ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Justin Self had always leaned on his father, Mike, to pursue his dream of playing college football. Drills on the middle school field, Friday night lights in Texas, Saturday morning garage workouts, summer camps and official visits -- Mike guided him through all of it. The two bonded through their love for the sport, as Mike was born in Arkansas and raised in Birmingham, Alabama -- a mecca of college football -- and Justin grew up about 35 minutes from the historic Cotton Bowl.
Mike had played two seasons as a long-snapper at North Alabama before serving in the reserves and enlisting in the Navy, where he worked mostly as a radio operator but was never an officer. Considering his background, it was only natural that part of his son's recruiting process included an official visit to the U.S. Naval Academy. Justin was sold as soon as he met the team.
"I had always joked with him about how I was going to be an officer when I graduated and he was an enlisted guy," Justin said, "so he was going to have to salute me."
It happened sooner than expected.
"I remember my signing day," said Justin, now a junior offensive tackle. "When I finally signed, he broke down in tears. Afterward, the gym was empty, it was just me and him in there. He came up and he gave me a salute.
"'You're going to be an officer,' he said."
In May 2017, before Justin's plebe summer, the training program for incoming freshmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, Mike Self died after a heart attack he suffered during a family trip to visit relatives in Alabama. He was 49 years old, and Justin was 19.
About a year later, Justin was home on break and rooting around in his dad's storage shed in their backyard, searching for things from his father's childhood when he spotted an old cardboard box.
The otherwise nondescript cube was a treasure trove of Mike Self's Navy days, filled with pins and badges he wore on his old uniform, pictures, foreign currency and a yearbook from the three different ships he had served on.
Justin opened the unmarked box and spotted the patches his dad had cut off his uniforms, thin black strips in a slight arch with U.S.S. DAHLGREN stitched in white letters. Excited, he ran inside the house to show his mom. That night, an idea hit him:
"When I dress for the Army-Navy, game, I'm putting these patches on."
Selecting a patch for the uniform worn in Saturday's Army-Navy game is one small, but significant, personal choice given to the Midshipmen on a campus where nearly every other decision is made for them, including what they wear and how they wear it.
Since August, long before the first snap of the season, Navy's specially designed uniforms for its game against Army in Philadelphia were hidden in the academy's Halsey Field House. They weren't completed, though, until late November, when the finishing touches were sewn on -- one patch chosen by each player from more than 600 shipped to Annapolis from all over the world, or passed along through friends and family, representing all different branches of the military, including, of course, the Army.
At Navy, it's a unique tradition that began in 1989. Army also wears patches chosen specifically for this game, but collectively honors a division as a team.
Each stitched symbol tells its own story, and while some are chosen simply for style, other reasons run deeper. For the second straight season, Justin Self will honor his father -- but he also saved enough of the patches for his little brother, Brent, who committed to play at Navy next year.
"For some guys, it's emotional," Justin said. "They do it because it's something they've always believed in. Some guys pick because it's the coolest patch on the table. For me, it's knowing [my dad] is on the field with me since he can't be in the stands. It's my little way of having him there with me on the field."
The patch is in the mail
Dear Navy Football,
I'm submitting my squadron's patch for consideration for this year's Army-Navy game. The squadron is VAW-121 Bluetails from Norfolk, VA, and we fly the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. We have been deployed since April 1st onboard the USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN where we have been flying missions in support of U.S. objectives in the Arabian Sea. We have several alumni in the squadron, but unfortunately we will not be able to attend the game. I know it would mean a lot to all of the alumni and Sailors in the squadron to see the command represented front and center at America's game. It would lift their spirits on what has been a very long and demanding deployment. Thank you for your consideration. GO NAVY! BEAT ARMY!
LCDR Vaughn "Patchez" Villarreal
USNA Class of 2007
The letters pour in from literally all over the globe, detailing missions abroad and at sea, and explaining the significance of the enclosed patches. There are heaps of them in clear plastic bins; many are spread out on tables in a colorful array for the players to examine. Some letters are directed to specific players, but no one forces them to wear that specific patch.
Sometimes, it means just as much to have the patch chosen as it does to wear it.
"I'm not sure if the patch ended up getting picked or not ...," Lt. Cmdr. Villarreal wrote in an email to ESPN, "but I'm keeping my fingers crossed."
On Nov. 7, players slowly shuffled into the equipment room to sift through rows of various patches in many shapes and sizes from different commands. Like in a department store, some players asked to put the patches on hold.
"It's back there, it should be in the top drawer," junior striker Jacob Springer reminded Greg Morgenthaler, associate athletic director of equipment operations for football. "Top right. You held it for me."
Since Aug. 30.
Sophomore cornerback Mikey McMorris enlisted the help of his older brother on FaceTime as he browsed the selections. Sophomore receiver Mychal Cooper was on the phone with his stepfather, Jon Arnold, in the equipment room as they decided Cooper would wear one of Arnold's old Army patches.
"All of these mean a bunch of great things, but I really have no connection to those," Cooper said, looking at the patches on cluttered tables. "My stepdad, he's been a really big influence in my life. He was in the Army. He was in the 101st Airborne Division. I'd like to wear something that means something to me."
Peter Ford, Navy's assistant director of equipment operations, looks more like a lineman than a tailor, but he boasts he can sew one patch in under a minute (as long as it's a circle, there's no Velcro to burn off, and it's not something complicated -- like Eagle wings).
"I learned to sew from YouTube," he said.
