September 17, 2004

Army Football Finds Hope

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Hailed as a possible savior of Cornell’s languid football squad, new head coach Jim Knowles ’87 has a daunting task and honorable mission in front of him. Over the next three months, he will face the challenge of resurrecting the Red from the dregs of the Ivy League and restoring spirit to the team’s fans and dignity to its players. When Cornell takes the field tomorrow against Bucknell, Ithacans and Cornellians will await anxiously the outcome of the game, hopeful for a win.

Not far away, in West Point, N.Y., the Cadets of the United States Military Academy will do the same when Army takes on Houston, only their cry for salvation will be far more poignant than Cornell’s; the importance of their team’s win, far more meaningful.

Once dominant in college football, the Black Knights last year returned the worst record in the history of Division I-A, going 0-13 on the season. The debacle, though disheartening, signified the beginning of a new era for the school, which last December hired famed college and NFL coach Bobby Ross to take charge of its program. And this year, against the backdrop of the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, any wins Ross can muster will not only shock and awe current Cadets, but inspire strained troops abroad and, perhaps, even a nation desperately in need of at least one military success story to brighten the home front.

The challenge Ross faces is immense. While Knowles will wrestle to regain control of a program that has spiraled downward for a few years, Ross must reverse three decades of underachievement. The train wreck which marked Army’s ’03 campaign was merely the tip of the iceberg: in their last two seasons, the Black Knights won only a single contest in 25 tries, and only one coach since the 1970’s has led the team to consecutive winning seasons.

A good friend of mine and former high school opponent, Charlie Felker — now in his fourth year at the Academy — played defensive line for the black and gold three seasons ago. We spoke a few days ago about the program.

“The tradition of Army football is an incredible one closely related to that of the overall character of West Point. I never really realized that until my first Army-Navy game,” he said. “Soldiers all over the world watch that game. It means everything to current cadets and old graduates.”

But, while tales of Army’s glory days under legendary coach Earl “Red” Blaik may keep the coals glowing at the Academy, lackluster years have all but snuffed out the Black Knights’ flame.

Factors unique to the USMA compound history’s harshness. Knowles knows that his players strain as hard in the classroom as on the field, but Ivy Athletes still enjoy free time, flexible schedules, and sleep — luxuries rarely afforded West Pointers.

“It’s hard playing a varsity sport here at USMA,” said Felker’s roommate, Jared Ulekowski, who happens to start at tight end for the team. “We do have a lot of time requirements put on us; however it is very rewarding. As bad as a week can be with a couple of tests, papers and projects due, when its all over, you feel like you have lived up to the challenge. That’s part of what keeps you going.”

Worse, recruiting players to the Academy has become exceedingly difficult. At Cornell, a strong alumni network and top-notch undergraduate education opens doors for athletes in any number of jobs after graduation — a major selling point lacking at the Military Academy, where students have one option: five years of active duty. Today, especially, with conflicts raging indefinitely around the world, many high school stars consider signing with Army synonymous with signing away life.

In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Kevin Ross — Bobby’s son and Army’s offensive coordinator — recounted phone calls with recruits whose concerns outweighed their convictions.

“You can’t talk those kids into coming here, you know?” he said. “…I put down the phone and say, ‘Thank you very much. Somebody else will defend the blanket of freedom you’re sleeping under tonight. Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of you.'”

Despite the obstacles, the elder Ross and his staff have brought fresh faces to upstate New York and managed to invigorate those who have persevered through tough times. Though not the biggest, strongest, or most coveted of America’s football youth, the men who play for the Military Academy have unmatched will. With them, Ross plans to create winners.

“As players, we see a strong improvement to everyone’s attitude and drive. When coach Ross came in, he told us he would not accept defeat, and he doesn’t,” Ulekowski said. “If we get beat in an individual drill or a team drill, he will be on us until we flip it around and start winning. We are all very motivated and confident in what is happening in the program and can’t wait to start great things.”

Win some games they might, but the Black Knights started this year the same way they ended the last. Saturday, on the third anniversary of September 11th, the team opened its season against Conference USA foe, Louisville, and lost 52-21. A win would have been nice, to be sure, but a greater tragedy overshadowed the loss.

“September 11th was an emotional reminder of why we’re at West Point and what our mission is,” Felker said. “It seems to re-focus us and our efforts. It’s a day of reflection at West Point, because we are reminded of the graduates and friends who have lost their lives as a result of the war on terrorism.”

In the three years since al Qaeda attacked America, over 1,000 soldiers have died on duty in Iraq, and over 200 former Army football players have or do currently serve in combat overseas. Next year, the seniors on this Army team will join them, trading their black and gold uniforms for desert camouflage, returning to the army not as gridiron warriors but as real soldiers fighting a deadly battle.

So, win or lose this fall, they are all American heroes to whom we owe well wishes and great thanks. Snap your streak, boys, and come home safe.

Archived article by Everett Hullverson