For the most part, they don't remember the game. How could they? They had been isolated in their rooms for 10 days. Alone with their fears, TVs in the background zapping raw nerves.
The morning of the game, some knucklehead pulled a fire alarm in the hotel. Players refused to evacuate because that's what soldiers are taught to do -- evaluate the situation. While scared civilians streamed into the streets of Birmingham -- their own nerves rubbed raw -- Army players stayed put knowing it was a false alarm.
|Clarence Holmes was a member of Army's team in 2001 and is now the defensive line coach. (Provided to SportsLine)|
The 55-3 thumping that Alabama-Birmingham laid on them later that afternoon of Sept. 22, 2001, was almost a relief.
Five years ago, Army played its first game after 9/11. When the game was over, everything was just beginning. The uncertainty showed. The defeat had been total.
The Black Knights played like nothing was the same.
Could you blame them?
CBS SportsLine.com recently contacted several members of that team to find out what has happened to them since those fateful days, including a day when the Birmingham airport landing pattern traveled directly over Legion Field. A day when each head instinctively shot skyward every few minutes.
"That day it was like football went into the shadows a little bit," said Clarence Holmes, then an Army defensive lineman and now its defensive line coach. "Everything we really came here for came to the front."
The days after
LaToya Wilcher was working as a risk analyst, of all things. She was in the second tower when the second plane hit. Wilcher got a block or so away when the building came crashing down.
When sophomore Mario Smith didn't hear from his fiancée for two days, he feared the worst.
"I can't remember my thought process," Smith said.
On Sept. 13, Wilcher got through by phone to the locked down Army campus. She was in New Jersey. Shaken but uninjured.
Yes, Smith considers himself fortunate. An almost yearlong deployment in Iraq ended in July. During that time, he trained Iraqi army troops as a military transition team commander.
He also earned a Bronze Star.
An IED (roadside bomb) struck a convoy Smith was with last year near Tikrit, knocking him unconscious for two minutes. A gunner from that convoy, he says, is back in California learning to walk and talk again.
"I think it's going to be a long war," the Mississippi native said. "I do see it getting a lot better."
For Smith, it can't get any luckier.
"We saw that two planes had hit the World Trade Center," said Holden, a former running back. "Everyone, I think, thought it was two Cessnas. Then our teacher said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, your lives are about to change.'
"It was prophetic."
Upon graduation, Holden wasn't deployed but became a field artillery officer for a short time. Last year, he was granted an early release from active duty under a new program put in place by the Department of the Army.
If nothing else, because of Holden, the new policy allows coach Bobby Ross to use the NFL as a carrot. He reportedly wrote to NFL personnel directors last year informing them of the new policy. It allows a soldier to cut short the usual five-year post-graduate commitment to pursue a professional career.
Holden is now a 25-year-old outfielder coming off a .248 season in Class A with the Cincinnati Reds organization. The days, if not the game, following 9/11 are still burned into his memory.
"We went to Defcon Delta, the post was like a clenched fist," Holden recalled. "At the time it was happening, West Point is only 50 miles north of New York City. Everyone thought a plane would be flying into the mess hall at lunch time."
Football was sacrificed. Players' practice time was cut into. Berry himself did 57 interviews in the days between 9/11 and the next football game.
"Do I help make this man a soldier or do I help him make him a football player?" Berry asked himself. "From that time on, I wanted to make them a solider."
Three years later, Berry was fired.
Whether that critical decision played a part is unknown. Certainly Berry's passing offense didn't fit at Army, where the players are overmatched athletically by most major college teams. A 5-42 record didn't help, either.
Berry, though, loves the academy. During his four seasons, he visited Army bases around the world, parachuted, fired cannons, threw grenades and fired weapons.
That 3-8 season in 2001 was actually his best at Army.
"West Point will never leave me," said Berry, now the quarterback coach at Miami. "Even though it didn't work out for me there, it will never leave me what those young people and what that place stands for."
Immediately after 9/11, West Point's lockdown was total. Students couldn't go off campus. They wondered what the outside was like in this new world.
On the bus to the airport for the game, they saw the marquee of the West Point Hotel: "This nation will survive," it read. "Those who did this will not."
It wasn't much of one. Alabama-Birmingham scored on its first six possessions. The margin of defeat was the fifth-worst in Army history.
What do you expect from a team that can't remember which teammate carried the flag onto the field that day? The crowd -- announced at 25,000 but more like 10,000 -- rose for a standing ovation.
In those days, defensive end Dave McCracken became a minor celebrity. His mother, Dianne, had been delayed at the Newark, N.J., airport the night of Sept. 10. Passengers were given the option of taking the next day's flight to San Francisco.
She stayed with her flight through a lengthy delay and made it to San Francisco that night. Those who waited until next morning perished in the Pennsylvania countryside. That was United Flight 93.
McCracken, a senior, was shipping out in December 2001 to become an Army Ranger. Even though he used words like "embarrassment" after the game, McCracken had that 1,000-yard stare like he was thinking about something else.
"Nobody gets more military than that guy," said teammate Mike Schwartz.
Schwartz doesn't miss football. The former tight end underwent knee surgery and was never the same.
He does miss the camaraderie. Last weekend, Schwartz flew to San Diego, where a lot of teammates got together for defensive tackle Paddy Heiliger's wedding.
"Some people when they go to West Point don't actually know what they're getting into," Schwartz said. "I grew up in a military family so I knew. It's not: Wow, it's a military college. Wow, I'm going straight to war."
The camaraderie wasn't nearly as good in Baghdad. That's where Schwartz was stationed for eight months as a captain in a field artillery unit escorting convoys.
"It's never boring because you never know when something bad is going to happen," Schwartz said. "You're always constantly on alert and it's really tiring after a while on those long missions.
"We were one of the only battalions that didn't lose anybody."
Part of his job was to escort VIPs around the country. Day trips, sometimes eight hours at a time. He would dodge IEDs and be out of radio range.
"If something happened it was you and your platoon," he said.
In some way or another, they all were thrown into a war they didn't expect to fight. Some are in the private sector by now. Some are putting their lives on the line as you read this.
Jenkins, the quarterback, beat Navy in '01, playing with a torn knee ligament. That was nothing compared to leading a platoon in Iraq. Jenkins was a second lieutenant with the 10th Mountain Division. The 37-man platoon was the first on site after a Chinook helicopter crashed in 2003, killing 13.
"It was a horrific day," Jenkins told AP.
They all played that day in Birmingham. The day football was a daydream. The day that in some small way, fortune smiled on all of them, not just Mario Smith.
That's the other thing about the '01 Black Knights.
Five years later, not one player on that roster has been killed.