Posted: Wednesday September 22, 2010 12:11PM ; Updated: Tuesday September 28, 2010 3:22PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE HIGH SCHOOL

At Ft. Campbell, football is escape for players with parents deployed (cont.)

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Coach Shawn Berner relies on his assistants -- three of whom graduated from Fort Campbell High -- to fully understand the player's situations.
Grant Halverson/SI.com

Needless to say, the members of 101st can handle demanding physical labor, and they have passed along those genes to their sons. So too have the members of the Fort Campbell-based 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, better known as the Night Stalkers. The Night Stalkers, people on post often joke, will never tell a person where they've been or what they've done because most of their missions are classified. Someone asked Rob Jorstad, father of offensive guard Brady Jorstad and a member of the 160th, where he had been before he returned home Friday just in time to head up the chain crew for the Kenwood game. Jorstad, a fire hydrant of a man with a shaved head and a firm handshake, only smiled.

Since most of the soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell must fit a certain physical mold, the Falcons have a lot of physically similar athletes. They have plenty of lithe skill position players and muscular linebacker-types, but precious few jumbo linemen. "You can't be huge to fly in a helicopter," said offensive line coach/co-athletic director Scott Lowe. So for every Koty Hix -- a 6-foot-4, 290-pound sophomore tackle who will be the biggest player Lowe coaches for years -- Lowe knows he must turn 10 more 190-pounders into serviceable linemen.

The same goes at the other positions. For every specimen such as 220-pound junior linebacker Martenez Smith, who dropped in Berner's lap when Smith's father was transferred to Fort Campbell from Fort Jackson in South Carolina, there is a player like Mudbug who weighs 175 pounds -- 100 of it heart. Mudbug's father has taken his name off the list for promotions twice so Mudbug can stay at Fort Campbell High. The elder Von Dette will return from Afghanistan in October for a mid-tour break. His tour ends next year. When it does, Sgt. 1st Class Warren Noble, the father of freshman linebacker Christian Noble, will be in the unit that replaces Von Dette's unit. "It's something that has to be done," said Annie Von Dette as she sat beneath a tree last week watching practice with fellow moms Midge Noble and Jen Jorstad. "It's a way of life," said Jorstad, whose husband was one of the first American soldiers to deploy to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

That day changed everything on post. Because the 101st and 160th are first-response units, DOD officials worried Fort Campbell might be a valuable target if terrorists had hijacked more planes. The base was locked down. Tanks rolled back and forth beside the practice field. Apache helicopters buzzed not far overhead. When the Falcons played their first home game after Sept. 11, anyone attending the game had to be on a pre-approved list to get on post and into the stadium. Snipers stood sentry in the light towers. Life on post slowly returned to normal, but the helicopters hummed through their patrols well into 2002. When the rotors finally stopped, Jen Jorstad said, the silence was the eeriest sound of all.

Berner took over the program in 2002, and led the Falcons to district titles from 2003-05, but he wouldn't win a state title until 2007. That year, the Falcons lost their first two games. Things looked bleak until a players-only meeting got everyone on the same page. Then the Falcons soared.

During that season, Dexter and Raquan Durrante, a pair of brothers who starred at running back and cornerback, respectively, came to Berner and said they had to go to North Carolina. They didn't know when they would be back. Their father, Dexter Sr., had been training at Fort Bragg when a live IED exploded. Berner asked how badly the elder Durrante had been hurt. "He's blind," the brothers told their coach.

Berner wasn't sure if he'd lost the brothers for the season. In five years as head coach during a war, the parents of his players had managed to stay mostly out of harm's way. He prepared for the worst. The Durrantes left on a Sunday. They returned the following Wednesday and didn't miss a game. The elder Dexter Durrante had encouraged them to return. "It was really one of the hardest moments of my life," said Raquan Durrante, who now plays alongside his brother at Murray State. "We had to be strong because [our father] was so strong for us."

In Fort Campbell's state championship game win against 35-point favorite Newport Central Catholic, Raquan Durrante forced a fumble on the goal line to preserve a Falcons' lead. On the ensuing Fort Campbell possession, the younger Dexter Durrante zipped down the left sideline for a 67-yard touchdown run to seal the win. Later, Dexter Durrante Sr. explained to Berner that he knew his son was about to break loose for a long touchdown. "I couldn't see it," Berner remembered Durrante saying, "but I called it."

*****

The moment Raquan Durrante forced that fumble, a group of high-ranking officers from the second brigade of the 101st stationed throughout Iraq were in the midst of a tactical update on a secure line. That occupied one of the computers in Wintrich's office at Camp Victory. An unsecured computer was logged on to a Lexington-based audio feed of the championship game.

Durrante's hit on receiver Matt Ritter jarred the ball loose, and McWherter jumped on the fumble to cap a goal-line stand. Audio of the resulting commotion was recorded for posterity in the tactical update. "I exploded," Wintrich said. "You can hear me in the background yelling."

*****

In an average offseason, most high school coaches have to deal with a player or two moving to another school district. Berner's situation is different, though it isn't as bad as his predecessor's. Before 2002, the Army shifted soldiers to new posts sometimes as often as every 12-18 months. Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq has forced the Army to keep its soldiers based on the same post for years at a time, which has allowed for a modicum of continuity in Fort Campbell's football program. Still, it is the Army, and soldiers are always getting reassigned. In 2008, Berner thought he had enough of a nucleus returning to repeat. By the time the Falcons started preseason practice, seven veterans of the 2007 season had moved after their parents were transferred.

 
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