Navy? BYU? Picking sides a tough call for Annapolis Latter-day Saints

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Dave and Kerry Strom and their four kids frequently make a familiar Saturday morning choice: “So, what T-shirt to wear today?” 

Sometimes they opt for BYU Cougar gear. Other times, they reach for “Bill the Goat” Navy apparel.

Typically, it’s a trivial wardrobe decision. But for the Stroms and several other diehard BYU fans/alums living in the Annapolis area, deciding on the proper hue of blue has become a bit more complicated — at least for one Monday evening.

For the first time in decades, Brigham Young University and the United States Naval Academy will play at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Monday, Sept. 7, on national television.

When Kerry Strom’s co-worker recently asked which side she would be rooting for, she was stumped.

“I told her, ‘I just don’t know’,” she said, laughing. “Whenever BYU makes an awesome play, I’m going to go nuts — and I’ll go nuts whenever the Naval Academy makes an awesome play.”

Navy, of course, is the hometown team for Annapolitins. But for local Latter-day Saints, their affinity for the blue-and-gold runs a bit deeper because two Midshipmen football coaches are also well-known local Church leaders. 

Receivers coach Joe DuPaix presides over the Naval Academy Branch. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is the Annapolis Maryland Stake President. The Annapolis-area Latter-day Saints connect with the Niumatalolos and DuPaixs beyond their respective football duties. They are friends in the gospel and fellow stake members. Many of their children have attended seminary and school with the coaches’ children.

But hard-core BYU fans are called “hard-core” for a reason. It’s not easy switching allegiances, even for one night. Deciding who to root for is a tough call.

Marylander Nancy Weibell didn’t just graduate from BYU, she also played trumpet in the school marching band, frequently performing at halftime shows at LaVell Edwards Stadium and traveling with the Cougars to college bowl games. 

She can still blast the BYU fight song  “Rise and Shout” on her horn if, she said, “I can look at the notes.”

But as an Annapolis-area native, Weibell grew up with Navy football on Saturday afternoons. And on Sunday mornings, she worshipped alongside Latter-day Saint midshipmen dressed smartly in their service dress blue uniforms.

“So I guess for this game, I just can’t lose,” she said.

Nancy and her husband and fellow BYU grad, Benjamin Weibell, have known “Brother” Niumatalolo for years. They love their stake president. They want him to succeed in his ecclesiastical duties and on the Navy gridiron.

“President Niumatalolo’s a great example,” she said  “He doesn’t hold practices on Sundays and he brings a great spirit to that program. They have been blessed.”

Benjamin, meanwhile, is philosophical about any divided loyalties Monday.

“We really don’t have to pick a side, we really will be happy either way,” he said. “I’m a BYU fan, so I may be leaning a bit that way — but we love President Niumatalolo so much. We always root for him to do well. 

“So we’re in the middle here.”

Just days before kickoff, Karen Harper, another BYU alum/Annapolis native, had still not finalized the decision to root for the Cougs or the Mids.

“I’m pretty torn,” she said.

She remembers standing in the BYU student section in Provo and cheering as Steve Young marched the Cougar offense up and down the gridiron.

“But President Niumatalolo,” she counters, “is such a humble, amazing person.

“Most of my kids had Sister (Barbara) Niumatalolo as their seminary teacher. And I also know the DuPaixs really well. … So, I think I’m tipping toward the Naval Academy.”

Harper’s daughter, Kirsten Harper Olsen, grew up in Annapolis and now lives in the Utah County city of Pleasant Grove. While a BYU student, she made a few extra dollars selling concessions at Cougar football games. But she also babysat the DuPaix children.

“So I’m rooting for Navy because I think the world of the DuPaixs,” she reported.

Regardless of the final score, Monday’s game will be bittersweet for all Annapolis-area Latter-day Saints/BYU fans. The pandemic is preventing spectators from attending in person. Even the Navy’s Brigade of Midshipman will be watching the game from inside school grounds instead of at the stadium.

“Our children have never been to a BYU game, so of course we would have all been there at the stadium,” said Nancy Weibell.

For a BYU alum and longtime Annapolitan such as Dave Strom, watching his alma mater play in Crabtown has been his annual wish. Monday’s contest between the Cougars and Mids is now a stinging case of “so near, yet so far away.”

“It’s so frustrating,” he said, “the Cougars are finally here — but we won’t be there to see it.”

 He’s hoping his alma mater leaves Annapolis with a win.

Despite not being able to cheer at the game in person, many Latter-Saints will still be savoring this rare match-up in Maryland’s historic capital city.

“I’m planning to make a cake for the game,” said Nancy Weibell. “There will be BYU blue-and-white on one half, and Navy blue-and-gold on the other.”