'Be a Part of Something Bigger Than Yourself'

Army football means more than wins and losses. It's part of a grueling curriculum that aims to prepare cadets to face the likes of Michigan and, more important, face live artillery on a battlefield.
Matthew FoleyContributor INovember 1, 2019

It is two days before the Army Black Knights will silence 107,601 Michigan fans at The Big House and nearly pull off the biggest college football upset of 2019. Army linebacker Amadeo West and cornerback Jaylon McClinton are inside Thayer Hall on the banks of the Hudson River in West Point, New York.

A former horse stable for the U.S. Cavalry, Thayer is now a United States Military Academy academic building frequently compared to Hogwarts thanks to the heavy wooden doors and 1800s gothic architecture. In Room 355, Col. Archie Bates begins his Social Psychology class. The lesson this day? Social cognition, a subtopic of psychology focused on how people process and apply information in social situations.

Bates leads his class of 15 cadetsalmost all of whom are West Point athletesthrough a thought experiment about how they would handle an increasingly problematic, potentially criminal situation within their battalion. With work piling up and a barrage of incomplete information flying at you, how do you make sound decisions?

"We can handle more than most people," McClinton tells the class, confident that he and his fellow cadets are capable of managing a greater burden than the average civilian.

"That's what you like to think," Bates says. "But have you studied that?"

There's no right answer, nor does it mean the cadets can avoid any damage in real-world applications—a lesson they will soon learn as Army officers. Toward the end of the 75-minute discussion, Bates shares an emotional truth: This "experiment" is based on a series of real events that led to two of Bates' battalion members being discharged and another killing himself after a sexual harassment investigation by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.

In an era of seemingly endless wars, West, McClinton and the rest of their teammates understand that they haven't just signed up to understand the managerial stresses of one day leading a 40,000-person battalion you can't completely control. They've signed up to serve the country in whatever way the country sees fit. Even in early September, with a massive opportunity to play the University of Michigan just days away, that responsibility is always on the mind. At least during non-football hours.

"It's concerning, for sure," says West, a senior sociology major who hopes to join the Field Artillery Branch after graduation. "I know we're talking about real death and real bullets flying, but it's kind of a similar feeling to football practice. We're doing all this practice just in case we go to war."

A day later, West and his teammates fly to Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 8 a.m. That Friday afternoon, they have a walkthrough at Michigan Stadium. Practice for a much simpler battle, and a chance at making history in one last season before real life, and potentially real war, comes calling.

"I can't wait to run out of that tunnel in front of all those fans," West says, shooing a bee away from his second breakfastor first lunchafter psychology class. Between football, school and military training, it's tough to keep weight on at West Point. With four NFL draft prospects on the Michigan offensive line, West needs all of the fuel he can get.

"Aside from Navy, this is our biggest game of the year."

For two-and-a-half quarters on Sept. 7, the Black Knights dominated the first Top 10 opponent they had played since they lost to Oklahoma in overtime last season. With Army leading 14-7 at halftimethe vaunted triple-option producing 107 first-half rushing yards to Michigan's 47the mostly silent Big House booed the Wolverines off the field as they jogged to the locker room. With 10 straight wins entering the weekend, the possibility of Army pulling off an 11th felt real. Until it didn't.

Ultimately, Army wasn't perfect in the second half. After forcing three turnovers in the first halfincluding two fumbles by Michigan quarterback Shea PattersonArmy gave two back in the second half. Still, Army had its chances. After Michigan tied the game at 14-14 in the third quarter, Army freshman kicker Cole Talley missed his first career field-goal attempt (a 50-yard try) as time expired in the fourth. While Army briefly took a lead in overtime, it couldn't keep pace and wound up losing.

Army took Michigan to overtime in Ann Arbor earlier this season before eventually falling to the Wolverines, who were ranked in the Top 10 at the time.
Army took Michigan to overtime in Ann Arbor earlier this season before eventually falling to the Wolverines, who were ranked in the Top 10 at the time.Paul Sancya/Associated Press/Associated Press

It might have felt like a moral victory to outsiders—Army proved that it can play with anyonebut it didn't feel that way to a Black Knights team that had aspirations of an undefeated season.

