At the US Military Academy on Saturday, the seniors on the Black Knight football team who led the 2011 team were among the 972 graduates awarded degrees and sworn in as commissioned second lieutenants in the US Army.
Graduation Day at West Point is similar but different than at civilian colleges. The setting was familiar with the seniors marching out on to Blaik Field named for the legendary coach with in Michie Stadium named for the founder of Army football. The first difference is the Cadets march in to the ceremony in their dress grey uniforms with sabers at their sides, not the caps and gowns we see at most graduations. Instead of Pomp and Circumstances, the West Point Band played the awe-inspiring "Army Strong".
The speaker for the program was Vice President Joe Biden who told the graduates, "Your destiny is to lead your country". The graduation was broadcast live to soldiers watching in Afghanistan.
My estimate of the 18 seniors listed in the 2011 opening day program against San Diego State, Kingsley Ehie graduated in December and 16 graduated Saturday. Defensive back Antuan Aaron was injured all year and linebacker Josh Jones was added to the roster in mid-year both received diplomas Saturday, so 19 of 20 seniors on the 2011 team graduated. That is a strong performance for a team that won a bowl game in 2010 and beat the likes of Northwestern from the Big 10 in 2011.
Among the names read out Saturday at the US Military Academy were a number of cadets very familiar to West Point football fans—Alex Carleton, Andrew Rodriquez, Antuan Aaron, William Prosko, Steven Erzinger, Michael McDermott, Joseph Bailey, Chad Littlejohn, Max Jenkins, Josh Jones, Davyd Brooks, Austin Barr, Robert Kava, Kolin Walk, Justin Schaaf, Brad Kelly, Broghan Carnes, and Frank Ceva.
Linebacker Broghan Carnes was a cadet who enjoyed the camaraderie of playing and contributing to the team. This spring he told me at the "Mission Command" lecture how playing on the team allowed him to bond with the other seniors on the team.
Kicker Alex Carleton was a stand up guy to talk with after games when he made kicks to win games such as against Vanderbilt his junior year or if he missed one. He finished second in Army history with 36 field goals made with his longest being a 51 yard kick against Vanderbilt in 2010. He scored 195 points seventh in Academy history and the second most for a kicker behind the 250 points Craig Stopa'85 scored.
Max Jenkins was a captain as the back-up quarterback coming in to play in several games after starter Trent Steelman was injured. Often he appeared to be another coach on the sidelines communicating with coaches in the press box and players on the field. He led the Black Knights to a win over Fordham and nearly pulled an upset at Air Force. Jenkins was known for leadership recognized by being named the Deputy Brigade Commander, number two in responsibility in the Corps of Cadets.
Steven Erzinger was the "Legacy" captain who provided consistent leadership play after play in his senior season when he lead the team with 103 tackles. "Legacy" means he was chosen by the prior year seniors which had won Army's first bowl game in 25 years to carry on their traditions into the next year. Before sitting out the Fordham game with an injury, the Houston, Texas native had played in 45 straight games. He represented Army in the East-West Shrine game. Steve was always available to talk with the media speaking in his humble straight forward way.
Andrew Rodriguez finished his playing career as simply the most acclaimed West Point athlete since Pete Dawkins won the Heisman Trophy in 1958. In December he was the recipient of the Campbell Trophy presented by the National Football Foundation as the scholar football player of the year. In March he was named by the AAU as the Sullivan Award winner presented to the amateur athlete of the year. The only other players to win both awards are Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow.
Rodriguez led the team in tackles his sophomore year with 85 tackles. "ARod" was highly respected by his teammates for coming back from back surgery to play a full senior season at linebacker in 2011. On top of that he was a superstar in the class room finishing second in his class with a 4.12 grade-point average. Andrew was the winner of a host of Academy Athletic Awards including the Athletic Association Trophy as the Cadet who had provided the most valuable service to athletics. I'll remember him as another polite, approachable cadet, humble about his extraordinary ability to manage time and overcome adversity.
As Phil Taylor wrote about in Sports Illustrated recently, these seniors were not spending much time thinking this spring about opportunities in the NFL or finding a job like players on non-service academies. The players were all selected for one of the branches of the Army where they will soon head. They talk about challenges ahead such as the challenging officer basic course they will almost all take upon joining the Army and for many enduring the punishing Ranger qualification course. Some will be assigned to units that will serve in Afghanistan or other dangerous places.
What was really different about the West Point graduation is what happened after each of the cadets walked up to the podium, received their diploma and shock hands with Vice President Biden. They stood up as a class with the football players joining the players from baseball, hockey, basketball, lacrosse, soccer, golf, and tennis along with all the others to raise their right hands and take the oath of office as second lieutenants.
Please join me in congratulating all the football players we watched compete during the year, the multitude of athletes, cadets, airmen and midshipmen who graduated from the service academies this week and wish them well and safety in their new careers serving our country as leaders in the armed forces.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football and Iona basketball for Sons of the American Legion Radio heard on WVOX 1460 AM and WVOX.com in New Rochelle, NY. Twitter @SAL50NYRadio.