Senior College Football Columnist

For players at West Point, post-9/11 instantly became way of life


President Bush shakes hands with Army captain Clint Dodson before the 2001 Army-Navy game. (Getty Images)  
President Bush shakes hands with Army captain Clint Dodson before the 2001 Army-Navy game. (Getty Images)  

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- On Sept. 11, 2001, Army practiced. If that offends anyone 10 years later, well, you really have no idea about this place or its people.

"Supposedly, we were the only team in practice that day," quarterback Chad Jenkins said. "I don't know if that's an urban legend, but I'm pretty sure it might be accurate."

With smoke still rising out of the fallen Twin Towers only 50 miles away, carrying on with football seemed perfectly normal. By now we should know that in times of stress, these guys don't turtle, they hit whether it's each other or a faraway enemy.

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They call the products of the United States Military Academy "the tip of the spear," because someone has to be first. First on the ground, first to jump out of that helicopter, first to leap out of that bunker, first to patrol through a featureless desert with IEDs buried in the sand.

The best and brightest shine through. Duty, always. Paddy Heiliger saw it years later in Afghanistan when Alpha Company was on a two-day mission that didn't end until a week later. A group of 150 soldiers expected to be in and out didn't get resupplied for four days.

"I was thoroughly impressed with everybody," Heiliger said. "Nobody complaining, no lack of discipline. Then we all got through it."

The defensive end who tied for second sacks in 2001 has come a long way. Under Capt. Paddy Heiliger's command, Alpha traveled the farthest on fewer supplies than any company in the operation.

You would have seen the same thing in the receivers meeting that day a decade ago. Army receivers coach Tucker Waugh found himself in a room filled with tension, anxiety, testosterone and ... calm.

"Freshman receivers were like, 'Oh my gosh, I joined West Point at a time of peace. What does this mean?'" Waugh recalled. "But then the seniors in the room were like they didn't care what implications it had for them. They were football players but they were like, 'How fast can I get through this season, this school?'

"'And how fast can I get to my assignment in the Army so something like this never happens again?'"

On that day, the academy's switchboard was down. The campus was on lockdown, code name: Defcon Delta.

"The post," said a former player, "was like a clenched fist."

The coach at the time, Todd Berry, said local schools were being handed iodine capsules for distribution in case a nearby nuclear reactor was attacked. He ought to know. Berry's daughter was at a local high school. His wife couldn't get back on base for nine hours. In a world quickly spinning out of control, football practice was one of the few things that made sense.

"One thing I remember about that practice, people were flying around," Jenkins said. "People were not having an issue. There were definitely hits flying that day."

With the 10th anniversary three days away, we revisited that 2001 Army team that experienced 9/11. We were there a decade ago, 11 days after the attacks when the Black Knights returned to action against Alabama-Birmingham. Army lost 55-3, but the images cannot be forgotten.

We flinched each time an airplane flew over Legion Field. The Birmingham airport's landing pattern that day happened to pass directly over the stadium. There was a national anthem that elicited tears. A standing ovation, for the opponent, from the home crowd. A salute from the Army players.

"That's unbelievable to me because these guys are my age," Alabama-Birmingham quarterback Jeff Aaron said that day. "They're going to fight to protect us. I wonder, 'Are they scared to die?'"

There were the duty-bound eyes of defensive end Dave McCracken. As the only December grad on the squad, he was a captain and bound to be the first of his teammates in combat. That day he made no excuses, calling the 52-point loss "an embarrassment".

With the weight of the country and the academy pressing down on his shoulders, it was anything but that. The previous week, McCracken's mother, Dianne, had been delayed at the Newark, N.J., airport on the night of Sept. 10. Passengers were given the option of taking the next day's flight to San Francisco.

Dianne waited out a lengthy delay and made it out that night. Those who stayed boarded United Flight 93 the next morning. They perished in the Pennsylvania countryside.

The memories -- bitter and uplifting -- linger.

"I still want to see Army-Navy to this day," said Berry on his fourth job since coaching Army from 2000-2003. "I still love West Point. I still love Army."


The phone call came from Landstuhl, Germany. In the middle of his second tour of duty, Heiliger, 31, had just been airlifted out of Afghanistan. No biggie. All he did was fall off a cliff, cracking ribs and bruising a lung.

He couldn't wait to get back.

"One of the things I always think back on, when I was at the Army prep school, a general came and talked to us. 'Look to your left and look to your right. By the time you graduate, you'll be at war and one of the guys next to you won't be coming home.'

"When you're 18, you think that's silly. Then 9/11 happened."

Heiliger was a junior in 2001. After a tour in Iraq, he got out for a while and worked as a financial adviser.

The only upside of being out was meeting his wife, Jenny. They met at a pecan festival in Austin, Texas. That was six years ago.

"I got out, but I really missed the Army," he said.

Hard to understand why. Both grandparents were in the Navy. His dad enlisted in the Air Force. One brother-in-law was in the Navy, another in the Marines. A brother was in the National Guard. It was on a trip to a Texas A&M game that Heiliger happened to run into old squad leaders, section leaders and team leaders. They hugged, caught up.