Since taking over as Army's head coach in 2014, Jeff Monken has preached ball control, toughness, field position and fundamentals. The strategy has worked. After two early losing seasons, Monken's Army teams won 29 games from 2016 through 2018. But against a program like Michigan, where 5-star recruits dot the roster, Army needed perfect execution to pull off an upset win.

"I don't know if there's a single position on the field where we have a talent advantage over Michigan," Monken says during an interview in his office, overlooking the south end zone at Michie Stadium, days before the game. "But that's not as important to me as having good football players who protect the ball.

"Unless somebody hits you with a sledgehammerwhich they're not allowed to do—you don't have to fumble the ball."

Monken learned the triple-option offense as an assistant coach under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern (1997-2001), Navy (2002-07) and Georgia Tech (2008-09). Johnson retired after 10 years at the helm of Georgia Tech, but not before winning Tech's first ACC championship in more than a decade and spawning a small coaching tree of triple-option devotees like Monken and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

"That's why Army hired me, because I'm a Paul Johnson guy," Monken says. "This offense has worked everywhere I've been, so we're doing what we need to do to win here."

The reason why the service academies run the triple-option, and why a program like Georgia Southern became a FCS powerhouse under Johnson and Monken, is simple. Without the benefit of top athletes on your offensive line, you have to avoid turnovers and create opportunities for your skill players. In the triple-option, that means rarely throwing the ball (fewer interceptions and sack-fumbles) and using double-team blocks and misdirections to create points of attack for the ball-carrier.

Since hiring Monken, Army leads the nation with an average of 312 rushing yards per game. In a sport where teams that win the rushing battle emerge victorious more than 70 percent of the time, the triple-option is a program-changer.

When Monken took over at Army, he joined with an understanding that the university was committed to upgrading every aspect of a program that had gone 35-84 in the 10 years before his arrival. That meant scheduling games against College Football Playoff contenders like Ohio State (2017), Oklahoma (2018 and 2020) and Michigan. It also meant getting a commitment for the upkeep and modernization of the program's training center as well as a comprehensive nutritional programArmy has a full-service food counter inside the weight roomto help cadet athletes manage the grind of the academy.

According to new athletic director Mike Buddie, Monken has embraced the characteristics of West Point and become a tone-setter on campus. He's even become an early-morning regularwe're talking 5:30 a.m. earlyin the Kimsey Athletic Center weight room beneath the football offices.

"We're trying to give these kids the successful student-athlete experience they deserve,"  Buddie says. "In 10-12 months, they might be in Afghanistan."

"That was the [recruiting] pitch," West says, looking back on why he chose Army as a 17-year-old high school linebacker from California. "Play big-time football and be a part of something bigger than yourself. You could go to Navy or Air Force, but they were already good."

Following the close call at Michigan, Army bounced back with a win over UT-San Antonio in Week 3. However, the Black Knights have struggled since, losing four of their last five.

But the biggest remaining game on their schedule is the last one.

"The first thing people ask you around here is, 'Did you beat Navy?'" Buddie says. "They kicked our butt for [14] straight years."

Utilizing a ball-control style of offense, head coach Jeff Monken led Army to 29 wins over the past three years heading into this season.
Utilizing a ball-control style of offense, head coach Jeff Monken led Army to 29 wins over the past three years heading into this season.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Army and Navy will meet for the 120th time in Philadelphia on Dec. 14, a clash of cultures that appear similar to outsiders but are noticeably distinct to anyone within the academies.

"There's a very real culture of toughness here," says Monken, noting that every West Point graduate leaves as an officer. "But also an emphasis on supporting. We've got a lot of equipment that you drive and fly and shoot, but nothing more valuable than the personnel. These soldiers are heading into very real life-or-death situations."

As non-uniformed members of the West Point community, Monken and Buddie know that athletics have to work in concert with the rest of the academy to be successful. They're helping to mold young men who will ultimately hold high-ranking positions in the military.

Part of their job is to mentor players who are struggling to decide which military branch to pursue, and visiting with them during the monthlong Cadet Field Training in which the cadets undergo extended field-operations training deep in the wilderness. It also means making sure that football meets the academy's accountability standards.

"Coach Monken has realized that if these kids come up here feeling like this is the easiest part of their day, they're going to want to stay [at the athletics facility] and not go fulfill their duties as soldiers," Buddie says from the sideline at practice as Monken screams at a special teams player for missing his assignment. "Some days are better than others, but he kicks their butts. ... He's the perfect fit for West Point."