Ford and his colleague, Shari Mangas, use the two sewing machines in Halsey Field House, where Mangas had been sewing on the A's for the American Athletic Conference for over a month. The Navy uniforms will also feature college football's 150th anniversary patch for the first time this season.
On the day before Thanksgiving, the entire team went to the theatre at the Annapolis Mall to see "Knives Out." Before the movie started, they were treated to a special preview on the big screen -- the reveal of their uniform for the Army game.
"I was not expecting it," senior long-snapper Michael Pifer said. "It was a really good, collective reaction. I'm pretty sure everyone liked the concept and the theme of it."
Senior nose guard Jackson Pittman and junior linebacker Austin Talbert-Loving have chosen to wear the patch featuring a castle sent in by the battalion of former Navy defensive end Amos Mason. A 2017 graduate, Mason is now a combat engineer officer in the Marine Corps, based in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Pittman and Mason went to the same high school, Brentwood Academy in Tennessee, where Pittman's father, Jack Jr., coached them both.
"I'm excited that he chose to wear my badge," Mason said. "You can send them in, but there's no guarantee that those guys are going to wear it."
Defensive co-captain Nizaire Cromartie will wear a patch in memory of recent graduate Joshua Kaleb Watson; he was one of three U.S. sailors, along with Mohammed S. Haitham and Cameron Scott Walters, fatally shot on Dec. 6 at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Cromartie's patch was taken from the flight suits of his classmates from the Naval Aviation Schools Command in Pensacola, Florida, where Watson, Haitham and Walters were assigned.
Keeping memories alive
Not all patches come to the equipment room.
Navy offensive tackle Billy Honaker will wear a patch to honor his cousin, Christopher Stephen Honaker, who was killed in Afghanistan. Senior safety Elan Nash lets his dad, who served four years on the USS Forrestal, choose a patch from his dress uniform. This year he picked a Petty Officer 3rd Class Aviation Structural Mechanic badge.
"He was a big influence in me coming here. And being affiliated with the Navy and the Naval Academy in the first place, when I was younger he had taken me to some games, just as a fan, because we're from the Philadelphia area," said Nash, whose grandfather also served in the Navy. "Obviously, he's had a huge impact on my life. ... It's just a cool way to honor my legacy and my family a little bit, more than just the name on the back, but something more specific to what my dad actually did in his time in the service."
Senior offensive tackle Joe Goff picked his brother's Army patch (yes, he's allowed) because he said the West Point grad is the reason he plays football.
"I'm just more than happy to honor him and be able to show him I'm thankful for what he's done for me," Goff said. "Even with the whole Army-Navy tradition, the family love is definitely what's more important to me."
One of the most remarkable origin stories is of Pifer's patch. He was sitting in his dorm room in October, scrolling through Facebook, when he came across a post celebrating the 95th birthday of his friend's grandfather, John Kepechia:
Happy 95th Birthday to John Kepechia! He was a member of the US Navy Torpedo Squadron VT305. They were shot down over the Solomon Islands on their 34th Mission May 21st, 1944. John was 19 years old. Of the survivors he is the only one remaining.
"I was like wait, I didn't realize all this happened," Pifer said. "I can't believe I never heard anything about this. It was kind of surreal."
"He was 19 years old and people were dying in his arms," Pifer's mom, Jill DeNillo, said of Kepechia. "I'm bawling reading this, so I'm investigating it more. We knew he was a veteran, but we didn't have any clue until just recently that he's the last remaining survivor."
Knowing he had to pick a patch for the Army-Navy game, Pifer immediately thought of Kepechia, who follows Pifer's Navy football career. Pifer played youth football all the way through high school with Kepechia's grandson, Tyler Lavelle. There was one problem: Kepechia's patch -- and everything else from that day -- has been missing since he was taken prisoner. Kepechia had a drawing, though. It was a picture of a red donkey on tan felt, and according to a collector's site, it was made in Australia and only 200 were ordered.
DeNillo did some searching through social media and eventually found a company called Wings and Things in Pensacola that would replicate the patch.
"Since it's in World War II and the 1940s, I didn't know if anyone was going to be able to create the patch," Pifer said, "Whenever we figured out we could, I was like, 'Yeah, no-brainer, let's do this.'
"We actually were able to get some in bulk, so we were able to give some to him and his family so they are able to pass that down and keep telling the stories."
The memorabilia is what keeps the stories, and memories, alive.
Following his military career, Mike Self worked as an electronics technician for a company in the oil industry and focused on his wife, Ginger, and their two boys, Justin and Brent. When Justin was in high school, he and his dad "had this little thing" where Mike would write him a note every Thursday night and slip it into his lunchbox on Friday mornings to encourage him for that night's game. He continued to do that through email when Justin was at the Navy prep school.
Now, Ginger writes them, and her voice cracked as she talked about it.
"I started reading some of them, what Mike wrote, and thought, 'OK, how could I put it in my own words?'" she said. "I just encourage him to stay with it, 'What your dad taught you, just keep it up.' I always end it with -- because my husband did, too -- 'Love, one of your biggest fans, Mom.' Because one of his biggest fans is always watching, too. I say that to him, too, 'You know he's watching.'"
Justin still saves the emails. He has a box of his own, just like his dad.
"It means everything to me," he said. "I've got them saved in folders every time she sends them to me. I want to be able to, in 20 or 30 years, share those with my kids. I even have my dad's old paper ones in a box at home somewhere. I just want to be able to show them what my parents did for me."
On Saturday, with one small patch, he'll show everyone watching, but he won't be the only Midshipman wearing a story.