The runner is all in black, except for his spikes. They are red, white and blue. The other men at the starting line look nervous. They are fidgeting. But the runner in black, Army cadet Andy Ferrara, is still, his hands on his hips. He's actually smirking. It's because he's reminding himself that this is serious, but it is also fun. It's not life or death. That will come later.
Ten minutes earlier Ferrara spoke on the phone with Jerry Quiller, the longtime Army track coach who recruited him five years ago and who retired in 2008, stricken by incurable multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that attacks the bone marrow. In 2000, Quiller had also encouraged Ferrara's brother Matt to come to West Point and to walk on. Quiller had called to tell Andy that the video of his anchor leg at the Penn Relays last month, where he went from fifth to first on the last lap of the collegiate heat of the 4 × 800-meter relay, brought a tear to his eye.
In a moment the starter's pistol will fire at the IC4A Championships, and Ferrara will cover 800 meters of Princeton University track in 1:48.57, faster than all but one Army runner ever has, and fast enough to extend the senior's career by another meet, to the NCAA Regional Championships, to be contested in Greensboro, N.C., over Memorial Day weekend. He will lean through the finish line as if he were a pearl diver breaking the surface for air. As the blood rushes back from his extremities to his stomach, he will amble Jell-O-legged behind an evergreen tree, drop to all fours and pay for the check his body just wrote with 10 minutes of retching. Still on the ground, he'll pull off his West Point singlet, and the tattoo will be visible: MCF KIA 9NOV07. It's as big as a saucer on his left flank, at just about the same place where the bullet exited Matthew C. Ferrara's back 2½ years ago in Afghanistan.
An Army coach, standing five feet away, pays these guttural heaves no mind. This is what Ferrara does every time he competes. "When I'm throwing up after my race," he says, "I know I pushed."
THE FERRARA family calls it the Orbit. It's a two-mile stretch of neighborhood road that surrounds their home in Torrance, Calif., and anytime Andy and his brothers—Marcus, 34, and Damon, 23—and sister, Simone, 32, are home, they can often be found circling it together, with parents Mario and Linda tagging along on bikes. The elder Ferraras raised five Division I athletes: Marcus, Matt and Andy ran track at West Point; Damon ran at USC while on an ROTC scholarship; and Simone played soccer at UC Irvine. So where a less competitive clan might catch up with each other over the dinner table, the Ferraras do it while pounding out the miles over a stretch of suburban thoroughfare.
Maybe that's what happens when a father makes his kids memorize Rudyard Kipling's If. ("If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds' worth of distance run.... ") And since the brothers are no longer trying to expunge one another from the South Torrance High record books, this distance run is actually relaxing. "It's just time for us to chill out and b.s.," says Andy. The pace is slow enough for conversation, and the boys discuss topics of immediate concern—for example, the Army Ranger School, a grueling nine-week course that only Andy has yet to go through.
That will change within a year, as Andy becomes the fourth Ferrara brother to enter the infantry. His brothers' tales about food and sleep deprivation at Ranger School have made Andy a little anxious, but he feels track has prepared him in a unique way. "Ranger school isn't a school to teach you technical skills; it's a school to push you to your limits and teach you about yourself," Ferrara says. It teaches you how to separate your body and mind so one can function while the other cries out for mercy. "That's similar to what I see in running," he says. "With running, you single out that pain and push it to the back of your mind so you can push yourself to that next level."
This year Ferrara has found that next level, on the track and in the barracks. When academy officials offered last summer to make him one of four regimental commanders—meaning he would spend his senior year in charge of about a thousand West Point cadets—Ferrara considered turning the honor down. He worried that the responsibilities of the position would detract from his obligation to perform on the track for his teammates and to act as their captain. But Army track coach Troy Engle helped seal the deal when he offered to "fly out and kick your ass if you don't do it." Says Engle, "[Andy] makes everyone on the track team better, and he owed it to the Corps of Cadets to make them better too."
As a regimental commander he met daily with a lieutenant colonel to discuss the operations in his regiment. As captain of the track team, he memorized part of the academy's standard operating procedures to give useful tips to teammates. To wit, they are allowed to run in the evening from 5:30 to 6:30 when other cadets must be inside. He's also a stickler for the rules. If a teammate is five minutes late for a bus, Ferrara will tell the driver to depart. "When they graduate, they can't tell their platoon that they overslept," he says. So Ferrara was being completely honest recently when the Commandant—a one star general—put forth the idea of ending team lunch tables and he replied, "I've learned more about leadership from the track team than in any activity with the Corps of Cadets."
Now his time on the track is almost at an end. As the NCAA ad goes, "There are 380,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports." For the 90 student-athletes who graduated from Army last week, going pro is more harrowing than it was a decade ago, before 9/11. Of the 1,002 American service members who have died in and around Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, 693 have come from the Army—including the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. A handful have been former student-athletes. One of them was 24-year-old Capt. Matthew Ferrara.