Athlete or not, most cadets struggle to adjust to West Point culture early on. Being tough is one thing, but figuring out how to efficiently manage your time and balance the overload of football, school and military responsibilities is another.

In an effort to find the right players, Monken focuses on recruiting selfless, team-first athletes who he believes will embrace the cadet brotherhood.

"Nobody wants to go to a service academy," Monken says. "Certainly some people do, but they're rarely D-1 football players."

Most players at Army are under no illusion of a future in the NFL. But Monken targets overlooked recruits who have played high-level high school football in hotbeds like California, Texas and the South.

At West Point, players that otherwise would have ended up on Division III campuses have the chance to play big-time college football. Once Monken gets a recruit on campus and can show him the program's culture and the benefits of attending one of the top public universities in America with a passionate alumni base, it becomes an easier sell.

Then reality sets in.

To a man, every player on the roster said that, yes, they almost reached a breaking point during Plebe Year. On top of adjusting to life in the barracks, maintaining an unrelentingly rigid schedule and completing all individual responsibilities, first-year cadetsor "plebes"—are required to complete plebe duties. That includes cleaning the barracks, serving food in the mess hall and "calling minutes"a daily routine when plebes across campus bellow long, loud synchronized blurbs to alert upper-class cadets of the required uniform and time remaining before formation or inspection.

Coupling all of this with the anxiety of meeting West Point's high academic standards and juggling football responsibilities is enough to make a young cadet second-guess his decision.

"It's a very independent experiencesome people get it right away, but for some people, it takes longer," Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. says.

For the North Carolina native, time management and the ability to separate the three worldsacademics, football and militarytook longer than anticipated.

"It started to click halfway through sophomore year," he said. "Separating the lives as much as possible while still learning the playbook."

West, meanwhile, went home for Thanksgiving during Plebe Year and almost never came back.

"The toughest part is going from being the best in high school to the lowest man on the totem polein football and the military," he explains.

But after sitting down with his mother, Maria LoMedico, to review transfer options closer to home, West had a change of heart. In so many ways.

"[My mother] told me my options were unacceptable," West laughs, as he speedwalks from his room in the MacArthur Barracks across The Plain to golf class near the West Point tennis courts.

Yes, cadets do get to enjoy classes in the "lifetime sports" like tennis, skiing and golf. With all of their other duties on campus, the few hours spent weekly at golf class, and the more grueling time spent at the football facility, is where these student-athletes find reprieve. They don't have much free time, but at least they can shank some irons and win ballgames like any other college athlete.

Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. says it took him more than a year atWest Point to feel comfortable balancing the demands of the academy with those of playing football.
Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. says it took him more than a year atWest Point to feel comfortable balancing the demands of the academy with those of playing football.Tony Ding/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Coming back was the best decision of my life," West says. "But they never go easy on you."

West says that a newfound confidence and pride was evident around the program when he returned. Monken's "control what you can control and never flinch" mantra was producing results, and by Monken's third year at the helm, the program had its first winning season (8-5) since 2010.

"Guys cared more about the little things," West said.

Now a senior, West hasn't had an easy go of it at the academy. After appearing in five games as a freshman, he tore his ACL during fall camp in 2017 and missed his entire sophomore season. He then blew out his right Achilles the following spring.

The cycle of injuries, which kept West sidelined until the final five games last season, presented another brutal hurdle for the linebacker. There's no leniency given to cadets, not even those that are hobbling through formation on crutches.

"No one goes easy on you," West says. "You have to fulfill all the same responsibilities as any other cadet, even when you're drugged up on Percocet."

Now, the winningest senior class in Army history is focused on the end. There are showdowns with Air Force and Navy and trip to Hawaii ahead. After that, of course, are plans with far more serious consequences ahead.

The path to this point hasn't been easy, and it has forced them to confront obstacles no one would relish (even losses to a storied Big Ten program). But that's no reason to look back on what could have been. There's too much to do ahead.

"We really love each other," says senior running back Malik Hancock, "so that helps us get through."


Matt Foley is a writer based in New York. His freelance work has been featured in SLAM, the New York Times, Ozy and theScore. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyfoles.