THE BLACK LION AWARD COMES TO WEST POINT (2nd Day)
Saturday was as beautiful as Friday had been. Crisp and clear, blue skies, trees ablaze in color. Ho-hum - another day in Paradise.
This year, unlike my visit to West Point last year, when it rained so hard that it even washed away ESPN's plans to broadcast Game Day from here, not to mention the usual ceremony accompanying home games, we were going to be able to see the Parade.
Because we entered the post very early, we made it through game-day security rather easily, and took advantage of a Black Lion's generous offer of a parking space.
The Black Lion was Col. Woody Held (the big guy in the middle) who once served as Battalion Commander of the Black Lions at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Now chairman of the USMA's Department of Foreign Languages, Woody is also the Faculty Athletic Rep - the liaison between coaches and faculty in academic matters. That's a position of importance at any school, but especially so at a service academy, where athletes take real classes and full course loads and aren't cut any slack.
Woody is equally comfortable in the academic and athletic worlds. As a cadet at West Point, he played basketball for Bobby Knight, and was a teammate of Mike Krzyzewski.
Woody and his wife, Sally, live on post, in a beautiful old home on a bluff overlooking the Hudson. (The view out their living room window - shown above right - is so spectacular that when I first walked into the room, I thought for a second that I was looking at a large painting.)
The Helds also voluntarily serve, as do many other West Point faculty members, I learned, as quasi-house parents. They open their home to any number of cadets, who are free to come and go in the Held house whenever they wish to study, socialize, or just relax. Woody said they have just three rules: no "boyfriend-girlfriend stuff"; you must be 21 to drink beer; you must clean up after yourself.
From the Held's, we had only a short distance to walk to the Parade.
The Parade of Cadets takes place on The Plain - a huge expanse of lawn between the River and the Cadet Barracks - on the morning of every home game, and several thousand people are in their seats well before the first cadets begin marching out of the barracks.
When the Army band played the Star Spangled Banner, thousands sang along, although I must admit that I stopped singing briefly at one point, just to hear the voices of thousands of others singing our National Anthem. God, it was beautiful. Imagine a National Anthem without the improvisation of an ambitious female recording star or the five-minute marathon version of a high school kid who's been told she can sing (but can't).
As the band broke into a medley of marching music, including the official Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine and Navy marches, a parade of cadets passed in review. Since this was reunion weekend for the classes of 1974 and 1979, the grads stood at semi-attention along the sidelines and looked on.
A highlight of the review was the Cadet Drill Team, featuring precision marching and handling of Springfield rifles - with bayonets attached. In perfect unison, without any apparent command, those guys twirled, tossed and juggled those heavy things, seemingly unmindful of the sharp blades attached to them.
To sit on a beautiful Autumn day and look across the Plain at the barracks, with the Cadet Chapel rising majestically above it, while some of America's finest young men and women march on parade, is to confirm your faith in America's future. Despite all the slackers and gangsters and their apologists, somebody will be there to guard our liberty and our culture.
Then, the parade over, it was up to the stadium and the Army Football Club's tailgater (lunch) in the "A" Club room, under the stadium. John Simar, President of the Army Football Club, explained the Black Lion Award and introduced Tom Hinger and me to the gathering, then Bob Novogratz escorted me around and introduced me to a lot of fine people, many of whom I recognized as Army football players from my time.
At the appointed hour, we walked downstairs and formed the honorary cordon through which the Army team was to pass between leaving the locker room and running onto the field.
It was a real thrill for my wife to stand right next to the Army players as they milled around, jumping up and down in their pregame excitement, and - I won't lie - it was a thrill for me, too. This was the Army team! I could care less that they were a mere month removed from holding the longest losing streak in the nation. This was the team of Blanchard and Davis! As a kid, I worshipped those guys, and now here I was, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their descendants as they prepared to take the field. Whew!
As if things weren't exciting enough, there were the skydivers. It is Army tradition, weather permitting, to have the game ball and the American flag delivered by cadet parachutists, dropped from helicopters. The ball arrived safely enough, and so did the flag, in the capable hands of reputedly the Academy's best jumper - a female cadet with more than 500 jumps to her credit. (Joey Snowden spoke of her with great respect, as did Woody Held.) Mindful of flag etiquette (at West Point, that still matters) she took great pains to make sure that the flag didn't hit the ground when she landed.
