Posted: Friday September 9, 2011 11:22AM ; Updated: Friday September 9, 2011 4:51PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>VIEWPOINT

'01 Army-Navy game players carry lessons from gridiron to battlefield

Story Highlights

2001 Army-Navy game was forgettable contest, but an unforgettable experience

Majority of men who played in game went on to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq

Several players earned Purple Hearts; two players were later killed in line of duty

Special reporting by Jennifer Michalski, Joseph Herrmann, Victor Luckerson and Matthew Marcantonio

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It was a calm Tuesday morning. Summer had just about seeped into fall. The financial markets were relatively stable. The United States, as it had been for the better part of nearly three decades, was at peace. Then, at 8:46 a.m., a hijacked plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, followed less than 20 minutes later by another hijacked airliner that plowed into the South Tower. A third plane smacked into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth was headed for either the White House or the Capitol. After passengers subdued the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93, it crashed in a Pennsylvania field. By the end of the day, nearly 3,000 Americans were dead.

With that, one historical era had ended and another had begun. Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of the "Post-9/11" universe. For all Americans, the attacks of 10 years ago were a watershed moment, but for some -- for the men and women of the country's armed forces -- they were determinative, defining the course of their future.

For the cadets and midshipmen at West Point and Annapolis, the prospect of fighting in a war had suddenly turned from theoretical to very real. For the academies' football teams, the events of September 11, and their aftermath, made for one of the more remarkable seasons in college football history, as well as for a dramatically memorable Army-Navy game. Players from both teams endured experiences that they would carry with them to Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. This is their story.

Chad Jenkins, Army QB

"9/11, for not only an Army football player but for an American was a complete shocker and a life-altering event. You realize the magnitude of it but you just don't realize how it's going to change your life, especially for someone that's at a service academy or somebody that was currently even in the military at that time."

Vaughn Kelley, Navy CB

"I was going to class and as I walked through the halls I saw one of the planes hit the second tower on a TV. Everybody froze. I didn't know what I was watching. I thought it was a movie. It got more real and real. Navy cancelled classes and everyone got on their phones to make sure their families were OK. There was a rumor, maybe not on paper but one we heard, that [Annapolis would] be next for attack. [Later in the week], we'd see planes overhead in practice and we all thought they were going to hit us. We'd freeze and stare at the planes."

Babatunde Akingbemi, Navy DT

"That's a day I'll never forget. I was on my way back from class and I saw a lot of people, a lot more noise than usual. It seemed like everyone was running. I didn't realize what was going on. Practice was cancelled that day. Everything was just shut down."

For some players, the sudden prospect of being a soldier bleached the relevance from football; the notion of playing "games" just didn't seem right. For some, it was a welcome diversion, a relief from the stress. For still others, it was preparation for what might follow after graduation.

Glenn Schatz, Navy DE

"Beforehand, the Academy was just a thing that you did. A lot of the silly rules and military regulations that you had to follow -- you're like OK great, I'm doing this and I'm going to go off and be a pilot or a surface warfare officer and basically you knew that all you'd do after graduation was go off and train. But all of a sudden a lot of the guys that wanted to be in the Marine Corps, they all of a sudden had a real enemy they were going to have to go after. So I think after 9/11, there was a little bit more sense of mission [at the Academy]. A lot of the military classes I think people took a little more seriously after that. It was different because most of the guys that were there when I was there, they signed up in a time of peace and exited in a time of war. I taught at the Academy for three years recently, and every midshipman that was there when I taught there basically signed up during a time of war. It was a different mentality."

Army cadet
An army cadet waves a 'Beat Navy' towel during the Army-Navy game on Dec. 1, 2001.
Win McNamee/REUTERS

It was a rough season for both teams. When Navy lost to Notre Dame 34-16, it marked the 50th straight game the two academies had lost to the Fighting Irish. Through November of that season, the Cadets and Midshipmen had played a combined 19 games and won just two. Both teams, however, found a measure of consolation in the reception that greeted them at opposing stadiums.

Jake Bowen, Navy LB

"In previous years ... you'd get off the bus and people would be booing you. They'd say 'Sink Navy' or some fans would be rude; they'd throw beer cans at you. But everybody that season had the utmost respect for the Navy team. I remember getting off the bus at Notre Dame stadium and -- we didn't do anything, we just got off the bus -- and all of their fans just started clapping."

Todd Berry, Army coach

"My first year at Army [in 2000], I remember going into some stadiums and being booed as the players came out on the field. After 9/11, we had that first weekend off as most of the country did obviously, and then we were playing UAB [on Sept. 22]. And we showed up down there and had all kinds of things from a call-in bomb scare that night [at the team hotel] to someone pulling the fire alarm and us having to evacuate. There were a lot of nerves and anxieties. We took the field the next day and all of a sudden we got a standing ovation. It hit me. It's a little bit of a sad commentary from a societal standpoint, when these young people are giving up so much for our country to protect and defend the values that we hold, that it takes an event like 9/11 for us to fully appreciate what they are doing and why we have to have academies."

 
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