A Look Back At The First Army-Navy Game Played After 9/11

By Bob Socci

Originally published in the Army vs. Navy Program (Dec. 10, 2011). 

They first looked one another in the eye as team captains summoned to the center of a field surrounded by tens of thousands, and in full view of millions more.  There, Ed Malinowski stood beside Pres. George W. Bush and, on the cue from his Commander-In-Chief, called the opening coin toss of the 102nd Army-Navy game.

Pres. George W. Bush with Army co-captain Clint Dodson prior to the 102nd Army-Navy Game.

“Heads, Sir!” he said, clutching a gold helmet against his white jersey; each resplendent on the remarkably warm and sunny South Philadelphia morning of Dec. 1, 2001.  Brian Zickefoose too cradled a gold helmet in his left arm; only his bore the single black stripe of a West Point Cadet.

In that moment, three months after and yet, in many ways, not a day removed from 9/11, they were one and the same.  The president had ordered troops into Afghanistan eight weeks earlier.  So like every other classmate and counterpart, they fully understood their own call to combat was no longer an ‘if’; but rather a ‘when’.

That reality was palpable in the buildup to kickoff.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the West Point graduate who commanded coalition forces in the Gulf War of 1991, addressed the Cadets.  Similarly, Naval Academy alum Sen. John McCain, spoke passionately to the Midshipmen.

President Bush also visited both locker rooms, minutes before emerging for the coin toss.  For the record, he even took a handoff from Malinowski; receiving a ball autographed by Navy players.  In 15 months, he would give the go-ahead to bomb Baghdad.

For the players, that phase in their lives in which every fiber was invested in beating the other, in the sport they loved more than any other, would soon end.  Theirs was a common cause; one they were willing to sacrifice anything for.

But first, of course, they had one more score to settle.

*****

Malinowski and Zickefoose were future officers — the former in the Marine Corps, the latter as an Army Ranger — and maximum achievers, a pair of 5-foot-somethings defying typical parameters of their sport.  They were, in other words, quintessential characters in this American classic.

A backup quarterback for most of his career, Malinowski was accorded a cameo start in his career finale.  Throughout a tumultuous season, he tried everything within his reach to hold the Midshipmen together, even volunteering for special teams.

Alas, through nine prior tries and a late-autumn coaching change, victory remained elusive.  Still, Malinowski — quite literally — soldiered on.

In the stands, his mother caressed a dime in her fingers, hoping good fortune would rub off on her Ed, who wore No. 10.  Hers was a ritual that would continue well beyond this game, into subsequent years on Malinowski’s missions to Fallujah and Haditha, Iraq.  At Chartiers-Houston High School on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, faculty did their part for the son of a fellow educator.  Whenever a loose dime was spotted, it was promptly handed over to Marilyn Malinowski.

Meanwhile, Zickefoose was guided less by good luck than good words to live by.

Navy co-captain Ed Malinowski started at quarterback after winning the opening coin toss by calling, "Heads, sir!"

To the men in his life back home in Bridgeport, W. Va., service to country was a family obligation.  Older brother Greg flew for the Air Force; following the lead of their father, Gary, a Lt. Colonel in the Army Reserve.  Both grandfathers fought in World War II.  Grandpa Zickefoose was active in the Army for close to four decades, while Grandpa ‘Hank’ retired from the Navy Reserve.

It was the latter, a.k.a. Franklin Ellis, who became baseball coach at West Virginia Wesleyan for 36 years and penned advice that endures to this day.

“If the sun comes up tomorrow,” Ellis wrote to his grandson, “it’s a good day.”

The tiny postcard on which that simple sentence was written went everywhere Zickefoose did.  As a Cadet, he tucked it into his daily planner.  In years to come, he kept it in his action pack.  It served him well; in hard times as a Cadet, and lean times as a Black Knight.  Like the autumn of ’01, when Army won just two of its first 10 games.

In combat, Zickefoose would gain greater appreciation of its meaning in a place called Sadr City.

“You don’t realize it at the time, how (war) affects your entire persona,” Zickefoose said a decade later, as a husband and father of two young girls.  “You understand the value of small things in life.”

*****

As Army’s tight end and a fellow co-captain in 2001, Clint Dodson considers Zickefoose “the toughest dude I’ll ever know.”  Little more than 200 pounds, Zickefoose was a former halfback and safety moved to linebacker.

Against Navy he seemed to be everywhere at once.  In the final Army-Navy game in the history of — appropriately enough — Veterans Stadium, he helped to ensure that a 26-9 lead prove insurmountable.

Big plays had put the Black Knights in this position.  In the 1st quarter, a 60-yard run by Ardell Daniels and a 42-yard pass from Chad Jenkins to Brian Bruenton produced the first two touchdowns.  Then in the final 13 seconds of the 2nd quarter, Army converted a blocked a punt into a field goal, before Omari Thompson returned the opening kickoff of the 3rd quarter 96 yards.

