At Ft. Campbell, football is escape for players with parents deployed
Fort Campbell (Ky.) High is run by DOD and open only to children of soldiers
Falcons are tough and have won three consecutive state championships
Soldiers posted overseas listen to their son's games on the Internet
Somewhere in Kuwait in late 2007, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chris Croft handed a package to a convoy commander bound for Baghdad. Croft told the commander to deliver the package to Lt. Col. Fred Wintrich.
The phone rang at midnight Baghdad time. Wintrich answered. The convoy commander explained that he had a package to deliver before he continued his journey. Wintrich, the executive officer for the second brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, set out from Camp Victory to a refueling depot about two miles to the north. There he met the commander, who handed Wintrich a brown paper bag.
Inside were game DVDs featuring the soon-to-be Class 2A Kentucky state champion Fort Campbell High Falcons. Croft's son, C.J., was the starting quarterback. Wintrich's son, Josh McWherter, was a star linebacker. "For an hour, you get to be somewhere else besides Baghdad," Wintrich said of watching the DVDs of the Falcons' midseason surge in his tiny office after his 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. workday ended. "You get to be at Fryar Stadium. You get to be part of your kid's life."
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- The soldier wore his combat uniform and a regulation buzz cut under his beret as he strode onto the practice field late last month. In his hand, he carried a kicking tee. Before Lt. Col. Mike Dolata came to command the military police on this 106,700-acre installation, before he saw combat and lost friends in battle, he was a soccer-style kicker at his Glendale, Ariz., high school. So it only makes sense that Dolata tutors Fort Campbell kicker/offensive guard Darien Upshaw the day before the Falcons play their home opener against Kenwood, a public school from nearby Clarksville, Tenn.
Fort Campbell is a public school in that it is paid for with tax dollars, but it is run by the Department of Defense and is open only to children of soldiers who live on post at Fort Campbell. Fort Knox High, also in Kentucky, is another. In all, the DOD operates 63 schools in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Cuba (Guantanamo Bay). Of those only four are traditional high schools with students in grades 9-12. Fort Campbell is a coed school with 720 students, and it faces many of the same issues as other public high schools. It also faces issues unique to an Army base. For example, at most public high schools, ESOL classes help immigrants -- mostly from Latin America -- learn the language before mainstreaming into regular classes. At Fort Campbell, an American citizen who grew up speaking mostly German because a parent was posted in Germany might take ESOL classes before mainstreaming. Nearly every player on Fort Campbell's team has a parent either serving in a war zone or training to go back to a war zone. Dolata doesn't have a son on the team, but like so many on the base, he wants to help. "It's an imperative," he said, "to support our kids with so many parents gone."
The Falcons' football program is the ultimate support system for 75-100 boys whose parents serve in harm's way. Coach Shawn Berner and his staff have learned to serve as de facto fathers and mothers, and they have managed to win three consecutive state titles at a school where the Army can make a sudden roster change at any given moment. In the past three seasons, the Falcons have coped with tragedies on training grounds, in a combat zone and on their own practice field. The adversity has bonded the Falcons like brothers, and their success has inspired soldiers serving across the world.
Sgt. Robert Von Dette huddled close to his computer at about 4:30 a.m. local time one night in late 2008 at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. Few others were awake -- and there wasn't a sandstorm outside -- so WHVO-FM came in loud and clear over the Internet.
Most of the time, the station plays a mix of Elvis, the Beatles and other hits of the '50s, '60s and '70s, but Von Dette hadn't tuned in to hear "Suspicious Minds" or "Hard Day's Night." On fall Fridays, WHVO broadcasts Fort Campbell High football games.
More than 7,400 miles away, Falcons linebacker Chance "Mudbug" Von Dette -- then a sophomore -- helped bring down a ballcarrier. When play-by-play man Brent Dougherty called Mudbug's name, the elder Von Dette screamed, "YES!" He woke up nearly every soldier in the building. Later that morning, they forgave him when they learned the circumstances.
"It's awesome," the elder Von Dette wrote last week in an e-mail from Afghanistan. "You walk around all day with your head a little bit higher and your chest sticking out a little bit further. It makes life out here a little bit better. On the other hand, it's hard because you missed seeing it. But that is the sacrifice that comes with the job."
When coach Berner arrived at Fort Campbell as an assistant in 2001, he expected to find a bunch of shaven-headed mini-soldiers. Instead, he saw players that looked no different from the ones he had coached as a graduate assistant at Cumberland College or as an assistant at a suburban Atlanta high school. That the Falcons had excellent athletes shouldn't have surprised him. Most of the soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell belong to the 101st, the world's only airborne assault division. The Screaming Eagles were activated in 1942. On D-Day, they parachuted onto Cotentin Peninsula, making them the first allied soldiers to set foot in occupied France. Since, the 101st has served in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and anywhere else the Army has needed to deliver a quick, authoritative response.