Tim Tepe, the first football coach in Navy senior outside linebacker Nicholas Straw’s life, recalls how unremarkable Straw’s initial, on-field impression was. Then a fourth-grader whose family had moved recently from Indianapolis to the Cincinnati suburb of Lebanon, Ohio, Straw did not show much talent during practice drills conducted in helmets and shorts.
Following the weeklong workouts, Tepe says he had Straw pegged as a “five-play player.” That meant Straw likely would participate on the peewee football squad by taking the field only for the mandated minimum of five plays per half, per Pop Warner rules.
“Nicholas couldn’t run, catch or throw the ball. He was one of the most uncoordinated kids out there,” Tepe says. “He had a great attitude. I really liked the kid. But he just wasn’t a football player.”
Once the players put on pads and went at it with full contact, however, Straw morphed into something else.
“As soon as we got into pads for the first time, what a difference! Nicholas was a natural hitter. He liked to hit,” Tepe adds. “He had this untaught ability to find the ball carrier and smack him. He was fantastic at it, like a natural linebacker.”
Janella Straw, Nick’s mother, knew her youngest of four children was somewhat unusual as early as his pre-school years. For starters, he would occasionally floor his parents by articulating abstract thoughts.
“Nicholas was saying at a young age that he wanted to serve in the military. One day when he was like five, he told me, ‘Mommy, I don’t think i can get married when I’m older,’” Janella Straw recalls. “When I asked him why not, he said, ‘If I died in the military, I wouldn’t want my wife to be sad.’ Yes, Nicholas was a different kind of child.”
Straw’s Navy teammates later came to the same conclusion about Straw, who will graduate in May with a degree in physics-astrophysics and aims to be commissioned as a pilot.
They speak of Straw, 6-feet-2, 230 pounds, as a relentlessly positive, unifying, caring force who, from his “raider” position — a hybrid of outside linebacker/defensive end/edge rusher in Navy’s defense — can wreak havoc with his versatile ability to engage bigger blockers, pressure the quarterback, cover receivers in space and smack ball carriers.
“Through all of the stuff we’ve gone through here, [Straw] has been so upbeat the whole time,” says John Marshall, a senior co-captain.
“I’ve never seen Nick sad during our years here,” Marshall adds. “He’s always elevating people. He never degrades anybody. He’s the kind of guy you go to see after a bad day, and you know you’re going to have a good talk with him and you’re going to smile.”
“There are not enough good things I could say about Nick,” says senior Max Sandlin, Straw’s backup and roommate. “He’s always got your back. I’ve heard him cuss one single time in the years I’ve known him. He’ll talk smack on the field. But it’s the nicest smack talk you will ever hear.”
Straw, who has started 15 games over the last two seasons and has recorded 73 tackles, including 9.5 for a loss and a pair of sacks, looks at the covid mess that has formed a backdrop of much of his time in Annapolis. He finds meaning in it.
He acknowledges the disappointment and frustration he has felt deeply, just like any other teammate or coach or fellow Midshipmen. But Straw sees how the trials of 2020 and ’21 have strengthened the bond of those who chose to stay at the academy. He feels how the dark times have molded him as a young adult with a serious mission ahead, beyond football.
And, like his fellow seniors, he is determined to make things right for Navy football in his last go-round in a Midshipmen uniform. Like his fellow seniors, he truly appreciated experiencing a normal spring football session in 2022 — thanks to the pandemic, the only time the players of the Class of ’23 enjoyed such cherished offseason time together.
“Nobody really knows what you are in for when you come [to the academy]. You realize during plebe summer that this is going to be hard, and you learn it’s meant to be hard, like a crucible,” Straw says.
“It was mentally and emotionally draining every day.” he adds, addressing the lost Covid season of 2020. “Staying in your room for hours, going to practice, back to your room, school online, Zoom meetings, not really seeing anybody but roommates. But I never seriously considered leaving. This is where my guys, my friends are. We’ve gone through it all together, annoyed and mad. I was never going to leave them.”
The way his parents see it, Nick Straw is the product of his family’s deep Christian faith.
