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From Army-Navy to Iraq and Afghanistan

Friday, September 2, 2011 | 4:16 p.m. CDT; updated 7:23 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 3, 2011
In this undated photo provided by Capt. Nolan Gordon, an Iraqi youngster gathers for a photo with former Army football player Capt. Nolan Gordon in Diyarha Iraq. Like most of the men who played in the 2001 Army-Navy game, Gordon went on to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan — or both — during the 10 years that followed the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S.

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Not long after the second World Trade Center tower came down, Nolan Gordon's history professor at the U.S. Military Academy switched off the television and went back to his lesson.

The message: Continue the mission.

"It wasn't like 'OK, classes are canceled today. Go home,'" said Gordon, now a captain, who played center for the Army football team. "It was, 'Your mission just got that much more important.'"

Sept. 11, 2001, changed the lives of all Americans, some dramatically and personally.

For most of the men and women at the service academies, it was both. They entered those prestigious universities knowing a multiyear commitment to the armed forces came along with a top-tier education and, for some, the chance to play major college football.

But they also enrolled during peace time.

Then, in a matter of a few hours, it became clear that the United States was headed to war. Landmarks in Manhattan were destroyed and the Pentagon had been hit.

Instead of questioning their decisions to commit to military service, 9/11 affirmed those choices for men such as Gordon and Marine Capt. Bryce McDonald, who was a junior running back at Navy that day.

"What it did to a lot of people is hone their mindset," McDonald said. "Or it gave somebody a purpose to go on in that general direction. A person gets more powerful when he has a purpose.

"I knew I wanted to be a Marine coming into this place. Yet that event, that horrific event, just put more purpose in that direction."

Like most of the men who played in the 2001 Army-Navy game, Gordon and McDonald went on to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan — or both — during the 10 years that followed the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The passing of a decade has clouded some memories of Sept. 11 and the anxious days that followed for Gordon, McDonald and their teammates.

We practiced that day? Maybe it was the day after? Maybe it was a few days later?

Former Army quarterback Chad Jenkins said the first practice after the attacks was especially feisty.

"I do remember that was probably one of the most intense, hostile practices," said Jenkins, who is now in the FBI. "You had your skirmishes and stuff like that. Offense is fighting defense. Defense is fighting offense.

"Probably due to the stress level of the situation that transpired that day."

Clint Dodson, who played tight end for Army and now works in finance in Hawaii, said: "I know there were a few fights. I think I might have started one of them."

That's not how Brent Dial remembers it.

"I think it was a little bit more somber," said the former Army linebacker, who is now studying at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "There was still a lot of confusion."

Some memories, however, are as clear as if they happened yesterday.

For Gordon, it was his history professor, an Army officer, taking the opportunity to teach one of the most important lessons he learned at the West Point.

"Of course we were all awe-struck and we're going 'What the heck is going on?' and maybe a lot of us couldn't think while we were sitting in history class and don't remember what we learned that day, but the meaning of it was there's a mentor standing in front of me, a senior officer, and it's like 'Hey, continue mission,'" he said.

"I take you to Iraq or Afghanistan now in my combat tours and it's the same idea. IED goes off, you don't stop and look at the guy who's on the ground, and he may be bleeding out, somebody is performing medical procedures on him, and we're continuing the fight."

The 2001 season was not a good one on the field for Army or Navy. The Midshipmen came into the traditional finale against Army winless and with an interim coach. Charlie Weatherbie had been fired seven games into the season and defensive coordinator Rick Lantz had taken over.

"We'd been through kind of a tumultuous season," said Marine Capt. Josh Brindel, who played defensive line for Navy.

The Black Knights were 2-8 heading to Philadelphia.

But the Army-Navy game is always about more than football, and when the United States is at war, it becomes maybe the most public way possible to honor those who serve in the military.

President George W. Bush visited both teams prior to kickoff.

Navy quarterback Ed Malinowski got to meet Bush before he came into the locker room to address the team. Malinowski, who now works for a defense contractor outside of his hometown of Pittsburgh, gave the president a football signed by the team.

"One of the more defining days of my life," Malinowski said.