Meanwhile, the Zickefoose-led defense was holding Navy below 100 yards rushing.  Much of that effort was invisible to Dodson, who was busy with in-game adjustments on the bench.  But what his eyes couldn’t tell him, his ears did.

“I swear I heard his name every series,” he said 10 years later, the echoes of ‘Zick-e-foose’ still reverberating all the way to Hawaii, where Dodson now works in finance.

It would be called one more time, on the Mids’ second-to-last possession.

Malinowski had started that drive with three passes for 36 yards, before unleashing the last throw of his football career.  The result was a last hurrah — or, as one says on the post at West Point, Hoorah! — for Zickefoose.

He intercepted it, fell to the 17-yard line with 2:19 to play and rose to celebrate.  The snapshot of what transpired next stays with him, through a tour of Iraq and more recent 14-month stint overseeing construction projects in Afghanistan.

“In Iraq, or wherever, you remember the guys you played with,” Zickefoose recently said from his home in Lancaster, Pa., vividly recalling a scene shared with Dodson and Jenkins.  “I remember the interception that sealed the deal for us.  I remember coming off and giving Clint and Chad a hug.  There was a feeling of relief to have done what I was supposed to do.  I was happy to bring a smile to the faces of my friends.”

Ardell Daniels gave Army an early lead.

Officially, the game wasn’t over until Navy regained possession, scored to make it, 26-17, and failed to recover an on-sides kick; leaving Jenkins to savor the next 23 seconds.

Aligned in victory formation, Jenkins, who was playing despite a torn knee ligament, handled one final snap before letting go of football.

“We spent five years waiting for that moment, to be on top, to share that moment together,” said Jenkins, alluding to bonds first formed in prep school, later tested and tightened in Beast Barracks and cemented upon commissioning.

*****

The closeness as competitors, carrying over as combatants, as much as anything, makes Army-Navy unique.

“You fight wars for your country; you fight battles for the man next to you,” Zickefoose explains.  “You play games for your school; you play the down for the man next to you.”

Cadets and Midshipmen wage those battles side-by-side.

“It is a game played against your brothers-in-arms,” assures Jenkins, who befriended Malinowski as rival quarterbacks.  “As meaningful and special and wonderful an experience as (beating Navy) is, it’s (all) the guys over there who will be fighting for our future.”

Of course, the true calling of Midshipmen and Cadets was crystallized on the morning of Sept. 11.

Two hijacked planes flown into the World Trade Center filled New York with smoke and ashes visible well up the Hudson River, from the high ground of West Point.

In Washington, an American Airlines flight sliced into The Pentagon.  Its pilot, Chic Burlingame, was a USNA grad frequently in attendance at Navy home games.  The carnage it caused didn’t discriminate between any of the branches of armed forces.

As in Manhattan and later a Pennsylvania field, it was an attack on of all of us.  Some of whom, in places like West Point and Annapolis, suddenly prepared to fight back.

“It’s crazy how naive I was at the time I got to the Naval Academy, all the way into my senior year,” Malinowski reflected last month from his home in Cranberry Township, Pa.  “There really wasn’t much going on (around the world) for three years.  I was worried about passing (my) Weapons and Systems Engineering class, worried about football, worried about my girlfriend.  Then it was like, ‘Wow!  I just became a grown-up.’”

“I don’t think (9/11) changed everything but it brought everything to the forefront,” says Dodson, who was sent into Afghanistan three years later.  “It’s a one-day-at-a-time environment (at West Point).  You’ve got to get through the next day, then the next day, then the next day.  Well, now (after 9/11) it was like, ‘You’re gonna go off to war.’”

Malinowski (10) and Navy teammates stand alongside Black Knights for singing of alma maters.

While Dodson was about to take his place in the Long Gray Line, as part of the first post-9/11 graduating class, 200 miles to the south, Shalimar Brazier had yet to sign his 2-for-7 papers.

Brazier, a sophomore cornerback, had time to reconsider committing to his final two years of schooling and at least five years of active duty.  If so desired, he could transfer without any obligation to the Navy.

“Most people said, ‘I’m going to do my part,’” Brazier states, before reciting the questions one asked of himself.  “‘Am I ready for this?‘  That thought has to run through your mind.  You have to make an educated decision.   Am I going to give the best I have?”

His answer was affirmative, times two.  If anything, the aftermath of 9/11 revealed “a sense of The (Navy) Brotherhood, and not just with the football team.”

Resoluteness was mutual.  Players from both academies were eager to step into the so-called boots on the ground; however treacherous the terrain.

