In a few months, Nate Romine will be back in his native Southern California serving as an acquisitions officer in the Air Force. At that point, his long and strange tale at the academy will be in his past.
What a journey it’s been. The quarterback moved from fourth string to starter as a freshman, returned to a backup role as a sophomore, started as a junior, got hurt, took a medical turnback that prolonged his time at the academy, returned to the starting role the next year before spraining an ankle to allow Arion Worthman an opportunity that he seized to usurp his way to the starting spot.
“You get hurt,” Romine said. “You get hurt and someone comes in and plays well, these things you can’t foretell.
“School went great. I got all my grades up. I feel competitive in setting myself up for the future and I’ve made some great friends with some of the younger guys I otherwise wouldn’t have. So everything has been great.”
Romine has appeared this year only in mop-up time as Worthman’s backup. He’s looked quicker without the clunky knee brace when he has played, to which he replies in self-deprecating style, “You feel pretty fresh when you don’t get hit every Saturday.”
That’s how Romine approaches everything, with a smile and wry humor. He has never been a player that has taken himself overly seriously, which has allowed him to bounce between such vastly different roles.
“Just a fantastic attitude,” coach Troy Calhoun said. “He is always ready. He practices that way and he anticipates that he’s going to be going in the next snap, and that’s a hard discipline to carry forth. He’s been beyond a champion. That’s not an easy role.”
As Air Force prepares to face Colorado State, it’s worth recalling how different things once seemed for the fifth-year senior.
The No. 21 Rams visited the Falcons in the to close the regular season in 2014. Romine, then a sophomore, had played behind senior Kale Pearson all year, but was needed on that day after Pearson was injured the previous week at San Diego State.
The Falcons were 8-3, enjoying the biggest bounce-back year in program history. The Rams entered at 10-1 and on a nine-game winning streak. They still had hopes for a spot in the conference championship game and even in a New Years Six bowl. Their coach, Jim McElwain, was quickly becoming a hot commodity and would soon leave for Florida.
Romine delivered one of the memorable spot starts in Falcons history with a performance that now feels like sneaking a peak in your parents’ closet at a Christmas present that is then never delivered.
The sophomore threw for 135 yards and ran 20 times for 61 yards and a touchdown. He completed two clutch passes on the final drive, setting up a winning field goal as the Falcons prevailed 27-24.
“Really gutty,” Calhoun recalls of Romine’s performance that day.
“Playing spoiler, it was awesome,” Romine said.
To the victor never fully came the spoils, however. Romine entered his junior year as the unquestioned starter and ran for 116 yards in a victory over San Jose State in Week 2. But he never saw the end of that game, suffering a severe knee injury in the fourth quarter. He separated from the academy during his recovery, which added a semester – and an additional football season – to his time.
He had his moments in his return 2016, throwing for 257 yards and two scores against Navy, but the overall season proved to be uneven. The Falcons lost three straight and were trailing in the second half at Fresno State when Romine’s ankle turned and the team turned to Worthman.
It hasn’t turned back.
It’s likely that Romine just wasn’t ready last year as he was less than 12 months removed from major knee surgery when the season began.
“I’d like to think (I was 100 percent),” he said. “At the time I felt that way. Now I feel even better. Crazy how it works.”
Whatever factors contributed, there was no way the Falcons could go away from Worthman after he helped the team close the season with six consecutive victories.
It left Romine as the odd man out, but he’s kept that cool attitude that he’s displayed since his first start against Notre Dame in 2013.
“Whatever helps the team, I’m trying to do,” said Romine, who ranks sixth in program history in passing efficiency (138.45), 15th in passing yards (2,178) and needs just one more passing touchdown for No. 18 and a spot in the top 10. “Whether it’s working hard every day to push Arion to be a better player or just be ready, that’s what I’m asked to do so I’m going to go out and do it.”
As the Falcons prepare for another go-round against a Colorado State team with growing expectations, Romine isn’t reflecting back on his moment of glory in this series but preparing for whatever might present itself on Saturday.
“I want (Worthman) to do great,” he said. “You never want your teammate to get hurt and you always want him to succeed. Should it come to that, I’ll be ready to go.”
And if not, Romine will be ready to ride out the season in this role. And when it’s time to go, he’ll do so with no regrets.
“Everything’s great,” he said. “I’m just soaking it in.”