In many ways, they’re just like the rest of us. Average Cornell students, struggling with the back-breaking workload that comes along with a world-class education and balancing a social life and extracurricular activities. But they also happen to be varsity athletes, which makes them members of a more select student population that dedicates hours to honing physical skills to earn success and glory on the playing field, all in Cornell’s name.
And even beyond all that, these students are members of the Reserve Officer Training Corps – better known to all of us as ROTC, or the kids walking to class in camouflage fatigues and crisp, starched uniforms once a week. And while we have a vague idea that these people are different – they get up before the sun rises for physical training and take classes that start at 7:30 a.m. – it goes beyond that. While we scour for internships and search for a sure path to employment bliss, these soon-to-be officers are preparing to wear the uniforms of the United States military for least four years of service after receiving their diplomas.
Among the ranks of Cornell varsity student-athletes doing double duty as part of ROTC are senior LaRue Robinson, captain of the sprint football team; senior Kelly Bowen, a midfielder on the women’s soccer team; sophomore Todd Lisowski, a back-up quarterback on the football team; and sophomore Bobby Putko, a midfielder on the men’s soccer team. Robinson has been accepted to Columbia Law School and plans to join the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps after completing his degree there. Bowen will join the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations after graduation, working as “kind of the equivalent of an FBI agent.” Lisowski plans to attend aviation school and fly helicopters for the Navy, while Putko is a biological sciences major who is also in Navy ROTC and hopes to go to medical school.
They share similar motivations – the scholarship aspect of ROTC was a necessity for some and certainly a great benefit for all. Family tradition is important also – both of Putko’s parents have served in Iraq, while Lisowski’s younger brother is waiting to hear if he will be accepted to Cornell on a ROTC scholarship and become the fourth of five sons to follow in his father’s footsteps in the military tradition. Robinson’s father and grandfather both enlisted in the Army, and his grandfather is now his “biggest cheerleader” who takes great pride in the fact that Robinson will be a second lieutenant in an Army that did n’t have many minority officers back in his day.
And as if thrice-weekly physical training, multiple hours of leadership labs, drill competitions, weekend field exercises and taking the Leadership Development Assessment Course over summer vacation wasn’t enough, these four Cornellians have decided to take on the challenge of a Division I sport, including offseason training, road trips, practice six days a week, hours of watching film and learning plays and lifting weights.
It could be that the drive to excel in ROTC ignites the same fire to succeed between the lines.
“It’s part of my competitive nature in me, I can’t see myself quitting soccer,” Putko said. “I can’t see something I think I can handle getting the better of me.”
Sometimes, stepping onto Schoellkopf Field for football or Berman Field for a soccer game is a relief – a chance apply leadership skills and sound decision-making under pressure honed in the ROTC classroom to a sport that has been a constant since childhood. It could even be said that their athletic background steered them in the direction of ROTC.
“I do enjoy the whole team aspect of the Army, it’s like another family-type thing,” Robinson said. “People are there to help you grow as a person, as a leader, in every single way. I just feel like that’s all tied in [with] me being an athlete understanding the team aspect and wanting to be part of a team – the Army is the ultimate team, I guess.”
Athletics also prepares them in another way, by acclimating them to competition and struggle that could one day be echoed in a combat situation.
“It’s two different types of battle,” Putko said. “In soccer, it’s you against an opponent, fighting over a ball. In the military, it’s you and another man fighting for you life. … In both circumstances, you want to be the best, but it’s obvious to say the stakes are much higher in the military.”
It’s another part of their day-to-day life that sets this quartet apart from their Cornell peers – the fact that at some point in the near future, they may be asked position by their government to put themselves in a life-threatening.
“It’s impossible not to think about, but if you’re going to be in the military, it’s just a part of it,” Lisowski said. “You just have to realize that could be you.”
While it may not be the party line for the college-aged demographic, all four of these student-athletes say that – family tradition and scholarship money aside – they are part of ROTC in order to serve their country.
And as much as the Cornell crowds may stand and cheer when they score a touchdown or a goal in the Carnelian and white, perhaps they deserve an extra salute for what they have pledged to do for the red, white and blue.
Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Thursday this semester.
Archived article by Olivia Dwyer