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A Naval Officer’s and former Student-Athlete’s Response to “The Army-Navy Game Is A Tradition Living On Borrowed Time”

army navy

Given my natural excitement for the 118th meeting between my Naval Academy Midshipmen and the West Point Black Knights, I woke up searching for game predictions, articles about the rich heritage of the game, and why this matchup of future heroes transcends the game inside the lines. What I found was something a little different.

This was a Deadspin article written by Patrick Hruby. I am not terribly familiar with Mr. Hruby’s work, and I’m confident he is not familiar with mine. I am also equally as confident that he Patrick knows not of what is at stake today for these players, their respective academies’, and the future and well being of the United States.

Mr. Hruby starts with an existential question about the future of the game of football at our military academies: He ponders, “Given the inherent brain injury risks, does it make sense for America’s military academies to sponsor tackle football?”

He rationalizes: “Schools have two fundamental missions: nurture young minds, and ensure student safety. Football runs counter to both, largely because participants endure multiple hits to their heads as a matter of course—and while helmets are good for preventing catastrophic skull fractures, they don’t do much to keep the brain from being jostled.”

Out of the gate, Mr. Hruby states that football does not care for and encourage the development of young minds, namely to "nurture" them. So, I presume he is suggesting that the sweat equity expended and invested into the nuances of fierce competition have nothing to teach a young mind. Therefore, I’m guessing we can throw out the lessons about how to tirelessly strategize against an opponent that has set out to defeat you. We can ignore the information that we discover about our own mental, physical, and spiritual resiliency when we are pushed to the edge of exhaustion. And the thought of having to come together as a collective unit in a gladiatorial experience that teaches standards, legacy, and battle-hardened leadership principles is something we can push aside as useless.

army navy

Never mind that athletics are not a safe and warm classroom that incubates bright minds to go work on Wall Street and Snapchat, as Mr.Hruby theorizes. So for all of you in New York City or Silicon Valley that played competitive sports, they surely didn’t help you. Because I can certainly remember all of the times that I was out of breath in the classroom, reaching for my last ounce of willpower in a moment of real conflict that may decide whether we win or lose.

Mr. Hruby may decide that what transpires on the gridiron still may not matter. He goes to scientific lengths to prove that because, “blasts are hardly the only source of brain injuries for soldiers, who suffer head hits and other insults in a variety of ways—one researcher I recently spoke with described examining a veteran with cognitive impairment who had made hundreds of jumps as a paratrooper instructor and never been diagnosed with a concussion, but said he had 'his bell rung' every time he landed. Scientists have amassed sufficient evidence to prove that none of this is good.” You’re right, Mr.Hruby – war is not healthy. It’s brutal and unforgiving. It’s like football – where the enemy, like the team on the other side of the line of scrimmage, gets a vote.

Mr. Hruby continues, seemingly placing a small crack in his argument he is sure to quickly fortify:

“With football in particular, there’s a longstanding and sentimental sense that the game’s inherent violence helps prepare players for actual combat—or, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur once put it, 'on the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.' Could the academies ever conclude otherwise? In the short term, it seems unlikely. Critics inside and outside the military have argued that football compromises admission standards, detracts from the core mission of preparing officers for active duty, and costs too much money.”

The core missions of preparing officers for active duty are morally, mentally, and physically, Mr Hruby. The same missions that, today, teaches midshipmen and cadets taught Rear Admiral and football player, James B. Stockdale.

james stockdale

On September 9, 1965 while returning from a mission, Stockdale’s A-4 Skyhawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Stockdale ejected, breaking a bone in his back and badly dislocating his knee. Stockdale wound up in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton", where he spent the next seven years. Despite being kept in solitary confinement for four years, in leg irons for two years, physically tortured more than 15 times, denied medical care and malnourished, Stockdale organized a system of communication and developed a cohesive set of rules governing prisoner behavior. It was remarked that Rear Admiral Stockdale “challenged the human limits of moral courage, physical endurance and intellectual bravery, emerging victorious as a legendary beacon for all to follow.” I wonder if it was a rigorous electrical engineering course that taught him to withstand this type of physical torture while leading his men to faithfully resist?

Or perhaps we look at Samuel Streit Coursen, a 1949 graduate of the United States Military Academy, football player, and company commander in the United States Army during the Korean War. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions on October 12, 1950.

In the battle for Hill 174 in North Korea, Coursen, seeing that one of the men of his platoon had entered a well-hidden gun emplacement, thought to be unoccupied, and had been struck by a bullet. Sam Coursen sprinted to his aid and without regard for his personal safety, he engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat to protect the wounded soldier until he himself was killed. When his body was recovered after the battle, seven enemy dead were found in the emplacement. Coursen’s actions saved the wounded soldier’s life and eliminated the main position of the enemy roadblock.

It’s fair to wonder from where Samuel Coursen enacted this act of pure heroism.

From Sam’s memorial: “One incident that stands out in my memory with especial distinctness, after nearly a decade, was a boxing bout in the gymnasium when Sam donned the gloves and stood up against Tony Minisi, about a year his senior. Tony, who later gained gridiron fame as a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s eleven, could strike sledgehammer blows, but Sam had the nerve and courage to take the worst that Minisi could inflict. Somewhat later Sam won the title of amateur boxing heavy-weight champion of New Jersey. After losing to Sal Cassale, a husky opponent, who won the Golden Gloves bout on a technical knock-out, Sam challenged again and this time won the event and the coveted title. The same courage that enabled him to face these stalwart combatants was manifested in his last fight in Korea, October 12, 1950.” We could, however, just say that it was a tough thermodynamics exam that taught Sam how to stare death in the face for the sake of his comrade.

Mr. Hruby starts to bring his argument to a roaring close by stating “[A solider] needs to make split-second, complex decisions—deploy this weapon at this moment at this time, decisions that could impact their mission at national and international levels… When you damage those parts of your brain, it’s very well known what happens to your ability to think. People make really crazy decisions. Do we want that? Do we want to damage our best assets? These are serious questions…”

After accepting an appointment with the Naval Academy, James Patrick "J.P." Blecksmith played four years on the Navy football team, eventually lettering as a senior wide receiver.

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.

He was killed November 11, 2004, after deploying to Iraq. His unit was clearing a building during a mission in Fallujah, Iraq when he took a bullet to the left shoulder—it eventually lodged in his heart. He was 24 years old when he died.

Blecksmith

We are not damaging our country’s finest assets by teaching them the skills -- honor, courage, commitment -- on the athletic field that they will leverage to lead our great country to war on the battlefield.

Mr.Hruby finally wonders with a sincere resentment: The question is, how much longer [will this game continue]?

You’ll never be asked to answer this question, Mr. Hruby. We have brave men and women like J.P. Blecksmith who will do it for you.

About the author, Tim

US Navy Surface Warfare Officer.
Lacrosse Player.
Husband.
Leader.

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