In the new era of student sports, the Navy is a student-athlete showcase

Ten years ago, Steve Erzinger was a short 210-pound senior linebacker and one of the captains of the army football team. However, when he went to his last game against the Navy, he only weighed 190 pounds.

Hours before the start of the match, Erzinger was on a training table in the bowels of FedEx Field in Maryland, hooked up to an IV while fluids flowed through his body. He had the flu, but most of his weight loss happened before the illness.

He was not alone among the Black Knights. During the 2011 season, I watched one player after another shrink in size, trying to find a balance between soldiers, students and athletes. The nagging injuries became chronic because the cadets still had to perform their military duties, go to classes and the library, playing sports.

There was no rest, no recovery. There was also no way Erzinger or any of the other bruised and bruised players in the army or navy dressing rooms would miss (pick one) America’s Game, Civil War or Honor Game.

American servicemen around the world, veterans and American football wholeheartedly watched and celebrated this spirit on Saturday when the Navy (4-8) defeated the Army (8-4) 17-13 in their 122nd match, this time at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. New Jersey

But in this new era of name, image and likeness, the NCAA service academies are home to the last true Division I student-athletes whose game has largely taken a back seat to their other pursuits. Because the government pays for their tuition, housing, and fees, cadets and midshipmen are considered salaried employees, and federal laws prohibit the use of public office for personal gain.

“I’m biased, but service academies have always been the cornerstone of what a student-athlete should be,” Erzinger said. “We have a mandatory curriculum and military duties that could not be avoided. Don’t get me wrong – athletes in schools with varying work-life balances deserve their share of the money. The NCAA has always been a money game, but we are not them.”

The NCAA, facing pressure from many states, changed its rules this year. to allow athletes from three divisions look for outside deals, including endorsements and other forms of income. However, the association’s changing stance has marked a clear red line for college athletic administrators: unlike service academies, universities generally don’t want athletes to be seen as employees.

In West Point, New York, where I spent a year working on the book, cadets take 17 to 20 hours of Ivy League-level classes and participate in year-round physical and tactical training to maintain military discipline. No summer holidays or great opportunities to reschedule the course for the summer to lighten the academic load during the season.

Animal barracks – or basic training – begins at the end of June, before freshmen begin classes. High school students receive leadership training, which may include simulated combat missions and Ranger School, and may also direct cadets to locations such as Fort Benning, Georgia, and Germany.

Playing football is the easiest, most fun, and least important thing they do during their 47 months of officer training.

In the modern era, some of them have made careers in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a two-time professional bowler, played for the Army. Longtime New England Patriots sharpshooter Joe Cardona, who played for the Navy, won two Super Bowls.

The vast majority end up serving their country for at least five years. Erzinger, for example, qualified as a ranger and went with them to Afghanistan. He was a captain in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, serving in Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

He retired from the military in 2017, received an MBA from Rice University in Houston and works there as an investment banker in the energy sector. He is married and has a 16-month-old son, Eli.

Another of his football co-captains, Capt. Andrew Rodriguez, who commanded the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, received his Masters in Mechanical Engineering and Business from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and teaches at West Point.

Among his team’s vast text messaging chain are Green Berets and educators, bankers and engineers, small business owners and real estate developers. The thread is broken at this time of year, with talk of lessons learned at West Point and the camaraderie being missed.

“From football and West Point, I learned how to take pressure and understand what works. If everyone supports the mission, you will succeed,” Erzinger said. “I had a goal in the army. You go out into the outside world and it’s more of an individual sport.”

There are memories of victories, although they are very few. Erzinger only had one winning season in 2010 when the Black Knights defeated Southern Methodist University in the Armed Forces Cup.

He also never defeated the Navy.

In his senior season, Erzinger ditched the practice table and drip and led a swarming defense to the brink of an Army victory. The Black Knights were trailing 27–21 at the midshipmen’s 25-yard line with just over four minutes left. It was the fourth and seventh. They didn’t understand.

At this point, he was devastated.

“Almost doesn’t work,” he said with red eyes. “This is what I have to live with now.”

A decade later, it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. On Saturday, he planned to have a barbecue at his home with half a dozen other West Point residents, including some teammates, and their families.

“I want us to win,” he said. “But basically I want him to be competitive and both teams to come out healthy. I know where the players of both teams come from and where they are going. We all made a commitment and I don’t regret mine. I’m sure they won’t either.”

Joe Drape spent a year among the cadets on Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country, and Football at West Point.