September 11 forever alters lives of Army-Navy game players (cont.)
Two Navy players from the 2001 Army-Navy game were killed in action, as was a former player who had graduated the year before.
Lt. Brendan Looney played football and lacrosse at Navy from 2000-04. He began his naval career in intelligence before transferring to the SEAL division. During his fourth tour of duty, he was killed when his Black Hawk helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan on Sept. 21. 2010. Looney's roommate at Navy, 1st Lt. Travis Manion, USMC, had been killed in 2007. They are now buried side-by-side at Arlington National Cemetery.
A strong-armed back-up quarterback, J.P. Blecksmith graduated from Annapolis in 2002 and was deployed to Iraq. On Nov. 11, 2004 -- Veteran's Day -- Blecksmith was killed in Iraq's Al Anbar Province by small arms fire while leading his platoon as it cleared surrounding buildings of enemy fighters. He was 24.
On Sept. 4, 2004, Ron Winchester, who played offensive tackle at Navy from 1998-2000, was killed by a booby-trapped explosive device in the Al Anbar province in western Iraq. Winchester was a member of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment based in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
"I was fortunate enough to have been close to all three of those guys. Each was a real part of my life. I'll never forget them; no one else should either. I knew Brendan before I went to the academy. We went to the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) together in Newport [R.I.]. He was there because he was a recruited athlete. I was there because I had served two years in the Navy -- [as] a sailor on submarines -- and had been selected to attend the academy. Instantly, we became real good friends. He was so easy to get along with. He'd never had exposure to the whole military thing, but I watched him grow from a quiet kid into a real leader. He was one of those guys who'd never get tired. He could run forever."
Travis Peace, Navy OG
"I've found it uneasy and uncomfortable talking about guys who are not with us anymore. I've never really explained the relationships I had with these guys with my immediate family, or even my wife, because it's too hard to really put into words. Brendan Looney was in my company my junior and senior year. I spent a lot of time with him. That dude was cool, calm and collected. SEALS was the perfect fit for that guy."
"J.P. always wanted to be a Marine. He was from California, this unbelievable athlete, 6-4, 230 pounds, and he could throw a football like a rocket. He had offers from all the big West Coast schools. Navy was running an option offense, not a lot of use for a guy who would throw a ball 70 yards. J.P. knew he wasn't going to the NFL. Coming here, he knew he probably wouldn't even play quarterback. And he didn't. He switched positions a bunch of times. Everyone was like, Navy? Are you crazy, man? He didn't care. He wanted to come to Navy because he wanted to go into the Marine Corps, be an officer, lead men on the ground. And he was one of those guys you want to follow because you know he'd do the right thing. He died on Veteran's Day. Just a great American."
"J.P. was in my class, and I remember the first time I met him thinking, 'Why the hell is this guy not playing QB for a BCS school?' After practice, he would show off his arm and chuck a ball 70 yards just for fun. He had the God-given ability to play QB for a football program much more esteemed than Navy. But he wanted to be a Marine, and went to the Academy for that chance."
"Ron was a senior when I was a freshman. We lived in the same company, right across the hall. As a plebe, you can get [dumped] on a lot. It's rough and demanding. Ron was a big, bad senior, but -- he probably would have gotten in trouble if other people knew this -- he'd take me in his room when [upperclassmen] came around to harass a plebe. He'd say, 'Hide in here. They're not gonna mess with you.' That's who he was. He cared about everyone. On the field, he beat the crap out of you. I'd line up against him in practice and I was just basically a tackling dummy. He'd knock me down. Then he'd pick me up. We'd walk back to our rooms and he'd say, 'How's everyone treating you? Everything OK?'
"When he died, I was working at Navy as a strength coach for the football team, before I entered flight school. That's when I felt like, 'This is a no-crap war and people are dying. This is reality.' But he wanted to be a Marine. He died doing what he loved."