Army linebacker Jon Rhattigan is right where he always wanted to be as the biggest game of his life looms. It just took a little longer than he imagined.
A football captain in high school in Naperville, Illinois, Rhattigan’s first three years with the Black Knights went like this: no varsity action in 2017; played in one game in 2018, the season finale in the Armed Forces Bowl; appeared in all 13 games last year and registered six tackles while playing on special teams.
Not an easy row to hoe.
“Toughness and humility. That was the first three years,” Rhattigan said. “It was a grind, as college football should be. I think this program, especially, is built on toughness and humility, and I think that’s a great way for me to describe the first three years. I was fine in my role on the team and doing the best I could each year. Thankfully, that role has changed.”
Has it ever.
This year, Rhattigan has been a key as a starter on a defense ranked fourth nationally (289.3 yards allowed per game) under first-year coordinator Nate Woody. Rhattigan leads the Black Knights in tackles with 67, eight of them for losses, and he's tied for the team lead with two interceptions, one that he returned for a touchdown. On Monday he was named one of 18 semifinalists for the Bednarik Award, presented annually to the nation’s top defensive player, a nice start to the week as Army (7-2) prepared to play Navy (3-6) at Michie Stadium on Saturday.
“I think he made up his mind in the offseason that he was going to be a leader for us," Woody said. "He stepped up and took on a role that we desperately needed. I can’t tell you how tremendous of an asset he’s been.”
Rhattigan simply had to wait his turn. He was behind two-year captain Cole Christiansen on the depth chart, and Christiansen is now in the NFL with the Chargers.
“I guess it just happens," Army coach Jeff Monken said. “You don’t always find yourself at the top of the depth chart right away. We knew he was a good player, but I felt like we had some good players there that were playing, too.”
Rhattigan’s high school coach said his former star understood the process and never once griped.
“It’s tough when you’re not playing, but I never heard him once get down on himself or the team or anything like that,” Naperville coach Bill Ellinghaus said. "He knew that he was behind a really, really unique player and he was willing to put the work in to be as good as he could be when the time was right. When I talked to him last summer, he said, 'You know what? I think it's my time.'"
Growing up with two older, athletic brothers — brother Joe was a star tailback at Princeton — taught Rhattigan valuable lessons that have served him well at West Point.
"If there’s one thing that Jon is really good at, it’s enduring those kinds of things," said Rhattigan's father, T.J. “He was in the shadow of both of his older brothers most of his life. He’s a survivor. He perseveres. He just will not quit. I’m sure it was difficult for him. He wouldn’t say anything.”
Rhattigan, at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, had several offers from both the Ivy League and Mid-American Conference and some interest from Big Ten schools before suffering a torn knee ligament early in his junior year in high school. He rebounded with a solid senior year and chose West Point during a trip east to visit several schools.
After a stop at Brown of the Ivy League, it was on to West Point to the surprise of his father, whose attempt to dissuade him failed.
“I said, ‘What are you doing? You’re not going to go to West Point. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,'" T.J. Rhattigan recalled. ”And he said, ’We have to go. This coach, when everybody else gave up on me (because of the injury, long-time Army assistant) Tucker Waugh kept calling.’"
When former Army tight end Kelvin White, a family friend, was there waiting at West Point to be a tour guide, that pretty much sealed the deal.
“In terms of football, I loved what coach Monken was doing with the program,” Rhattigan said. “I saw a lot of potential. I was very intrigued. When it came down to it, this was the best place for me.”
Every military academy has its share of students and athletes who decide that the grueling life of a cadet is not worth it and transfer. That thought was fleeting at best in Rhattigan's mind after sophomore year, usually the point when those decisions are made.
“They leave because they see greener grass on the other side. They realize they might not get on the field because there are so many guys in front on the depth chart," T.J. Rhattigan said. "We talked about that and I will tell you we didn’t talk about it for very long. He said, ‘I’m not leaving. I came to West Point, I’m going to finish at West Point.’
“That’s kind of a testament to what kind of a guy he is. You cannot tell him he’s not going to do something because he’s going to do it.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25