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Gupton, Horton to Naval Academy

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
MOUNT ULLA ó West Rowan football coach Scott Young sat in Washington’s RFK Stadium two months ago watching Wake Forest play Navy in the EagleBank Bowl.
Young, The Associated Press Coach of the Year for North Carolina, was as fascinated by the Brigade of Midshipmen marching in and cheering on his flank as he was the activity on the field.
The wave of energy and spirit flowing from young people who had pledged to defend his way of life made him feel pretty good about his country and its future.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, this Navy thing is a good thing,’ ” Young said. “I felt something very special that day, and I thought it would be great if one of my players could someday be part of that.”
Young didn’t have to wait long. Not one but two standouts from West’s 3A state champions are U.S. Naval Academy recruits. Receiver Brantley Horton and strong safety Marco Gupton will report to Annapolis, Md., for duty in July.
Horton, a quarterback-turned-pass catcher with great hands and deceptive speed, made 47 catches for 876 yards and 11 TDs as a senior on a run-first team.
Gupton is a living legend at age 18. He tore an ACL in West’s 10th game but postponed surgery so he could keep doing his job. He grimaced, grunted and tackled people despite serious pain the last six games.
Like the other service academies, Navy is in the business of identifying driven, responsible high school seniors who have what it takes to be future officers.
Leadership qualities, academic achievement and a desire to serve are at the top of the list of desirable traits.
What Navy has done better than Army and Air Force in recent years is identify capable young men who also excel as football players.
Ken Niumatolo coached the Midshipmen, who run the triple-option with crisp efficiency, to eight wins and their sixth straight bowl game in 2008. Navy, which beat Air Force and Army once again, annually owns the 175-pound, 31/2-foot high Commander in Chief’s Trophy.
Navy always plays Notre Dame and opens with Ohio State next season. Navy doesn’t attract the NFL-bound athletes who pick Ohio State and Notre Dame, but it has a belief that heart and discipline can equalize the fight.
Because its screening and application process take a while, Navy usually doesn’t enter the recruiting picture until January and February.
Navy coaches, led by defensive coordinator Buddy Green ó an N.C. State graduate who patrols the Carolinas ó made a successful recruiting pitch to Gupton, Horton and their families.
Navy offers a ton ó an Ivy League-quality education free of charge, an idyllic campus setting in downtown Annapolis and an opportunity to play an elite brand of football that is often televised.
Navy also demands a lot ó rising and shining at 6:30 a.m., rigid schedules and a five-year active-service commitment after graduation. There’s also three years of reserve duty beyond that.
The commitment after graduation makes Navy a monumental, life-altering choice for an 18-year-old, but Horton and Gupton aren’t average teens.
“I had both in class, and they’re top-notch,” West defensive coordinator David Hunt said. “People tend to overlook it, but what happens from bell to bell is as important as what happens out on that field when it’s time to be recruited.”
Gupton, who is ahead of schedule rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee, hopes to be 90-95 percent recovered by fall. He has no regrets about his decision to play on through the injury.
“Being part of a state championship was well worth it all,” he said. “It was the first time we ever got to the end of the season with no tears. It was emotional, but no crying this time.”
Gupton said his decision came down to Utah or Navy. Utah made a good offer, but Navy promised roads that should lead to good things beyond the field. Gupton will be a classmate of future admirals and CEOs.
Maybe presidents.
“People’s first thought is, ‘Navy ó you’re going to get shot at,’ ” Gupton said. “But there’s a lot more to it. This is the place for me because Navy not just out there finding the best athletes. They’re getting the guys who work the hardest and love the game the most. I’m looking at this opportunity as a dream come true.”
Hunt said Gupton, who made 114 tackles his senior year, is all-world when it comes to desire.
“He will do about anything it takes to be successful,” Hunt said. “People always will remember him playing on one leg, but Marco goes back a long time before that. Speed was the knock on him, and he worked as hard to make himself faster in the last year than anyone I’ve ever seen. He made himself more valuable to us and to his next team.”
Horton was a standout receiver as a sophomore and the starting signal-caller as a junior. He returned to wideout as a senior with B.J. Sherrill emerging as an all-county QB.
“I had no problem at all with that,” Horton said. “I like winning, and we won a state championship. It was a blast, the best year of my life.”
West receivers coach Butch Browning is sold on Horton.
“Brantley’s quiet but gets his point across when he says something,” he said. “The position switch he made this year would have been a tough one for most kids, but he did it gladly to help the team. That showed his character.”
Serious, focused and already blessed with a finger-cracking, firm handshake, Horton appears to be ideal officer material.
“People ask me if this isn’t a tough decision to make at my age, and, yes, it is a huge commitment, but it’s also an opportunity to serve my country,” Horton said. “I know I’m not the greatest athlete in the world, but I feel blessed that I played well enough and did well enough on my grades that I’ve been given this chance.”
Horton was recruited by many smaller schools, most enthusiastically by UNC Pembroke and Campbell.
Instead he’ll get to visit the White House, and he may get to play against Notre Dame.
“It’s a proud day for our program and our community,” Young said. “Marco and Brantley have great grades and great character, and I’m as proud as when our guys signed with North Carolina and Wake Forest. Their senior year, Navy plays Notre Dame in Ireland, and maybe one or both will be on that field. Could it get any better than that?”
 

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