In the new era of college sports, Army-Navy is a student-athlete showcase
Ten years ago Steve Erzinger was a 210-pound undersized senior linebacker and one of the captains of the Army football team. Yet when he headed for his final game against the Navy, he weighed just 190 pounds.
Hours before kick-off, Erzinger was on a practice table in the bowels of FedEx Field in Md., Hooked up to an IV as fluids flowed through his body. He had the flu, but most of his weight loss had occurred before the illness.
He was not alone among the Black Knights. I had seen one player after another dwindle over the 2011 season as they tried to balance being soldiers, students and athletes. The nagging injuries became chronic as cadets still had to perform their military duties, attend class and the library while playing their sport.
There was no rest or recovery. It was also impossible for Erzinger or any other bruised and beaten player in the Army or Navy locker room to (choose one) America’s Game, Civil War, or Honor Play.
U.S. military personnel around the world, veterans and college football loyalists watched and celebrated this philosophy on Saturday as the Navy (4-8) defeated the Army (8-4) 17-13 in their 122nd clash. , this time at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey
But in this new era of NCAA name, image and likeness, service academies are home to the last true Division I student-athletes whose play is largely secondary to their other pursuits. Because the government pays their tuition, accommodation, and fees, cadets and midshipmen are considered employees, and federal laws prohibit the use of public office for private gain.
“I’m biased, but service academies have always been the cornerstone of what a student-athlete should be,” Erzinger said. “We have a compulsory curriculum and military tasks that cannot be avoided. Make no mistake, school athletes with a different work-life balance deserve their share of the money. The NCAA has always been a game of money, but we’re not them.
The NCAA, facing pressure from many states, changed its rules this year to allow athletes in its three divisions to seek outside agreements, including endorsements and other forms of income. Still, the association’s shifting stance has underscored a clear red line for college athletic administrators: unlike service academies, universities as a whole don’t want athletes to be seen as employees.
In West Point, NY, where I spent a year researching a book, cadets take 17-20 hours of Ivy League quality instruction and participate in year-round physical and tactical training to maintain the discipline demanded by the ‘army. No summer vacation, nor many opportunities to postpone a course in the summer to lighten the academic load during the season.
Beast Barracks – or basic training – begins in late June before freshmen start classes. Students in the upper class take leadership training, which can include mock combat missions and ranger school and can take cadets to places like Fort Benning, Georgia and Germany.
Playing football is both the easiest, the most fun and the least important thing they do in their 47 months as officers-in-training.
In the modern era, a handful of them have made careers as NFL Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, two-time Pro Bowler, who played for the military. New England Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona, who played for the Navy, won two Super Bowls.
The vast majority end up serving their country for at least five years. Erzinger, for example, qualified as a Ranger and was deployed with them to Afghanistan. He was appointed captain as a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, serving in Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine.
He left the military in 2017, earned an MBA from Rice University in Houston, and is an investment banker in the energy sector there. He is married and has a 16 month old son, Eli.
Another of his football co-captains, Captain Andrew Rodriguez, commanded the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, graduated with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering and Commerce from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and taught at West Point.
Among his team’s expansive text string are Green Berets and educators, bankers and engineers, small business owners and real estate developers. The thread explodes this time of year, with discussions of the lessons learned at West Point and the camaraderie we miss.
“What I learned from football and West Point is how to take the pressure and figure out what works. If everyone supports a mission, you are successful,” Erzinger said. “I had a sense of the goal in the military You go out to the outside world and it’s more of an individual sport.
There are also memories of victories, although very few of them. Erzinger had only one winning season, in 2010, when the Black Knights defeated Southern Methodist University in the Armed Forces Bowl.
He also never beat Navy.
During his senior season, Erzinger got off the practice table and IV drip and led a swarming defense on the verge of an Army victory. The Black Knights lost 27-21 on the contenders 25-yard line with just over four minutes to go. It was fourth and-7. They did not understand it.
At that time, he was devastated.
“It hardly works,” he said, his eyes red. “It’s something I have to live with now.”
A decade later, it doesn’t hurt too much. He planned to have a barbecue at his home on Saturday with about a half-dozen other West Pointers – including teammates – and their families.
“I want us to win,” he said. “But above all I want it to be competitive and for both teams to come out in good health. I know where the players from both teams come from and where they are going. We all made a commitment and I don’t regret mine. I’m sure they won’t either.
Joe Drape spent a year among the cadets for a book, “Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country and Football at West Point”.