The Night The Game Went On

By Bob Socci

Originally published in Navy Gameday Program on September 3, 2011.

Backs to the Severn River, the young women were perfectly erect, their eyes fixed on the flag lowered to half mast. Facing them, about 80 yards away, rows of bleachers were filled with empty spaces.

In a more inviting time, which is to say until six days ago, the stands would have looked so different. Then, until six days ago, everything was different.

This was Monday, Sept. 17, 2001. They were about to play a soccer game.

It would be the first since the understanding of what they were doing at the Naval Academy was crystallized when terrorists attacked the United States on the morning of Tuesday the 11th.

Their opponent was George Washington. The Colonials were supposed to be in Annapolis over the weekend for Navy’s tournament. Like countless other events, from Major League Baseball to the NFL to the NCAA, it was never held.

Now, GW was finally here, but only after passing through Academy gates barricaded by sandbags and defended by armed Marine guards. Aside from the Colonials, no other non-Academy personnel were allowed in; not in this military state of THREATCON CHARLIE.

That’s why the head coach of the Midshipmen, Carin Gabarra, remembers just two people — literally, two people — sitting in the stands during warmups.

“It was kind of eerie, because in those years we usually packed the stands quite regularly,” Gabarra said recently, on the verge of her 19th season at Navy. “Having nobody there all of a sudden, with no one being able to drive on or off, it was a completely different atmosphere.”

Eventually, scores of midshipmen would show up in dress whites to support their soccer team. But first Gabarra stood alongside assistant Rob Blanck behind Navy’s players for the national anthem.

For a decade straight, Gabarra wore her country’s colors, earning more than 100 caps in international play. She’d been at attention for The Star-Spangled Banner as a World Cup champion and Olympic Gold Medalist, not to mention all the times in all her years coaching the Mids.

“One of the biggest parts of playing for your country is the national anthem before games. It’s something very special,” Gabarra explains. “It reminds you and those around you that you are playing for your country.

“The playing of the national anthem is something I’m sure every player will never forget. That’s what kind of brought our country together. We still looked at that flag, we were still all American…there was a huge significance in the fact that the stands were empty, but we played the national anthem, nonetheless.”

Megan Thomas, then a sophomore known by her maiden name, Megan Weller, sensed the same.

“From day one, we went out and were proud to be wearing Navy across our uniforms,” Thomas said. “That game, we were so much more proud. There was nothing else to do but think about why we were here, while listening to the national anthem. It meant so much more, almost (sending) shivers down your spine.”

Prior to 9/11, plebe Claire Henry could tell you why she was here; but she didn’t fully comprehend it.

“When I went to the Academy I had some idea of what it meant, that I was going to serve in the military afterwards,” Henry said. “But I just think as an 18-year-old freshman, you don’t really get what all that means. When (the attacks) happened, it really did change for everybody our understanding of why we were at the Academy.

“At the end of this (experience), that’s really what it means to go to the Naval Academy and what it means to pursue a career afterwards in the military.”

As a haze of shock and sadness hung over the country, Americans were clearly outraged and resolute. Whatever the country’s response, wherever it led, our citizen soldiers would be there. For the first time since Vietnam, really, classes of midshipmen were certain they were graduating to go off to war.

Like Thomas, Henry had yet to sign her “2 for 7” papers. At a service academy, one has two years before committing to two more years of schooling, and at least five years of active duty service.

Neither reconsidered. Years later, Gabarra couldn’t recall a single underclassmen on the ’01 Mids ever approaching her about leaving.

“Absolutely not,” she said.

“I made a commitment to go there, and I really did love everything about the Naval Academy. Of course, I’ve probably forgotten all the bad parts,” Henry chuckled. “It never really crossed my mind that, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I don’t want to do.’ It was kind of like, ‘Okay, this is really what it means, and this is something I want to do.’”

The former Erin Kelly, now Erin Timmons, was a senior bound for the Marine Corps. An Irish Catholic, she had plenty of relatives in the New York City fire department. Home was North Jersey, in the shadows of the Twin Towers.

“I just wanted to go out and do my job, and do it well,” said Timmons, who stood watch the night of 9/11. “I knew I would be one of the first ones (deployed).”

Ex-Navy soccer player Erin (Kelly) Timmons on deployment in Iraq.

One of GW’s coaches, an assistant who tried to recruit Timmons, knew too.

“She gave me a big hug, shook my hand and said, ‘There’s no one better for the job,’” Timmons recounts; it was the type of reaction she would continuously encounter. “During the national anthem, the other teams looked at us differently.

“We though of ourselves differently. We were proud of what we were doing. It was always a competition, but they had the utmost respect for us.”

Games they play have always given midshipmen an escape from the stress and strain of academics and military training. On this night and throughout the fall, soccer became cathartic for more than just those playing it.

“(The soccer field) is where we were happiest,” Timmons says. “We worked hard, but we were out there with our best friends. What makes us happy is what makes us more normal, being out on the soccer field.”

“One of the ways a lot of people have dealt with major tragedies is through the good times of sports and through meaningful experiences with sports,” Gabarra summarizes. “We tried to think of a way we, representing not just the Naval Academy but all who serve in our military, could support them and give them something else to think about.”

Gabarra left that greater purpose unsaid. She never addressed the backdrop to, or the emotions of the Mids’ return to the field.

“They all understood the significance and enormous scope of what was going on,” Gabarra explains. “I think everybody kind of handles that stuff in their own way. We all collectively knew that what we were going to do may be very important for our program, for all those that played before us and all those that may come after us. Of course, (that included) the military, the school and everyone else involved.”

Ten years later, the minutiae of that night is lost on its participants. For the record, Navy beat GW, 2-0. It was Henry’s long pass, nearly 33 minutes in, that set up Katie Eames for the game’s first goal.

