Last week, I learned via Twitter about an interesting documentary project about some amazing men. Filmmaker Rob O'Sullivan has been chronicling the lives of 12 former college football players from West Point who went to serve their country in combat following graduation. The documentary project is called None More American. I caught up with O'Sullivan to discuss how the project came about, what stories stuck with him the most and what he hopes people take away from the film.
Q: How did you get involved in this project?
O'Sullivan: I am a fourth generation, life-long Army Football fan. I saw my first game at age 6 and spent fall Saturdays from that point forward with my grandfather at West Point. He was my biggest life influence, and his passion for Army Football was an extension of his character. He showed me that the young men that come to play for Army are different. While they may have offers to play at other schools and make runs at pro football careers, they choose to make a commitment to serving their nation. They may not have the individual talent of their competition, but on any given Saturday, as a team, they can play larger than the sum of their parts. That's what I saw at my first game when they beat Cal in 1980 and that's what I came to understand as I grew up watching and getting to know the young men that wear the Black and Gold.
So I guess my involvement was hereditary. My grandfather made sure I understood the importance of the guys who put on the uniform; that they would stand ready to defend us when called upon, as they always have.
Now that I have the ability to tell that story through film, I have to make this documentary.
Q: What prompted the idea behind it?
O'Sullivan: I have always wanted to give back to the program that has given me so much, and shed light on the type of young man that chooses the path of playing football at West Point. For the past 10 years, I have made videos for the Army Football team -- highlight films, recruiting videos, etc. About three years ago, I started working with Army head coach Rich Ellerson on the Destinations video project, a series of short documentaries that profile young officers in the US Army, giving insight into life as a young lieutenant. That has taken me around the world and allowed me to work with some of the best units and soldiers in the Army. In the back of my mind, I always knew I had to make a film on Army Football; I just wasn't able to grasp exactly what direction I should take. Last year, it all finally came together. In working with these young officers, it struck me that they all made the commitment to serve post 9/11, at a time when America was at war.
Some people ask, 'Why are you doing a film on Army Football since 9/11? That's arguably the darkest time in Army Football history in terms of wins and losses.'
That may be true, but the situation we find ourselves in -- being at war, fielding an all-volunteer force, and being faced with the news on a daily basis of our soldiers downrange, makes the commitment by a young man at 18 years old for the next 9-10 years of his life (5 of which include the very real possibility of serving in combat), very unique. And very honorable.
Additionally, the stories we normally hear about Army Football are usually about the long hours at West Point, the rigorous academic, military, and physical load, and the potential of service in combat. I wanted to show what these young men do after graduation, in the place where victory is measured at a much higher level than a scoreboard.
Q: Which personal stories have stuck with you the most?
O'Sullivan: Honestly, the stories of all of the young men I have interviewed in preparing to make this film are uniquely inspiring and compelling. And they are all different. It is going to be hard to narrow down what we are able to show in a two-hour film.
Seth Nieman is a Special Forces officer who was a two-year starter as an offensive lineman. He was a combat engineer in Iraq and deployed twice for a total of 24 out of 27 months. He spent a lot of time building outposts in Baghdad to secure the populous, getting attacked every three days or so. He spent two years becoming a Special Forces officer and deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. Two weeks before last year's Army-Navy game, he got hit by an IED and lost his right leg below the knee and suffered numerous injuries throughout the rest of his body. He has undergone 20 surgeries at Walter Reed and still has a long way to go. He has another year of recovery, then will get his graduate degree, return to West Point as an instructor, and eventually wants to return to 3rd Special Forces group as a commander. You can't help but feel proud and full of awe after talking with him.
Cason Shrode is also someone that comes to mind. He was not your typical “gung-ho” Army guy. He took his commitment seriously, and wanted to do what was required to fulfill his five-year obligation, but never saw himself as career Army. Somehow, he becomes attached to a Cavalry unit and winds up in a remote area of Afghanistan at Camp Keating. He and the soldiers he served with fought through one of the most intense battles of the war. He is so humble when he speaks about it, and the reverence he has for the guys he fought with leaves you speechless. He is tough as nails, but epitomizes the compassionate warrior. To hear him speak of that day shows the human connection of war.
Then there is Ali Villanueva, the consummate team player. He was recruited to Army as a lineman, ended up playing on both sides of the line, and was asked to move to wide receiver as a senior. He played in the East-West Shrine Game and was invited to the Bengals mini-camp, but service was always at the front of his mind. He fast-tracked his officer basic course and Ranger school after graduation from West Point, and in seven months was serving in Afghanistan as a platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. He returned from Afghanistan, went to mini-camp with the Chicago Bears, and then applied to serve in the Ranger battalion. He was accepted and recently completed his first deployment with the Rangers and is now commanding a Ranger platoon. His commitment to his troops and putting service before self is inspiring.
From a personal perspective, Chase Prasnicki's story hits home. This is a young man who was highly recruited as a quarterback in high school, but could not break through the depth chart at West Point. He switched to defense his senior year, because that's where the team needed him. He had a relentless enthusiasm and tireless work ethic. He was a joy to watch. He branched field artillery, completed Airborne, Ranger, and Pathfinder schools, was married, and deployed to Afghanistan in June 2012. On his third day downrange, he volunteered for a patrol -- something that anyone that knew him would expect him to do -- and was killed when his vehicle was struck with an IED. His story is a difficult one, but hearing the type of leader he was, how his soldiers respected him and still do things to honor him today, is incredible. He was a warrior, and America is lucky to have guys like him standing up for us. He is greatly missed.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge you're having to deal with regarding the project?
O'Sullivan: Our biggest challenge is funding. We have received over $34,000 in private donations and have an additional $35,000 committed, but we need to raise a total of $275,000 to complete this film and get resource support from the Army. We need active service support – many of the people being profiled are still serving us -- and, understandably, we can't ask the Army for resources to be allocated if there is any doubt that we can't finish the film. We keep driving forward with production, but contributions to the film are necessary to complete production. Additionally, we have opened the film up as an investment.
The cast and crew have agreed that any profits from the film will be donated to a number of charities and foundations, including the Wounded Warrior Project, the Green Beret Foundation, and the Chase Prasnicki Scholarship fund at VMI.
Q: What do you hope people take away after watching this?
O'Sullivan: I hope people walk away with a deeper understanding of the type of young men that play for West Point. I hope the commitment of these men and what they have, and will sacrifice for us becomes more tangible. I hope people see that the experiences these young men go through at the world's premiere leadership institution are unparalleled anywhere else in college football. Most importantly, I hope people come to understand how proud and humbled these men are to have had the opportunity to lead the finest soldiers in the world.
While serving as Chief of Staff of the Army in World War II, General George Marshall wanted to train up a special operations unit. When looking for someone to lead that unit, he said, “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”
West Point and Army Football continue to produce a long line of young men who stand ready to do the same today, and who will always be there to answer that call.