By rights West Point should be a recruiter's dream. The campus is a mighty stone fortress that commands America's most beautiful river from wooded highlands that blaze with color in the fall. Cadets with crossed white belts on their chests and black plumes fluttering from their hats parade on vast lawns to stirring martial airs while the heroes of the Republic, from Washington to Patton, gaze down on the pageantry from marble pedestals.
The quality of a West Point education is high, its alumni are illustrious and its football tradition is grand. It has produced more Presidents than Yale, more Heisman Trophy winners than Michigan and more movies than Hollywood High. Who else but an Army recruiter could haul out Tyrone Power, George C. Scott and Douglas MacArthur for the benefit of an impressionable high school prospect? Even history seems to conspire to make a West Point recruiter's job easier. On a boulder outside Michie Stadium is a plaque that reads: "I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player."—General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, World War II.
Over hill and dale and dusty trail you would think they'd flock, those 230-pound linebackers and tight ends with 3.5 grade averages. However, while West Point can offer room, board, full tuition, all expenses and a monthly salary for every player, it cannot promise much in the way of high times or a future in football. The West Point recruiter can talk as long as he's able about the Long Gray Line and the Lonesome End and Honor, Duty, Country, but sooner or later he and his hot prospect have to settle down to the basic facts of U.S. Military Academy life, namely that any cadet who attends the first class of his junior year makes a five-year commitment to the Army that will begin on the day of his graduation. It is virtually impossible for an Army football player to move into the professional game. Roger Staubach did it from Annapolis, but the requirement then was only three years and he was able to schedule his leaves so that he could work out with the Cowboys each season.
Furthermore, for four years the Army football player will live under a system of unrelenting military discipline and will follow an academic regimen, heavy in math and science, that is just as rigorous for athletes as it is for the rest of the Corps. His privileges will be as few as his classmates', he will exist in a school with a male-female ratio of 43 to 1, he will probably never play in a bowl game because Army never has, and a certain segment of the population, particularly his own generation, will view him as a killer-in-training.
Army football hit rock bottom in 1973. The Black Knights of the Hudson, twice national champions, 10 seasons unbeaten, were 0 and 10, winless for the first time since 1890. Worst of all, they lost to Navy 51-0. Tom Cahill, Coach of the Year in 1966, was fired, and Army's recruiting program, thanks mainly to a long, unpopular, inglorious war, was left in tatters.
But two things were happening in 1973 that meant better days were on their way. A tall, skinny 17-year-old quarterback named Leamon Hall was attending the U.S. Military Academy Prep School in Fort Belvoir, Va., a one-year way station for athletes en route to West Point. And Homer Smith, a 42-year-old Princeton graduate (cum laude, in economics) with an MBA from Stanford, was convincing the brass at West Point that he was just the man they needed to replace Cahill.
Now, after 3-8 and 2-9 seasons in 1974 and 1975, during which Smith retrenched and recruited and Hall waited his turn, good times are on the horizon. The cheating scandal that surfaced last spring, implicating 227 cadets, was an enormous blow, but the worst of that trauma is over now, and it is football, with a new pro-style offense led by Hall and his magic arm, that is helping everyone forget. After last week's 27-10 loss to Boston College the Cadets were 3-4 for the season, a record that included a 21-20 upset of Stanford and a narrow 34-32 loss to North Carolina. Army has a shot at a winning season for the first time since 1972, and its passing combination, Hall and Tight End Clennie Brundidge, is making West Point history. Hall, who has 244 attempts and 119 completions for 1,633 yards, set five single-game school records in one game, and Clennie, with 41 catches for 594 yards, is closing in on Joe Albano's 1970 season marks. The clerks at the post PX are talking football again. The waitresses at Schades' in the village cross their fingers. Even the beleaguered public-affairs officers have begun to smile now and then.
"I didn't recruit Leamon Hall," says Homer Smith. "He was already on his way here when I arrived. But the first thing I heard about him was that he had thrown the basketball up against the wall during the physical aptitude test." The test, which is an entrance requirement for all candidates, consists of pull-ups, a standing broad jump, a 300-yard shuttle run and a kneeling basketball throw. Ninety feet is a good throw; 100 is a great one. Hall, without benefit of leg action, threw the ball past all the marks on the floor and hit the wall at the other end of the gym.
Hall grew up, to 6'5", in Apopka, Fla., near Orlando. His father was a linotype operator for the Orlando Sentinel-Star until computerization arrived. Now he is a foreman of the paper's composing department. In 1972 Leamon was an all-state high school player with his eyes on Auburn or Florida. But in the next to last game of his senior year he suffered a right-shoulder separation and the recruiters who had been keeping in touch since his sophomore year vanished overnight.
"It was a frustrating senior year, wondering right into the spring where I was going to go," he says. "My coach told all the schools around that I might be the best throwing quarterback in the South, but nobody believed him."