Mike Kamon didn't have much of a spring break. On March 17, the day he turned 22, he watched on TV as his Commander in Chief gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq. The next night he went to see Gods and Generals with his mother. The following morning, around five, he left his family's spacious home on a wooded lot in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia and made the three-hour drive to West Point. He had to get back and he wanted to get back—for lacrosse practice. Kamon is a captain of the Army lacrosse team. On May 31, graduation day, he'll become a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Soon, the playing fields of his boyhood will be replaced by war-torn battlefields.
Sport has never been more important to him, for he knows what's coming soon enough, and he's ready to the for his country, if need be. "I'd rather it be me than someone else," he says.
War and sport, at their root, are both about sacrifice, although of very different kinds. The elite military academies have always understood this. At West Point a plaque memorializes the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a former West Point outfielder: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields on other days, will bear the fruits of victory." Roger Staubach was always more than a Dallas Cowboys quarterback: He was a Navy man, a '65 graduate of the academy, who played professional football with an officer's bearing. You see the same thing in Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who played basketball for Bob Knight at Army in the '60s and later coached there.
At West Point, as is the case at the two other major service academies, cadets are required to play a team sport. Varsity, intramural, it doesn't matter, but they must play something. The admissions process includes a physical fitness screening. Dwight Eisenhower, class of '15, was a resourceful halfback at Army, and his classmate, Omar Bradley, the World War II five-star general, was also a West Point football letterman. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, (class of '80), who's helping to lead the coalition effort in Iraq, played basketball and team handball. Don Holleder, an Army football star, made the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on Nov. 28, 1955, and was killed in a jungle outside of Saigon on Oct. 17, 1967.
The essential code of West Point is country-before-self, and if you don't have it coming in—and Mike Kamon did not—you'll have it by the time you're heading out. Kamon has it now, in spades. He says he picked up some of that ethic of self-sacrifice in the classroom, some of it in the barracks, much of it on the lacrosse field. He also appreciates lacrosse's roots as an ancient tribal sport that Native Americans used to settle disputes. "They could go to war, and have half the people killed, or play lacrosse, and only a few would die," Kamon says.
Kamon grew up near West Chester, Pa., and his parents, Christine and Mark, would occasionally take him to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia to watch the Eagles. The family also made trips to Gettysburg and Valley Forge and Independence Hall. Once, his hero was Reggie White, the retired All-Pro defensive end. Now his hero is Tommy Franks, the four-star general who, as they say in the Army, is "running Iraq." In Ramon's years at West Point, the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have visited the academy. He heard President Bush deliver last year's commencement address. It was a major policy statement, coming nearly nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks. The President said that day, "The war on terror will not be won on the defensive." Kamon hung on his commander's every word, just as he would do on his birthday.
All through high school, and in his first three years as an Army lacrosse player, Kamon was an offensive beast. In high school, playing for the West Chester Henderson Warriors, he won more than 80% of his face-offs. As a freshman, when most of his lacrosse-playing classmates were on the junior varsity, Kamon was on the varsity, playing in all 15 games, winning more than half his face-offs. The following year, he started all 14 games as a first-line offensive midfielder, scoring 25 goals, second highest among the Black Knights. Last year, he had 15 goals and scooped up 63 groundballs, the most on his team. This year he's become a defensive midfielder. Why? Because that's what his team needs.
On weekday mornings Christine Kamon walks with her neighbor Marcia Taylor, whose son Ryan graduated from West Point in 2000. Taylor was an intramural boxer, wrestler and soccer player. Now he's in Iraq, coordinating Army helicopter traffic for the 101st Airborne. Marcia hasn't heard from her son since March 18, and she doesn't expect to until the war is over.
If Ryan Taylor could talk to Mike Kamon from the battlefields of Iraq, Marcia knows what he would say: "You could be here in Iraq next year. Enjoy home while you can. Beat Navy." The Army-Navy game will be at Annapolis on April 26, the most important game in the lives of players for both teams.
Soon after, the problems of the world will come knocking on Ramon's door. He will be trained in artillery, but he hopes the war will be over by February, when he expects to be deployed to Iraq as part of the 4th Infantry Division. If the fighting is done, he says, his job will be to keep peace, supervise the building of roads and sewer lines, run a village until the Iraqis are ready to run it themselves. Of course, there's hubris in that job description, but self-assuredness is a mark of many great athletes and officers. He might bring a couple of sticks, a couple of balls, maybe help spread a new game to Iraq.