Kalib Fortner glanced at the Jumbotron of Gillette Stadium and saw a sea of Army gold jerseys as he sprinted to the end zone.
Army’s sophomore linebacker almost missed the defensive signal, calling for him to blitz off the edge. Fortner came off the left side unblocked and zeroed in on the football in Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai’s right hand. He stripped the ball, scooped it up and went 44 yards to the house for a game-changing, fourth-quarter play that Army would need to beat Navy 17-11.
“They were showing on film that they were kind of loose with the ball when they were in the pocket,” said Fortner, who was named the game’s most valuable player. “It was almost like I planned it the way it bounced into my hands.”
Fortner promised to give every ounce of energy he had for Army’s senior class on the days leading up to the 124th game in the service-academy rivalry. Boy, did Fortner ever.
Fortner’s 10-tackle effort started on the game’s second play when his pass rush hurried Navy back Eli Heidenreich’s trick pass into an incompletion. Fortner was also alert and on the spot for a critical tackle of Alec Tecza in the final moments, stopping Navy’s fullback at the Army 2 on 3rd-and-goal, setting up the Black Knights’ fourth-down, goal-line stand to seal the victory.
“I almost got picked but I was able to get underneath and wrapped him to make sure he didn’t fall forward,” Fortner said.
And, of course, the defensive superfecta, a play that will remembered in recent Army-Navy history, the sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and touchdown. Former Army linebacker James Nachtigal, who knows a thing or two about dislodging the ball from quarterbacks, posted on social media, “That was the cleanest strip sack I’ve seen in a long time.”
Fortner, who took over as a starting inside linebacker in Army’s fourth game after senior Spencer Jones suffered a season-ending injury, made good on his promise in his first Army-Navy start.
“I love the seniors we have here,” Fortner said. “The group of guys we had in the locker room was just unbelievable. The leadership that they showed all year long is something I hope I can match once they leave. To leave it on the field for them just meant the world to me and I just wanted to make sure I did that for them.”