When the Straw family moved from Indianapolis and settled in the predominantly white small town of Lebanon, it wasn’t long before Nick and the older children — Alexis, now 22; Joshua, 23; and Chris, Jr., 25 — were subjected to racial jokes and slurs. Within the first month, the three boys had gotten an earful at school.
Janella Straw, who is African-American, said the message she and her husband, Chris Straw, Sr., who is white, delivered to the kids was that such racist behavior is learned. The best way to counter it is to object to it and explain why the slurs offend you. Do not act like a victim. Take responsibility for your own life. There are racists of all shades, everywhere. So what?
“Lebanon has helped Nicholas to navigate both worlds,” Janella Straw says.
“I think what frames Nicholas is his devotion and foundation that’s based on the Bible and his relationship with God,” says Chris Straw says. “We saw a different Nicholas the day he put those pads on. But we also saw Nicholas helping and teaching and coaching his teammates.”
“He would blast a ball carrier, then bend down to see if he was OK, straighten his helmet and help him get up. As the baby among four children, Nicholas was always motivating and challenging others. I don’t think he wanted to be the runt of the litter,” Janella Straw adds.
“When he wasn’t named one of the three Navy captains this year, he just told us, you know what? This is not what the Lord had planned for me. I don’t need a title to be a leader.”
Second-year Navy assistant Joe Coniglio, who is coaching strikers and raiders for the Mids this season, says although he didn’t know Straw well last season, he had heard plenty about him before starting to work with him more closely this year. Straw came as advertised.
“From afar, I had a lot of respect for how Nick’s teammates would talk about him, how he went about his business, how he spoke, his driven attitude, his leadership style,” Coniglio says.
“He shows up for work every day with the same urgency and energy, wanting to get better. He loves football, loves being around his brothers and he shows it on a day-to-day basis. I think it’s non-negotiable with him.”
It’s been that way since the beginning for Straw, who chose Navy over Army and arrived for plebe summer as a lightly-recruited inside linebacker in 2019. The coaching staff liked Straw’s toughness and ability to play in space and absorb defensive concepts. They decided to shift him to outside linebacker. Straw would be groomed to replace then-senior raider Nizaire Cromartie.
But the plan went south temporarily. While playing in a midseason plebe scrimmage against the Naval Academy Prep School team, Straw suffered a broken ankle, ending his season. He had been scheduled to travel with the Mids the following week to Connecticut.
By the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic was raging, and players were isolating at home, where Straw was healing, taking classes via Zoom and learning how to master the raider position the hard way.
“It’s very tough to learn things you haven’t done before — lining up on the defensive line while still being a linebacker or being in a two-point stance as an edge rusher — without actually doing them physically. It was foreign to me,” Straw says. “But I wanted to play more than anything else. I’d have been a long snapper or tried the offensive line to get a chance to play.”
Straw got that opportunity under surprise circumstances in the summer, during the socially-distanced preseason camp of 2020. Two weeks before the season opener against BYU, he was asked to switch back to inside linebacker, to back up Diego Fagot. Straw was fourth on the depth chart at raider. Navy’s depth had thinned at inside backer.
A week after a loss at Air Force — a game in which Fagot had suffered a concussion — Straw made his first career start and recorded a pair of tackles in a 31-29 win over Temple. Straw would then move back to raider and nail down a starting job. He finished with 40 tackles in nine games, including seven starts. He posted a career-high 10 tackles against Army.
Last year, as a full-time raider on a notably improved Navy defense, Straw produced 33 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for a loss, while making eight starts and appearing in 12 games.
“We want to recruit as many guys as we can who are smart, tough and love football. [Straw] is the example,” says Brian Newberry, Navy’s defensive coordinator. “I’m sure there are days when he struggles, but you’d never know it.”
And now, after an offseason and preseason that felt normal again, Straw desperately wants to help the Mids get back to winning again.
“Even with the long, tough days we’ve been through, it still feels like I’ve been in a whirlwind that has just flown by. Because of all of the adversity and the trials we’ve been through, I know much more about who I am,” Straw says. “I’m very excited to finish my time here by putting a crescendo on this season.”