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In Recent Era for College Sports, Army-Navy Is a Student-Athlete Showcase


Ten years ago, Steve Erzinger was an undersized senior linebacker at 210 kilos and considered one of the captains of the Army football team. Yet when he headed into his final game against Navy, he weighed barely 190 kilos.

Hours before kickoff, Erzinger was on a training table within the bowels of FedEx Field in Maryland, attached to an I.V. as fluids coursed through his body. He had the flu, but most of his weight reduction had come before the illness.

He was not alone among the many Black Knights. I had watched one player after one other shrink over the course of the 2011 season as they tried to balance being soldiers and students and athletes. Nagging injuries became chronic ones, since the cadets still had to take care of their military duties, go to class and the library while participating of their sport.

There was no rest or recovery. There also was no way Erzinger or another of the bruised and battered players in either the Army or Navy locker rooms were going to miss (pick one) America’s Game, the Civil War or the Game of Honor.

American service personnel internationally, veterans and the faculty football faithful watched and celebrated this ethos on Saturday as Navy (4-8) defeated Army (8-4) 17-13 of their 122nd matchup, this time at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

But on this latest N.C.A.A. name, image and likeness era, the service academies are home to Division I’s last true student-athletes whose play largely comes secondary to their other pursuits. Because the federal government pays for his or her tuition, housing and costs, Cadets and Midshipmen are considered employees and federal laws forbid using public office for personal gain.

“I’m biased, however the service academies have all the time been the cornerstone of what a student-athlete must be,” Erzinger said. “Now we have a compulsory curriculum and military duties that would not be avoided. Don’t get me mistaken — athletes at schools with different work-life balance deserve their share of the cash. The N.C.A.A. has all the time been a money game, but we are usually not them.”

The N.C.A.A., facing pressure from quite a few states, modified its rules this 12 months to permit athletes across its three divisions to hunt outside deals, including endorsements and other types of income. Still, the association’s shifting stance has underscored a transparent red line for faculty sports administrators: unlike the service academies, universities at large don’t want athletes to be considered employees.

At West Point, N.Y., where I spent a 12 months researching for a book, cadets take 17 to twenty hours of Ivy League-quality classes and take part in year-round physical and tactical training to take care of the discipline the military demands. No summer vacations, or much opportunity to shift a course to the summer to lighten the tutorial load through the season.

Beast Barracks — or basic training — begins in late June before the freshmen start classes. Upperclassmen undergo leadership training, which might include simulated combat missions and Ranger School and might take cadets to places like Fort Benning, Ga., and Germany.

Playing football is directly the best, most fun and least essential thing they do over the course of their 47 months as officers in training.

In the trendy era, a handful of them have achieved careers within the N.F.L. Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a two-time Pro Bowler, played for Army. Recent England Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona, who played for Navy, has won two Super Bowls.

The overwhelming majority find yourself serving their country for a minimum five years. Erzinger, for instance, qualified as a Ranger and deployed with them to Afghanistan. He made captain as a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, serving in Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

He left the Army in 2017, got an M.B.A. at Rice University in Houston and is an investment banker within the energy sector there. He’s married and has a 16-month old son, Eli.

One other of his football co-captains, Capt. Andrew Rodriguez, commanded the first Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, earned a master’s in mechanical engineering and business at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and teaches at West Point.

Amongst his team’s expansive text chain are Green Berets and educators, bankers and engineers, small business owners and real estate developers. The thread blows up this time of 12 months, with talk of lessons learned at West Point and camaraderie that’s missed.

“What I learned from football and West Point is endure pressure and work out what works. If everyone gets behind a mission, you succeed,” Erzinger said. “I had a way of purpose within the Army. You go to the surface world and it’s more a person sport.”

There are memories of victories as well, though precious few of them. Erzinger had just one winning season, in 2010, when the Black Knights defeated Southern Methodist University within the Armed Forces Bowl.

He also never beat Navy.

In his senior season, Erzinger got here off the training table and I.V. drip and led a swarming defense to the brink of an Army victory. The Black Knights were down 27-21 on the Midshipmen 25-yard line with just a little greater than 4 minutes remaining. It was fourth-and-7. They didn’t get it.

At that moment, he was devastated.

“Almost doesn’t work,” he said, his eyes red. “It’s something I even have to live with now.”

A decade later, it doesn’t hurt a lot. He planned to barbecue at his home on Saturday with a few half dozen other West Pointers — including some teammates — and their families.

“I need us to win,” he said. “But mainly I need it to be competitive and for each teams to come back out of healthy. I do know where players from each teams have come from and where they’re going. All of us made a commitment and I don’t regret mine. I’m sure they won’t either.”

Joe Drape spent a 12 months among the many cadets for a book, “Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country and Football at West Point.”

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