Bush also took part in the coin toss before the game and Malinowski could be heard by on-field microphones calling, "Heads, sir."

Army won 26-17, its last victory in the series. For Gordon, just getting on the field was a momentous achievement.

He had broken his ankle in the first game of the season. His college football career was over, doctors told him. No way, was Gordon's response.

His goal was just to get on the field for a play during the Army-Navy game. Doctors weren't even sure he would be able to walk unassisted by then.

He was able to trot out of the tunnel with his team before the game and when Army ran the final two plays to kill the clock, Gordon took a spot on the offensive line.

Bush returned to the Army locker room to congratulate the Cadets. Gordon said it looked as if Bush hadn't "slept in 12 days."

"It blew me away," he said. "And I said, 'OK, this is serious.' Here's the leader of the country, you can tell he hasn't slept. What's my future hold for me? I just met on the field with my brothers and played a game and we just shook hands. And now it's time to go put on our uniform and go take it to somebody else somewhere else."

Gordon was twice deployed to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.

Jenkins was deployed four times to Iraq.

Dodson went to Iraq once and Afghanistan once.

Dial did two tours in Iraq.

Malinowski was twice deployed to Iraq.

Brindel also did two tours in Iraq.

McDonald did one tour in Iraq.

To a man, they all said football helped prepare them for combat.

"The mechanics are very similar," McDonald said. "The process of planning. The practice.

"The results are a little different. They're a lot different. But it's a great steppingstone. It's a great learning experience to help you go into it. You're developing young warriors minds (in football). Young men to think in a certain manner."

McDonald's time in Iraq lasted only a few months.

In 2006, while in Haditha, the Humvee he was riding in hit an improvised explosive device. McDonald's left leg was severely injured.

He doesn't remember much from the time between the explosion and waking up at a hospital in Germany. But when he did come to, the Army-Navy game was on television.

"I was lying there for a couple days, so I believe the Lord had a role in that one," he said. "I woke up and the Army-Navy game was on. And it was a win."

McDonald earned a Purple Heart, but the injuries meant he would no longer be able to return to combat.

"Pretty much put a hole where my knee is," he said. "I can walk around, what I call normally today. I can trot around. I can gallop. It's funny, my doctor told me to stop."

McDonald said he felt lost after he was injured. Being a Marine defined him and he couldn't do that anymore.

But he got a call from Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo, who offered him a place on his staff. McDonald is now Navy's director of football operations.

"I had no idea what I was going to do when I was getting out of the Marine Corps in California. I had no idea," he said. "But coach Niumat brought me back into the brotherhood, to the family."

Not everybody makes it back. The anniversary of 9-11, the event that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is another reason for McDonald, Gordon and the rest to remember the friends, teammates and classmates who have been lost over the last 10 years.

Men such as Marine 1st Lt. Ronnie Winchester, who started on the offensive line for Navy in 1999 and 2000 before graduating from the academy in 2001. He was 25 when he was killed by a road side bomb in Iraq in 2004.

Or Marine 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith, who was recruited by Pac-10 schools as a quarterback out of his Pasadena, Calif., high school but instead chose to attend the Naval Academy, even though its option offense did not fit his skills. As a junior in 2001, he caught a pass for 13 yards against Army.

In November 2004, while leading a platoon of Marines tasked with clearing insurgents from buildings in Fallujah, Iraq, Blecksmith was shot and killed by a sniper. He was 24.

"September 11th brings memories of my fallen brother," McDonald said in an email. "When he was killed in the Battle of Fallujah we all lost a brother and friend."

Gordon is back at West Point these days, working on the staff of the academy's superintendent. He has a wife and three children and is in a different place in his life than he was a student. But being at the academy reinforces important lessons he learned there, especially the ones he learned after Sept. 11, 2001.

"When I start using the word 'I' in the sentence, then I have lost the point of everything," he said. "They teach you here at West Point that it's not about you anymore. If you're going to go over there and take a bullet, you're taking it for freedom. You're not taking it for yourself. You're taking it for everybody else.

"I think that's what helps the military academies set themselves apart. You're still going to school for yourself, but in the end it's about a bigger picture."


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