It took senior inside linebacker Paul Carothers more than three seasons to step into his first and only starting lineup for Navy. Carothers needed two full seasons before he even broke free of the scout team, where practice players, absent from any spotlight, help front-line performers prepare for opponents’ offensive and defensive looks each week.
Yet there is no doubt Carothers’ teammates all along had appreciated the ways in which he had tackled his circumstances and embraced his fairly anonymous role.
This is why Carothers, despite having gained just one varsity letter after three years on the roster, was recognized with one of the greatest honors a student-athlete can achieve at the Naval Academy. This is why his fellow Midshipmen selected Carothers last winter as one of the team’s four co-captains for the 2019 season.
“I have looked up to Paul so much – the way he works and the way he carries himself on and off the field,” said senior center Ford Higgins, also a Navy co-captain, who has more insight into Carothers than most Mids.
Higgins and Carothers, both natives of the Atlanta area, have known each other since middle school, when they were football teammates at Greater Atlanta Christian School. They each starred on the high school team there.
Carothers, who is a year older than Higgins and helped steer his childhood friend to Annapolis, spent the 2015-16 school year at the Naval Academy Prep School, while Higgins was a senior at Greater Atlanta Christian. They were reunited as plebes more than three years ago.
“Paul is like my big brother. He’s had a huge influence on me,” Higgins said. “He sticks to his values and his beliefs. He doesn’t change for anybody and doesn’t worry about what others think of him. He comes to work the same way every day. He’s only worried about making this team better any way he can.”
The Mids (5-1) are better this season, in significant part because of Carothers, who wasted no time with the special opportunity that came his way Oct. 5.
That day, after the Navy coaches decided Carothers could best help the Mids’ chances by employing his extensive knowledge of the Air Force offense and its option base, Carothers shined. That day, in his first-ever start — at the Will position next to sophomore inside linebacker Diego Fagot — Carothers dented the Falcons with a career-high 12 tackles to help Navy pull out a 34-25 victory.
That season-changing victory was the start of a current, three-game winning streak, Navy’s longest since opening the 2017 campaign with five consecutive wins.
Following the Air Force game, Carothers quickly ceded that starting spot — without a hint of complaint — back to impressive freshman Tama Tuitele. But Carothers has cemented his place in the defensive rotation.
He promptly helped set the tone of a 45-17 rout at Tulsa with two, first-half tackles for losses. Carothers followed that last week with a solo tackle and four assists in another defensive gem for the Mids, who suffocated South Florida’s offense in a 35-3 blowout.
“Paul is the plugger who just kept working at it. I’m proud of the way he’s overcome,” Fagot said. “He’s had great energy every day since I’ve been here. He’s always pushing himself and pushing other people. He’s going to give his best and bring out the best in you.”
Carothers credits his coaches and teammates and his deep Christian faith in God for helping him to reach his potential.
He also credits his ability to swallow his pride. After being a two-way star, and a senior captain and regional Defensive Player of the Year at Greater Atlanta Christian — which reached the state title game in his senior season in 2014 — Carothers has paid plenty of dues at the Division I level.
“In life, you get to make choices. You can look at a (tough) situation, and either have a good perspective or not,” Carothers said.
“When you’re on the scout team, you might feel like ‘I’m not getting playing time or I’m not getting noticed.’ That’s looking at it selfishly.
“By looking at the situation selflessly, that helps both parties,” he added. “The starter is going to get better and so is (the scout-team player). If you’re only thinking of yourself, you’re making no one better. You’re more of a disease to the team.
“Seeing the real value of being on the scout team is what helped me make it onto the (playing) field. I found out how much preparation kills fear and builds confidence. After all of those practice reps, you don’t think much. You just play the game. It’s a cool process, the way life works itself out. It’s all about the trials and the triumphs.”
Carothers knows all too well about the trials, and they go way beyond the disappointments that have accompanied his love for football.
It has been nearly three years since Carothers got that phone call from his mother, Terry. Nearly three years since that aching sound in her voice told Paul something was seriously wrong, seconds before she delivered the stunning, painful news.
On Nov. 18, 2016, Paul’s father, Patrick Carothers, a 26-year veteran in the U.S. Marshals Service, was shot and killed while serving an arrest warrant on a fugitive in rural Long County in southeast Georgia. At the time of his sudden death, Carothers, 53, a father of five children, was serving as deputy commander for the Southeast Regional Task Force.
