Naval Academy commissioning in the age of the coronavirus is vastly different than what everyone associated with the institution has become accustomed.
Due to precautions brought on by the pandemic, the 2020 commissioning ceremony will forever be remembered as unique. Naval Academy officials are bringing the seniors back to Annapolis in groups of 200 for the formal swearing-in.
Tuesday marked the first of those coronavirus-altered events that are closed to the public. Perhaps the most poignant image to emerge from Tuesday’s commissioning ceremony was that of an Army-Navy football helmet placed with care on an otherwise empty fold-out chair.
It served as a heartfelt tribute to Midshipman First Class David Forney, a standout football player who would have commissioned as an ensign and cryptologic warfare officer. The 22-year-old Walkersville resident died on Feb. 20 after being found unresponsive in his dormitory room at Bancroft Hall.
A wave of mixed emotions swept over Rick Forney when he first saw the photo of the helmet honoring his son during the Tuesday event. On the one hand, he was grateful to see David remembered in such a powerful way. At the same time, it was a bitter reminder of what should have been.
“It’s a really nice gesture on behalf of the Naval Academy, and our family is deeply touched,” Forney said. “It is uplifting to see David included in this way.”
Rick Forney grew up in Annapolis and was well acquainted with the various events of Commissioning Week — long before his eldest child committed to play football at the Naval Academy. He and wife Erika, along with their three other children, had eagerly anticipated seeing David walk across the stage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to receive that valuable diploma.
“There are a lot of things you think about at a time like this. For someone like David, it’s been five difficult years to get through the academy,” Forney said. “I know how hard it was for David academically and militarily. I know how much he sacrificed. I just wish he had the opportunity to be there with his classmates, his sisters and brothers.”
Commander Alana Garas, public affairs officer for the Naval Academy, said the impetus to honor Forney during the commissioning ceremony developed organically, as did the rest of the program.
There will be a total of five swearing-in ceremonies with the senior class divided into groups of 200. Mike Smith, Class of 2020 president, is speaking at each and told the Naval Academy leadership he wanted to recognize Forney.
That prompted the idea of having one chair occupied by a football helmet. It was placed in the middle of the second row of midshipmen, who were properly socially distanced by being seated six feet apart.
At all five swearing-in events, Smith will mention Forney prior to the traditional “three cheers for those we leave behind” that is followed by the ceremonial hat toss.
“Before I share my brief remarks with you all, I would like to bring your attention to the empty seat in front of us in remembrance of our brother, David Forney, who will always be a member of the Class of 2020. Please join me in a moment of silence. ... Thank you.”
Smith, a native of Mount Airy, faced off with Forney on the football field when they attended McDonogh High and Georgetown Prep, respectively. Smith was recruited to the academy as a wrestler and was a member of the varsity team as a 197-pounder for three seasons. They got to know one another better while attending the Naval Academy Prep School.
“David was an amazing young man with a really big heart. It was an honor to play football against him in high school and build a friendship with him through our [prep school] experience. He will ALWAYS be a member of the Class of 2020, and will be with us wherever we go,” Smith said in a statement.
David Forney was a well-liked member of the 9th Company and a standout starting left guard on the football team. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder was named first team All-American Athletic Conference as a senior after anchoring an offensive line that paved the way for Navy to lead the nation in rushing in 2019.
Kendel Wright, Navy’s starting left tackle who played alongside his classmate and best friend, admitted to being jarred by the photo of the helmet sitting on the empty chair.
“When I first saw it, everything hit me again about what happened with David. I had to reprocess the whole thing all over,” said Wright, who bonded with Forney while at the prep school. “It’s been a very hard thing to deal with, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”
Wright, who is due to be commissioned as a Marine Corps officer on May 20, did appreciate the academy acknowledging Forney the way it did.
“It does feel good to know the Naval Academy is sending David out the right way. I was proud to see that,” said Wright, who is driving to Annapolis from his home in Buford, Georgia on Friday. “That said, we would much rather have Dave sitting there with us. It feels like there is something missing. Graduation was supposed to be a celebration. I don’t really feel like celebrating as much because it’s not the same without Dave.”
This is a tough week for the Forney family as it began with Mother’s Day and includes David’s birthday. He would have been 23 years old on Friday, an occasion that will be commemorated by the family.
“Sunday was tough without David. Friday will be even tougher,” Rick Forney said. “You wonder if this grieving is ever going to end. My guess is that it probably will not. It’s hard to figure this whole thing out.”
Erika Forney has been staying in Wilmington, Delaware, for the past three weeks because her youngest of three sons is undergoing physical and occupational therapy at the Nemours Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children. Erik Forney, who was born with cerebral palsy, had just returned home after undergoing surgery to straighten his legs when David died.
Erika was with Erik at the hospital when Rick sent her the photo of the Army-Navy football helmet on the unoccupied chair in honor of David.
“Obviously, it’s a very nice tribute to David, and we are thankful,” Erika said. “It’s just very hard to see because David should be there in person. I never dreamed we would be in this situation. It’s just really hard to put into words.”
Speaking to The Capital on Wednesday, Rick Forney said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore still has not issued a report on his son’s death. According to the final report issued by the United States Navy, David Forney died of sudden cardiac arrest.
“I’m not going to speculate about what happened. I’m not sure we’ll ever really know,” he said.