"Seeing those guys reminded me how I loved being around soldiers," Heiliger said.

So when the chance came for him to oversee Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division stationed out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, well, he took it. The San Diego native is currently deployed to Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

Could he have envisioned any of that as an Army junior watching 9/11 play out before him in class?

"It was hard to concentrate on what we were trying to do," Heiliger said from that Landstuhl hospital, "which is to play football knowing that every single one of us was going to fight somewhere."

Chad Jenkins fought so many times, it makes him dizzy. There were four deployments to Iraq, all out of Ft. Lewis, Wash. As the 2001 quarterback, he tore his PCL in his right knee. Somehow he fought back and gutted out a win over Navy. A decade later, that still makes him the last Army quarterback to accomplish that feat.

"I am ready to relinquish that title by all means," Jenkins said. "I think it's time to hang a W on Navy, that's for sure."

Listening in on the phone conversation is Jim Marshall, an FBI public affairs specialist in the Miami division. Yup, Jenkins is an FBI agent and certain questions aren't allowed. Talking about a glorious past is all in bounds.

"The reality started playing a role in your head," Jenkins said, "that things I'm doing now are preparing me for the future ahead."

Jenkins remembers it all on that Alabama road trip -- the marquee on the West Point Hotel on the way to the airport: "This nation will survive. Those who did this will not."

He remembers the fire alarm someone set off at the Birmingham Sheraton. Jenkins calmly stayed in his room watching SportsCenter. Berry, though, was shaken thinking of the team's "target value" to terrorists.

After that heroic effort against Navy, Jenkins ended up having reconstructive knee surgery. Berry kept him on as a grad assistant. Four deployments and a new job later, it has all passed so fast. "It's like everybody graduated and, boom, basically everybody was gone," Jenkins said. "Iraq, Afghanistan. Contacts go out the window."

The father of two has evidence of his last carefree days at Army tucked away in a garage. The Harley Davidson Softail Deuce he drove as a senior has only 3,400 miles on it.

"It definitely has not seen the miles I anticipated it seeing," Jenkins said.

Josh Holden could not be reached. That is understandable for 2001's second-leading rusher. In his second tour of Iraq, the former running back took a unique approach to his service obligation. Upon graduation in 2003, he was able to pursue his dream signing with the Cincinnati Reds. After a minor-league career flamed out, he kept his obligation to serve.

Teammate Clarence Holmes had been all set to go to Georgia Tech out of high school. He hadn't played football until his junior year of high school. Until then, he was in love with baseball. Then he accepted a visit to West Point.

Holmes saw what a lot of people see on their first visit -- the sweeping beauty of the Hudson River Valley, Trophy Point, the parade grounds. The mess hall where Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed the troops.

"It was a lifetime worth of security," said Holmes, now the Knights' defensive tackles coach. "These kids are the best in the country. West Point is one of the best kept secrets in the country. There's a treasure up there on the banks of the Hudson. The big deal is understanding the big picture. It's not going to be a four- or five-year decision. It's going to be a 55-year decision."

That year changed a lot of people forever. In the first game back from 9/11, South Carolina played at Mississippi State. There was a tank outside Davis Wade Stadium. Soldiers carried automatic weapons. For what, to stop the cow bells? No, this was a different time.

That year there were snipers on buildings overlooking the Cotton Bowl for Texas-Oklahoma. You don't have to be told what 9/11 did to air travel. While legions of soldiers have been pumped out since 2001, Army has lost lately in football. Third-year coach Rich Ellerson is changing that trend. The man who invented Arizona's famous double-eagle flex defense felt a calling in 2009. His father and two brothers were in the Army.

Previous to Ellerson, the academy had tried just about everything. Berry's spread offense never worked in a place where speed and skill players are at a premium. Bobby Ross, a coach with a Super Bowl and national championship on his resume, couldn't get it done. Last year Ellerson produced the academy's first winning season since 1996.

"Players are bombarded with these images, what a football player looks like, what a coach looks like, what the game looks like," Ellerson said. "I call it the Hollywood Factor. But that's not really the game. Frankly, we're an Army at war. When we first make contact with a young guy, he has to focus on that designation:

"What happens when you graduate."

Malcolm Brown knows. The junior slotback from Bay Shore, N.Y., came home from school 10 years ago and found his dad had gone into the city, New York. Roscoe Brown had spent 20 years with the New York City Fire Dept. His former unit was one of the first responders. He had to be there when he heard the planes hit the Twin Towers.

"He got back around 2 a.m.," Malcolm said. "The whole house smelled like smoke. It has hard for my dad to clean up all that debris, all those bodies."

Roscoe Brown had switched fire houses a year earlier.

"The one he had been in, they all died," Malcolm said, "a lot of close friends."

That bravery inspired the son of a firefighter to come here. Everyone has a different season. You can still see them practice every day. Defensive ends coach John Mumford has seen it through 11 years and four coaches at Army.

"The face of West Point changed, as did the mission," he said, remembering 2001. "There's still kids out there who embrace service and country," he said. "It's fun to be around. What we do here is different. We're kind of the tip of the spear."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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