He received a reserve commission in the Army and returned with Alice to Richmond. That year at Benedictine he finished a miserable 1-9, but rather than discourage him, the experience convinced him that he'd found his place in the world. He wanted to coach, and he wanted to win. Ross, a devout Roman Catholic, also wanted a family, the more kids the better.
On April 8, 1960, Alice gave birth to their first child, Kenneth David, but the pregnancy had been complicated by an obstetric condition called placenta previa, and the baby died about 15 minutes after being delivered.
"The placenta came first, and all of the oxygen was cut off," says Alice. "His heart was beating, but he never took his first breath. In those days they wouldn't let the mother see the baby, but Bobby did, and it was one of the hardest things he ever had to go through. He has a strong memory of [Kenneth], and April 8 is still a painful day for us. When you go through something like that it either hurts the relationship or it creates a union that nothing can break."
Bobby was in the Army at the time, serving his active duty, hoping to return to Benedictine in July, but his service was extended when cold war tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated. He had to give up his coaching job to continue serving with his unit, the combat-ready Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. Alice got pregnant again, and 10 days after their son Chris was born in October 1961, Bobby was bound for Europe on a troop ship. "I was bitter because I'd lost my job," he says, "but I had to suck it up and do what I was expected to do. The Berlin Crisis had just happened, and I thought we were going to war. We spent 10 days on that ship, and it was an anxious time, but we were prepared, and I was ready for whatever came. My only real concern was having to leave my wife and son behind."
Ross and his regiment never saw action, but he looks back on his 2 1/2 years in the Army as some of the most important in his life. They helped prepare him for his job today. " Coach Ross understands what we're going through," says Crehan, the backup quarterback. "His military background adds that much more to our respect for him. He's been there, you know?"
"The war in Iraq is real close here," Ross says. "I get e-mails and letters from former Army players who are now in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I'll read some to our guys and post others on the board for them to have a look at. When a guy questions the importance of football, I'll show him those letters from former players legitimizing football in terms of what they're doing now in service to their country."
According to Bob Beretta, Army's associate athletic director for media relations, approximately 200 former Black Knights have served or are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the need for U.S. troops there continues, some seniors on this year's squad can expect to see action about a year after they graduate. So far, Beretta says, no former Army football player has been killed or seriously wounded in either country. Coaches and players wake up every morning and turn on the news and hope they don't hear a name they recognize.
"The nature of this place is, you have to live day to day," says Joel Glover, a senior offensive tackle from Abilene, Texas. "You can't look ahead two months, or your head will split open. You have to live for now."
"When I first got into coaching, it seemed players would do whatever you asked them to do," says Ross. "'Go run through that wall,' and they'd do it. Then there were years when you knew better than to ask them to run through a wall. I guess I've come full circle, because I now find myself at a place where players are willing to run through a wall for you again."
Ross's words seem hyperbolic until you encounter his players leaving Blaik Field after working out on their own one day this summer. Most of them are too young to remember when Ross was building his reputation and competing for championships, but in their brief association he has impressed them with his encyclopedic football knowledge and his drive to make the Black Knights winners again. Only two weeks after arriving on post, Ross knew each player's name, position and hometown. He'd watched enough game tape to instruct every returning starter on how to improve his performance. Recruiting coordinator Tucker Waugh gave Ross a thick binder containing copies of letters he was sending to recruits. Ross read every letter and circled a number of minor mistakes, which he later brought up with Waugh.