Among five “celebrity” guests for Sunday’s 64th Holy Rosary Sports Night, Toneo Gulley was back in Kenosha for the third time since the former Tremper standout running back graduated high school in 2012.
He recently completed a four-year career (47 games) at the United States Naval Academy in which he carried 66 times for 693 yards and eight touchdowns, caught six passes for 140 yards and one score and returned 13 kickoffs for 271 yards.
Set to graduate in May with a general science degree, Gulley was part of a class that accumulated the most wins (37) in school history.
A slot back (mainly a blocker in Navy’s option offense), he served as the Midshipmen’s offensive captain in 2016 as they finished 9-5. He missed their last two games with a foot injury, but said he is nearly 100 percent recovered from that.
In November, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.
Before the Sports Night dinner, Gulley reflected on his college career and looked ahead to his future in a nearly 10-minute interview with the News.
Here are some (edited) highlights of that conversation:
Q: Has it sunk in yet that your career is over and you’re about to transition to a new chapter in your life?
A: “Yes, sir. It’s kind of surreal. It’s bittersweet. I enjoyed every bit of it, and it has hit me that I’m not going to be able to play football anymore, so I kind of go back and watch film a little bit, just reminisce about the times on the field during game days and practice — just the time with my teammates.”
Q: How tough was it not to be able to finish your career on the field? (Gulley suffered a Lisfranc sprain and fracture of the third metatarsal bone in his left foot and missed the Army-Navy game and the Armed Forces Bowl.)
A: “It was tough, but being in the locker room with the guys, they almost uplifted me. It was easier to deal with with my teammates around, and I knew I still had a job to do. Even though I wasn’t playing physically, I was still there. I was still the team captain, so I had to lead from the sidelines, like our defensive captain did early in the season. He changed over to the role because he got injured, and I knew I had to step into that role as well. My job wasn’t done, so it was rough but they made it easy.”
Q: How exciting was it to be an offensive captain your senior year? You had previously said that was one of your goals.
A: “Yes, it was a goal of mine. Coming in, I didn’t really speak on it too much. I just wanted to let my actions speak, and if I was being worthy of my teammates to be captain, then they would select me. It was an awesome ride, and it was an honor to be named captain. I learned a lot and had a fun time with it.”
Q: What are you most proud of in your career?
A: “I think I’m most proud of how we responded to adversity. Pretty much our main goal ... for Navy football is, ‘Play for the love of your brother,’ and I think that really showed throughout the year. Just when people got hurt and the next person got put in the role and kept it rolling. Week after week, injuries happened and people stepped up and we only stepped up because we knew we didn’t want to let our brother down. I think I’m most proud of that — just how much our team grew from Game 1 to Game 14.”
Q: Do you have a personal favorite memory? You had a 70-yard touchdown run against Tulsa as a junior and beat sixth-ranked Houston this season. ...
A: “I think beating Houston and Notre Dame were personal favorites because Houston was ranked and we lost to them last year. We wanted to get them back this year, and we did. ... We were one of 13 (Navy) teams, I believe, that beat Notre Dame and I’m just happy to be a part of that tradition. (Note: Navy has defeated Notre Dame four times since 1963 in the annual rivalry that dates to 1927 and that the Fighting Irish lead 76-13-1.)
Q: You were a star running back at Tremper. Do you wish you would have gotten a few more carries in college instead of primarily being a blocker?
A: “Not really. I didn’t think about it. Wherever the team needed me and whatever they asked me, that’s what I did. It just so happened that blocking was my forte for a little bit. I took ownership of it, and I made it what I was about. That’s what people looked to me for, like ‘Toneo Gulley, he’s the blocker.’ But once I got the ball, I ran with the ball, too. Every running back loves running the ball, but it’s bigger than that. It’s all about the team, and if I can help my teammates score or spring them for a long run, then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
Q: What made you want to be a Marine?
A: “It’s the culture, the lifestyle that the Marines have. Just the camaraderie they have, the sense of brotherhood. It’s like another team atmosphere, and it’s closely related to football so I definitely was really attracted to that. I got to spend some time with enlisted Marines and some of the staff on the team are Marines, so just being around them that’s kind of who I wanted to be around.”
Q: What will your duties be, and where do you think you might be stationed?
A: “I’m not 100 percent sure yet. Upon graduation, I’m going to have ‘basket leave’ for 30 days and then I’ll report back to the Naval Academy. I’ll be coaching the whole season next season (at Navy as a graduate assistant). In March 2018, I’ll go into training, TBS — The Basic School — for six months, then I’ll find out what my job will entail and where I’ll be stationed. I kind of want to be in, I’m thinking Japan. I just want to go experience something new and be stationed in Japan, but we’ll see when the time comes.”
Q: Do you want to serve in the military for a long time
A: “Actually, it didn’t hit me until high school. I never really thought of serving before, and then once the opportunity of playing football for the Naval Academy (arose), I started doing research. I’ve seen it from my mother (Shellaree Twitty) because she’s in the Navy, and I’ve seen what it can do for a family and the benefits of it. It was hard to pass up, and once I got to this school and understood what serving your country really meant, then I was all on board.”
Q: Do you see yourself being a coach long-term or ever doing some other kind of career?
A: “A coach of some sort. I’ve always wanted to give back to youth. My brother and I actually talked about it, and I’m not sure if that entails coaching or just a mentor role or something like that. I’m not sure if it’s going to be coaching, but I can see myself doing it.”
Q: What has being in the Naval Academy taught you about yourself over the last four-plus years?
A: “It taught me that I did not know what time management was before I got there. I thought I did, but I didn’t. Time management and a sense of accountability — just holding your peers accountable. Peer leadership is one of the toughest things that anybody can do, and having to tell your best friend to walk the straight and narrow or just get him out of a bad situation, it’s tough. The academy helped me overcome that fear, overcome that leadership (challenge). I learned a lot about myself, just mentally, physically, emotionally.”
Q: Several schools (Northern Illinois, Toledo, Akron) recruited you in high school. If you had a choice to do it all over again, would you still pick Navy?
A: “Most certainly, most certainly. I would definitely do it all over again.”
Q: Do you have any regrets at all?
A: “No regrets. I always feel like I could have done more, but no regrets. I’m happy with my decision, and I’m thankful that I’m going to be able to graduate from the United States Naval Academy.”