Paul Carothers was nearing the end of his plebe football season, as was Higgins. Neither of them was traveling with the varsity, which was preparing to face Eastern Carolina the following day on Nov. 19.
Higgins recalls learning the news, and being unable to reach his buddy by phone. He eventually caught up with Carothers. After Carothers joined Higgins with some teammates and a company officer, Higgins was moved by the words of his close friend.
“I’ll never forget one of the first things Paul said in that room,” said Higgins, who knew the elder Carothers well. “(Paul) told us how thankful he was for the person that his father was and the influence his father had on his life. He thanked God for his father. It’s hard for me to say that without getting emotional. I’m still blown away by that.”
“When I and some of the other coaches went (to Georgia) to visit and pay our respects, it was amazing watching Paul take over the house as the (leading) male figure, the way he was greeting other visitors and being positive talking about his dad at such a tough time,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
“In my short life on Earth, that event has challenged me in all areas of my life. I’d never really mourned before,” Carothers said. “Watching a video of a Dad taking care of his son makes me tear up. My Dad was one of my coaches for a lot of years. He taught us about loving and being loyal to your family. He taught us how to be leaders and how to serve.”
Military service runs deep in the Carothers family. Paul’s late grandfather, James Carothers, spent 36 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in World War II and the Korean and Viet Nam wars. At the time of his retirement in 1979 as a Lt. Col, according to Leatherneck Magazine, Carothers was the most decorated Marine serving in the Corps.
Paul’s older brothers, Michael and Matthew, are 2012 and 2015 graduates of the Naval Academy, respectively. Matthew is a submarine officer stationed at Kings Bay, Georgia. Michael is a flight instructor at Pensacola (Fla.) Flight School. Their younger sister, Jessica, currently is attending Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I.
“I’m extremely proud of (Paul). We know what he’s been through and what it’s like to go to school there and what you’re working toward,” Michael Carothers said.
“His special talent showed on the field when he was young. But it has required a lot of resilience on his part to get where he’s gone playing (at Navy), the way he has battled to get on the field. I feel like I’ve learned from him, as I’ve watched him work.”
Tim Hardy, the head coach at Greater Atlanta Christian who coached Carothers during his three varsity seasons, recalls Carothers standing out on a team rife with standouts. Hardy says 12 of the 16 players in Carothers’ senior class played college football on some level, most notably Darius Slayton, a rookie receiver with the NFL’s New York Giants.
Carothers was an exceptional high school talent with an unusual motor, Hardy says. He recalls Carothers’ epic performances in the final two games of his senior year, which ended with Greater Atlanta Christian losing in the final to Benedictine. Carothers recorded 26 tackles in a semifinal victory then led the defense again with 18 tackles in the title game.
Hardy also says he’ll never forget Carothers helping his team win a regular-season game as a junior, despite being too sick to make it through a full day of school or to warm up with the team.
“Paul went home after going to two classes and didn’t make into the locker room until 6:45 for a 7:30 game,” Hardy said. “He was vomiting before the game and on the sidelines. But he made 10 tackles that night.
“He is just driven by an unending passion to excel. His fire runs hot,” Hardy added. “Whether it’s his approach to workouts or his attitude on walk-through day, he wants to squeeze every drop out of everything he does. He cares enough about the team to not let anyone cut corners.”
P.J. Volker, Carothers’ first-year position coach at Navy, has the same read on him.
“No matter what day it is, whether he’s done the drill one time or he’s done it a hundred times, you get the same high effort from (Carothers) every time,” Volker said. “He always asks thorough and thoughtful questions in the meeting room. I’ve got a great group to coach, and he sets the tone. He’s made me a better coach.”
Niumatalolo says the way Carothers has handled his hard-earned rise on the Navy depth chart and his success following that memorable breakout day against Air Force is an example of an intangible that has affected a successful first half of 2019 for the Midshipmen.
“When we told Paul we were putting Tuitele back in the starting lineup, his demeanor didn’t change one bit,” Niumatalolo said. “No sulking all week after playing a phenomenal game against Air Force. Then he comes into the Tulsa game (off the bench) and plays lights out again.
“If a senior in that position handles things differently and complains about it, that can permeate a locker room,” he added. “That just doesn’t happen with Paul. It’s why he gained so much respect from his teammates (as a non-starter) that he was chosen a captain. It’s why he’s a major reason we’re being successful right now.”