And then there was this other diver. Perhaps he was sent aloft just to remind everybody that jumping out of a helicopter is never a sure thing, but he barely cleared the top of the stands to our right, and narrowly missed the heads of the Army players - and us - before making a near-miraculous landing just short of the people in the end zone seats to our left.
And then the Army team took the field, and we headed for our seats. (Pretty good ones, I might add. Wonder how much I'd have to donate to sit there every game?)
The first half was exciting. Army scored just before intermission to go in with a 22-21 lead.
We were joined at halftime by Cadet Joey Snowden, who (1) was impressed by our seats, and (2) was really impressed by his first look at the Cadet cheering section (normally, he's part of it), which remained loud and raucous throughout the game.
Unfortunately, Army would not score in the 2nd half, and as Air Force's ground game began to take its toll on the lighter Army defense, the Cadets finally fell, 31-22.
And then, as is the tradition among the service academies, the two teams and their coaching staffs assembled and took turns standing respectfully in front of each other's student section (800 Air Force cadets were at the game) for the playing of the schools' alma maters. (Where else you gonna see that?)
The final score was undoubtedly a disappointment to the many West Pointers I had spoken to who sincerely believed that they were going to win, but in reality, I think the score was reflective of the relative difference between the two programs at this stage. And that's encouraging, when you consider that at this time last year Army people had no illusions whatsoever about a win over Air Force, and a mere nine-point loss would have been cause for celebration.
Army under Coach Ross has made great strides, and you couldn't go anywhere without detecting the air of optimism surrounding Army football. (As one Army guy put it, "it'll be great to get back to the days when we get pissed off after a loss.")
Following the game, I met as arranged with Coach Mike Cahill of Guilderland, New York who had brought a busload of his kids, the Guilderland Colts, to the game, and had asked me beforehand if there might be some way we could present his team's Black Lion Award to its winner while we were all there. Well, by gosh, there was. And so, right under the stands, as real Black Lion - and war hero - Tom Hinger looked on, we presented the award to Christian Hyrny. Tom even gave Christian his own Black Lions hat - with a firm reminder never to wear it backwards!
And then we headed upstairs to the "A Club", not as crowded as it was just a few hours earlier, and commiserated with John Simar and his wife, Jean. John has been athletic director at New Jersey's prestigious Lawrenceville School (some of you may remember Lawrenceville as the longtime school of famed single-wing coach Ken Keuffel). He is a retired Army major who prior to going to Lawrenceville was a long-time Army assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, and he has been mentioned in many circles as a possible successor to Rick Greenspan (now at Indiana) as athletic director at West Point.
As we left the stadium, I noticed a huge white tractor-trailer rig idling outside the entrance to the visitors' locker room, "AIR FORCE FALCONS" painted on its side, and I simply had to find out what that was all about. I mean, this is the Air Force, right? Aren't they in the business of flying things places?
Being an inquisitive sort (how else you gonna learn things?), I walked over and introduced myself to the driver.
He was as friendly a guy as you'd want to meet. He said his name was Keith, and he had all the Air Force football equipment inside the trailer. He expected to have it back in Colorado Springs by Monday morning. A farmer and custom grain harvester by trade, he said he drives the truck as a labor of love. He had a son who played for Air Force, and when the folks at Air Force found out he had a commercial truck driver's license, they asked him if he'd handle the job of driving their equipment to away games. I wished Keith a safe trip, and marvelled at the dedication of Keith and people like him who are indispensible to football programs - high school and college - all over America.
From the stadium, we hiked down the long hill to our car, parked at the Helds' house. Woody and Sally happened to be home, and being the hospitable people they are, they invited us in for a post-game drink. They are very interesting people, and I could have stayed and visited as long as they'd let me, but they were headed off to support some Army athletes (okay, okay - they were going to a soccer game), so we said our farewells and departed.
Sunday morning, after a weekend in a place and among people that would make anyone proud (well, anyone I care to associate with), we said our good-byes to the Babbs, who were headed to New Haven so Melissa could take a look at Yale, and to the Hingers, who would be going home later to Florida, and then we were off to the Left Coast.
God Bless America.