Ryan Hamilton, a linebacker for the ’01 Midshipmen who reached the rank of Captain as a Marine, remembers how “the numbers jumped” among teammates service selecting the Corps.  A similar trend was evident at West Point.

“More guys on the team wanted to go infantry than previous years,” says Dodson, who opted for Airborne, Infantry and Ranger schools; paralleling the paths of Zickefoose and Jenkins.  “That itself said, resoundingly, where our hearts and minds were at the time.”

In Jenkins’s case, it’s also where his soul had been since the summer after his sophomore year, when a visit to Air Assault School exposed him to a true sense of purpose.  Ever since, he dreamt of joining the 75th Ranger Regiment.

“They’re the type of individuals, when things go bad, you want to be surrounded by them,” says Jenkins, who calls the young men he eventually commanded in the 2nd Ranger Battalion — many no older than academy underclassmen — “my heroes.”

Leaving them was difficult, despite the disruptions of deployment; like when plans to propose to then girlfriend Emily were put on hold, because a scheduled 30-day leave was shortened to a week.

Jenkins eventually popped the question, and Emily’s answer (yes, of course) subsequently led him to seek the stability of civilian life in raising his two children.  Still, other kids of his remain close to heart.

“Those are the kids I think of first and foremost, like the 18-year-old Ranger who’s the first going into a house and doesn’t know what’s on the other side of the door,” says Jenkins, who now works for the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit.  “I love those guys so much.”

He was remarkably fortunate in his four deployments to never lose a soldier under his command.  Which isn’t to imply that Jenkins doesn’t know loss.  They all do; these Cadets and Midshipmen from the Class of ’02.

Most recently, Jenkins dealt with the death of Kristoffer Domeij, a Ranger special operator killed on, incredibly, his 14th deployment.  Others were rocked by fatalities among former teammates.

Zickefoose can tell you about the lunch he shared in 2005 at Camp Rustamiyah with James Gurbisz, an ex-Army football player turned rugby standout.  About a week later, Zickefoose “heard a boom.”  It was an improvised explosive device (IED) detonating.  One of two soldiers killed was Capt. James Gurbisz, age 25.

Army's Chad Jenkins on the roll-out.

For Hamilton, “there isn’t a day that goes by” without remembering fallen heroes of the Navy Brotherhood.

“I get so emotional on that one,” he recently said, voice quivering as he steadied the wheel on a drive through Western Maryland.

Among them is Lt. Ron Winchester, Class of ’01.  His last appearance as an offensive tackle was in the 2000 Army-Navy game.  So typical of this rivalry, his lifelong best buddy was on the other side of scrimmage, Cadet nose guard Doug Larson.

As a so-called Firstie, he mentored Brazier, then a Plebe.  And if ever there was a Midshipman to model yourself after, it was the soft-spoken Long Islander who carried a big heart.

In Sept. 2004, on the eighth day of his second deployment, the 25-year-old Winchester was killed by a roadside bomb in Al Anbar Province.

That November, during a firefight in Fallujah, roughly 4-5 blocks from Malinowski, a sniper’s bullet pierced the left shoulder of Lt. J.P. Blecksmith.  Dead within seconds; he too was just 25.

Less than a week later, Malinowski was re-supplying as a logistics officer, amid the first of his tours of Iraq, when he asked someone about casualties within Blecksmith’s regiment.  Until then, he had no idea.

“It’s one of those times in life that just smash you in the face,” Malinowski says.  “You want to sit down, but you still have 30 Marines to care for.  There’s no time to grieve.  Later, you pause to reflect.”

*****

A decade after 9/11, Army-Navy remains unlike any other rivalry.

Our world became a different place a decade ago.  Especially for the young men competing on that first Saturday of Dec. 2001.

“None of us in our professional military careers know anything but war,” Zickefoose explains.  “For our generation, that’s all we know.”

Yet, the essence of Army-Navy was unchanged.  And remains so years later.  Mutual respect is inherent because of the shared experiences and greater mission of Cadets and Midshipmen.

“Especially after 9/11, you go through something so different that no one else can relate to,” Dodson says.  “They have a good understanding of what we’re going through.”

Those who competed in his day answered their call to duty.  Many still do.  Whether in the Reserve, like Dodson or Zickefoose.

Or on active duty, like Capt. Bryce McDonald, USMC; a fullback whose left leg was severely wounded by an IED while on patrol in Haditha, Iraq in 2006.  McDonald remains part of Navy’s program in his role as liaison officer.

Others stay close, as they always have; even from afar.

Internet, television and round-trip tickets get them to the games they want to see.  And this is one they wouldn’t dare miss.

Because as much as they’ve given to America, they’re grateful for what Army and Navy have given them.

“What football did for me is incredible,” says Jenkins, recipient of the last snap in 2001 and the last word 10 years later.  “I can honestly say that no other academy class, extra-curricular activity or summer training prepared me (like football) for taking over an infantry platoon and taking that platoon to combat.

