They play for one reason, and one reason only—for the love of the game. Their work ethic, sportsmanship and dedication to their country are the reasons why the Army, Navy, and Air Force epitomize what everything right is about college football.
There are no rumpled jerseys, no earrings, no flashy jewelry, no long hair, nor beards on their sidelines. There are no touchdown celebrations involving unsportsmanlike conduct. Questioning a coach's decision is a foreign thought; the respect they hold for authority is second-to-none.
They are, arguably, the ultimate football players, and more importantly, the ultimate role models.
James Patrick "JP" Blecksmith (Navy '03) was one of those role models—a role model who never came back after graduating from the Naval Academy.
He was killed November 11, 2004, after deploying to Iraq. His unit was taking part (clearing a building) in Operation Iraqi Freedom II in Fallujah, when he took a bullet to the left shoulder; it eventually lodged in his heart. He was 24 years old when he died.
His athletic and academic accomplishments were impressive. He lettered four years in track, two in soccer, and three in football at the tony Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Ca. JP was first team, all-CIF quarterback as a junior and a senior.
He was named to three national All-American teams as a blue chip athlete. He was also all-CIF track in his sophomore, junior and senior years, and was the Prep League's Most Valuable Athlete in 1999. He was also tenth grade class president, a National Honor Society member and a peer counselor.
JP was the kid you wanted your daughter to marry.
After accepting an appointment with the Naval Academy, Blecksmith played four years on the Navy football team, eventually lettering as a senior wide receiver. While most college football players have aspirations of big money in the NFL, Blecksmith had his life already planned out for him.
He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Marines Corps and commanded the third platoon (India Company) of the Third Battalion, Fifth Regiment of the First Marine Division.
Just a few months after celebrating his 24th birthday, he was killed in action in Iraq.
JP had two missions when he deployed to Iraq; to be the best leader of the platoon he commanded, and to bring back all of his men safely. He succeeded in both missions.
His death was the only one in his platoon. JP paid the ultimate sacrifice, and was awarded the Purple Heart, as well as the Bronze Star, posthumously, in front of his platoon, for his bravery.
Many critics of the service academies point out that they are not as competitive (due to height and weight restrictions) as other FBS schools, and in particular, elite schools. The history that these schools enjoy defies that logic.
The Naval Midshipmen and Army Black Knights share five Heisman Trophy winners. The Air Force, with its triple option attack since 1965, has been one of the nation's top ten rushing teams for nineteen of twenty-one years.
More recently, Navy beat Notre Dame, 46-44 in triple OT, snapping a 43 game losing streak going back to 1963. If you don't think that game was monumental to Navy, you obviously didn't watch the game. It was one of the most defining moments of college football, as it showed grit, determination, and the human desire to never give up.
While many football players look ahead to their potential future in the NFL, the Navy football players know their path is far different. They came to play a game, be their most competitive against a vastly superior talent pool, and hopefully, show some young school-age boys a different view of what sportsmanship, commitment to one's country, unselfishness and sacrifice really mean. The Navy's sidelines aren't filled with dead-pans into the cameras, or "we're number one" shouts.
Instead, their sidelines are filled with empty chairs; chairs with a set of shoulder pads and jersey of each of their fallen comrades.
A poignant and solemn reminder of really how unimportant football is in the scope of things. Perhaps no game signifies the importance of the contributions made by the service academies more than the Army-Navy game played the first Saturday of every December.
The beautiful sight of college football is completely captured in this game. Young cadets in their formal uniforms, with brass buttons shining in the sun, and their clean-cut, scrubbed faces ready for a day filled with fun, and yet, carrying with them the knowledge that their future is uncertain, but embraced, nevertheless.
They are football players who don't possess the five-star athletic ability of some of their rivals, but whose hearts and minds are so driven, that they are a force to be reckoned with in every game.
To quit is not in their language.
To finish strong is their mission.
To face all odds with bravery, and to finish the game with intensity.
To represent the finest America has to offer, with dignity and class. To play the game the way it was meant to be played. Nothing more.
For most seniors, the last game of the year is the most emotional. Almost every player knows it is their last time on a football field. They also know that for some of them, it's the last time they will see some of their teammates' faces.
Many of them will be deployed, and during wartime, some will not come back.
It is at this point, that they realize they have just played their final football game, and it's time to get serious with life.
It's time to say goodbye to their teammates, time to say goodbye to the other players. Each one of them knows, while they fought tooth and nail to beat each other up on the field, eventually, they all will be working together, on one team, to defeat the enemy and to protect the very precious soil that they stand on. And play on.
After the game is finished, the losing team's alma mater is played, while the winning team's players stand side-by-side with the losing side's players, facing the losing side's academy section of the stadium. And the process reverses for the winning team.
Each side—once enemies on the field—comes together as one after the game, and solemnly recognizes that they all have each other's backs for as long as they live. For sure, there are no losers in this battle on the field.
America, however, has certainly lost some of their finest representatives of real men, and the sport of football has lost some of its greatest players. Not due to their athletic prowess, nor their bowl wins or great comeback-wins. No, football has lost some of its greatest players because of what they represent—excellence both on and off the field. Sacrifice.
And all of football is truly graced to have these service academies remind us of what is really important in sport. Army, Navy and Air Force capture the essence of sportsmanship—competition, pride and class. Something both college and professional football players need to never forget, and perhaps, even learn.
The next time you watch one of the service academies play, remember JP Blecksmith's face. Remember this young man with short-cropped blond hair, squeaky-clean good looks and a mega-watt smile that could light up a room.
He wasn't just a football player. He was somebody's son or brother who tried to make you proud of his team and proud of your country.
And, more importantly, he made sure your family was safe while he was watching your back. Yeah, they all have our backs. We thank you for giving us these great games. And we thank you for making us proud to be Americans.
James Patrick Blecksmith, Navy, '0309-26-8011-11-04 Go Navy, beat Army. R.I.P. *special thanks to JP Blecksmith Foundation, at JPBlecksmith.org.