's a given that a certain percentage of cadets won't cut it and don't, and Steelman called his dad on the third day ready to pack his bags.
"I told him, ‘You know what? I'm not going to go through this just to play football,'" Trent said. "He hung up the phone."
Well, not really.
"I didn't hang up," Bob Steelman said. "I told him, ‘You don't have a place to stay if you don't stay until Christmas and give it a shot.' They hadn't even started football yet."
Turns out, Steelman was distraught because he had been caught in a surprise inspection talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. He didn't get punished, but all of his classmates did and he had to call out their punishment.
"He was the most unpopular guy at the prep school for about a week and a half," Bob Steelman said with a chuckle.
The stars aligned for Steelman when Army hired Rich Ellerson as coach prior to the 2009 season. Ellerson went against academy tradition in naming Steelman the starter at quarterback as a freshman.
"It was tough but, as a plebe, he had the style of play we were trying to install," Ellerson said. "He was the most competent guy and had grown up in a similar offense. He was more physically prepared. He's always been fiercely competitive and incredibly tough."
Steelman started the first 32 games of his Army career before suffering a high ankle sprain in a loss at Vanderbilt last season, racking up the yards while often playing hurt in an offense where the quarterback takes a beating on just about every play.
That's why some NFL scouts have come to take a look and why Steelman will play in an all-star game after the season.
"It's just been all blood and guts to make it happen," said Bob Steelman, a standout wide receiver in the 1970s at Appalachian State, where Fisher DeBerry was his position coach before his stellar tenure as coach at Air Force. "I think people in the football world recognize that. That's something you can't teach intestinal fortitude. He's played with broken ribs, a separated shoulder.
"I guess the records are some rewards for his perseverance and staying tough."
Perhaps what is most impressive about Steelman is how he has dealt with the losing. Though he has led Army to 16 wins, including a victory over SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl two years ago, this season has been trying.
It can summed up in a game vs. Northern Illinois on Sept. 15.
The Black Knights, who have led the country in rushing almost the entire season, ran for 486 yards, held the ball for more than 42 minutes, and still lost, 41-40, to the Huskies at Michie Stadium.
"That's the problem that Trent's faced, and I have to take my hat off to him because he's won his whole life," said Bob Steelman, who finds it "surreal" that only Davis was responsible for more touchdowns at West Point than his son. "He's definitely disappointed, but they don't quit. They know they have the potential. They're going to give it their all until the end of the game.
"It's frustrating for Trent, but he's still there for his teammates and they're still brothers, and they still feel like they can beat the world."
On Saturday, beating Navy would simply be enough, though. But win or lose, the world of football that Steelman has known most of his life is nearing its end. It is a sobering thought for a man possessed by the game, someone who went from playing flag football to waking up every day at 5:30 a.m. for practice at West Point.
It does go fast, doesn't it?
"When I have any opportunity to put a football in my hand, no matter the outcome, I'm happy," Steelman said. "Even after four years of playing at this level, I find something new about myself every day. I find something every day that I can get better at. That's the type of attitude I bring to life, just knowing that I'm never perfect and never will be perfect.
"Not ever playing football again is going to be something I'm going to have to get over. It's going to take a while, but at the same time I'm ready to try new things in life. I'm ready to have a great military career."