What resonates are the feelings for those who shared the experience.

More important than freshman Kate Macfarlane recording her first shutout is her choice to join them in the first place. Halfway through her career at a civilian school in the Big East, Rutgers, she started over at the Academy. A rare transfer, Macfarlane went on to the Marine Corps infantry.

The fact that Stacy Finley scored the evening’s second goal, eventually to become the Mids’ all-time points leader, matters little; that she was taken from them far too soon, in March 2005, means everything. Not quite a year removed from graduation, Finley contracted viral encephalitis, which led to severe inflammation of the brain. She died less than a week later. She was 22.

Timmons isn’t one to forget; not Finley or her other fallen comrades.

She is now a captain in the reserves, raising two young children in a California community populated by military families. Husband, Marty, an Academy classmate, is again in harm’s way on one of the seven deployments the couple has combined to serve.

When she recently reflected on that mid-September night in 2001 and her life since, Timmons had just returned from visiting a veteran’s cemetery in San Diego.

“I’ve seen people I love go, and seen families torn up,” she said. “We go through it together.”

Timmons has been to Iraq and back twice. Each time on a nine-month tour.

“We were in a very rough area,” she says of her first deployment. “We lived in tents in small little bunkers. We were mortared every day. I would go to sleep with my boots on, my weapon next to me and my flak jacket over me to protect my vital organs from shrapnel.”

There were no showers for a month. Almost nothing about her new life resembled the one she left behind. One of the few constants was something she’d kicked around since childhood.

“A soccer ball over there will attract anybody and everybody,” says Timmons.

And so, in addition to passing out candy to children in her effort to win hearts and minds, Timmons helped generate an equipment drive. She collected cleats, jerseys and balls donated from contacts in the States, including Gabarra and Blanck.

“It got to a point where every time we got a new shipment of soccer gear,” Timmons says, “my (commanding officer) would ask, ‘What did you get?’”

One afternoon, on a dusty plot of land near Iskandariyah, Timmons reconnected with that first love in a pick-up game against locals. Instead of bleachers, the makeshift field was surrounded by armored vehicles. She was a long way from the manicured pitch of Navy’s Glenn Warner Soccer complex.

Her uniform was camouflage, protected by Kevlar. Timmons removed her helmet, and Iraqi men discovered a woman was in their midst playing soccer. For her, they were willing to suspend cultural mores.

Henry, who followed Timmons into the Corps and into Iraq, had similar experiences. She often played on base in Fallujuah against native interpreters and construction workers.

“It was interesting, because I was usually the only girl who would play,” Henry fondly remembers. “I would always ask, ‘Do your sister or other girls play?’ And they would always say, ‘No, no, no. That’s disgraceful. But you’re okay!’”

She also gathered up soccer gear, including jerseys sent by her mother from their home in Massachusetts.

“It was really cool because you could interact with people you wouldn’t otherwise,” Henry expounds. “When I went out on patrols, I’d give them to kids. They really liked it.”

“Those basic human interactions, I know (they) gave me a different idea of what people are like there. The culture is very, very different, obviously. But when you’re playing soccer, it’s very much the same.”

Unaware at the time, Henry was also learning to prepare for a future tour. As a 27-year-old captain in the spring of 2010, she deployed to the Helmund Province of Afghanistan to command 40 female soldiers. Part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, their innovative mission was to interact in small units with Afghan women. Doing so, they learned villagers’ needs, while gleaning intelligence.

“I was really lucky to have that background, because it really helped me to steer what training we needed before we went there. It was still very new,” Henry said. “People are very much the same, but it was still very, very different in Afghanistan. The places that the Marines went were almost like Middle Ages or Biblical times with how people lived; in mud huts and with no contact outside of the home, especially for the women.”

Henry is now in Washington, D.C., an Olmstead Scholar preparing to study in Romania next year.

“The purpose is to build more well-rounded officers that not only appreciate other cultures, but truly try to understand them and see the world as that group of people sees the world,” says Henry, who will pursue a master’s in Liberal Arts.

Meanwhile, Thomas has returned to Annapolis, as a Navy lieutenant teaching in the Academy’s Oceanography department. Married to Capt. Russell Thomas, USMC, she is a couple of hours by car from her hometown of Richmond, Va.

Her parents used to make that drive all the time, to tailgate and watch their daughter play soccer. Except for the night the Midshipmen hosted George Washington 10 years ago.

“I haven’t thought about that game in a long time,” Thomas said this summer, a few minutes before picking-up her two daughters from daycare. “It’s come full circle, being here on 9/11 and being here when Osama bin Laden was killed.”

Thomas had once worked with Navy SEALs, providing weather intel to aid their training. Perhaps any one or some of those she assisted took part in the May raid on Abbottabad that killed the Al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind.

“It makes me proud to have that in my background,” says Thomas, equally proud of her current role. “It’s really unique where I am. A lot of senior officers get to come back, (but) I was at the Naval Academy not that long ago. I can relate to what (the midshipmen) are going through. I try to remind them about the bigger picture.”

If only she can reach them the way Thomas and every other soccer alum touch Gabarra.

“I don’t think they realize how much they inspire me, what they go on to do and the kind of people they are,” Gabarra says. “They’re so driven, they’re smart and they’re good athletes. They’re trying to give back to the country. It’s hard not to respect everything they do.

“It’s the fabric of what they’re made of. I talk about them all the time. I’m very proud of them, I’m proud of who they’ve become. They go on to do some incredible things.”

Bob is in his 15th season calling play-by-play of Navy football. He can be heard on Sirius Channel 134 at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 10, when the Midshipmen visit Western Kentucky. For samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.

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