“It prepared me to lead our most prized possessions into harm’s way.  No other event up to that point in my life prepared me to do that.  That’s what it means to be an Army football player and a Navy football player.”

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A View From The Booth: Idle Time For Some Random Thoughts

By Bob Socci

Originally published on www.navysports.com on Dec. 1, 2011.

Here I sit at the keyboard, two weeks after Navy’s last game at San Jose State and roughly a week before the Midshipmen play their next against Army.

Leaves have been collected from the backyard and stuffed into lawn bags.  Rooms have been switched and furniture re-arranged, as my wife and I try to get organized before a chaotic Holiday season and the expected arrival of our second child.

So I must admit, as much as I miss the excitement of a football game day and love my Saturdays in the Navy radio booth, all this idle time of late has led to some semblance of order to life.  Temporary as it no doubt is.

Heck, there’s even time today to attack the stacks of bills (yikes!), magazines (no matter that by now their pages are filled with old news) and junk mail (seriously, how can the postal service be in such trouble?) rising on and around my desk since a late-September bye-week.

And yet, because I’m far better at procrastinating than prognosticating (put it this way, there’s a reason I’ve never gambled), I think I’ll hold off on them for now.  After all, there’s bound to be a free day or two sometime before the 2012 season opens in Dublin, right?

Besides, I’d much rather use the time to share some items that recently crossed my mind or were written into my notebook.

But like so many other things around here, at least until the last few days, there’s little organization to what I’m about to write; less a stream of consciousness than a handful of random thoughts.

*****

During Paul Johnson’s six-year tenure as Navy’s head coach, the question of whether an option offense could succeed in the NFL arose periodically.  As with most topics, Paul didn’t mince words.  His answer was a resounding “yes,” presuming the “right personnel” was in place.

With Tim Tebow, the Broncos are running an option offense, doing in the pros...

“Can you imagine Michael Vick running it?,” Johnson once said of the then Atlanta Falcon during a commercial break in his radio show, scoffing at the conventional thinkers who’ve long considered the option unfit for the pros.

Well, years later, with Johnson now in Atlanta at Georgia Tech, the ex-coach of the Midshipmen certainly looks like he knew what he was talking about.  Not that you’d ever expect otherwise, given his option expertise.

While Vick is injured on an underachieving Philadelphia team, the Denver Broncos ride a four-game winning streak on the shoulders of a terrific defense and, yes, an option offense.

As anyone not “too busy keeping up with the Kardashians” (more on that in a moment) knows, the Broncos and, specifically, quarterback Tim Tebow are part of the conversation on every frequency from 24-hour sports-talk radio stations to NPR’s All Things Considered.

...what the Navy Midshipmen have done in college football since 2002.

Of course, much of the chatter concerns either the magnetism or, to many, the polarization associated with Tebow.  But what fascinates me is how the Broncos have gone from 1-4 to 5-1 since bucking NFL stereotypes by doing to pro defenses what the Mids have done in the college ranks since Johnson came to Annapolis in 2002.

True, Denver runs the read-option; more along the lines of what Tebow operated at the University of Florida.  Still, basic principles of that offense are the same as Navy’s triple-option.

In 2008 the Miami Dolphins confused opponents by essentially resurrecting the Single Wing with the Wildcat formation.  Rival coaches were left to explain how the unfamiliarity of it in the modern NFL was cause for great consternation.

Suddenly, we’re hearing similar things about preparing for the Broncos.  Much the same way opposing coaches have spoken about the Midshipmen throughout the last decade.

*****

Speaking of the offense Johnson reinstituted after the one-time Navy offensive coordinator was hired as head coach in ’02, I was in Dallas the night the Mids debuted under his direction with a 38-7 rout of SMU.

Joining me on the radio, just he’d done the previous year at Toledo and would do on a couple of other occasions, was Ron Wolf.  A former executive for the Raiders, Buccaneers and Packers, Ron had retired to Annapolis and filled-in as a color commentator on our broadcasts.

Former Packers GM Ron Wolf, alongside his most famous acquisition.

Last Sunday — as noted by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King — marked the 20th anniversary of his hiring as Green Bay’s general manager.  Wolf went on to trade for Brett Favre; hire Mike Holmgren; convince Reggie White to sign as a free agent; and develop a scouting and drafting system that led to two Super Bowl titles, on his watch in 1997 and under protege Ted Thompson last season.

Ron recently made the list of 26 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a “contributor” to the game.  In early January the nominees will be pared to the 15 names included on this year’s ballot for enshrinement in Canton.

Though no longer seen driving around Annapolis in his red convertible — Ron and his wife moved back to Wisconsin — surely everyone he associated with at the Academy is pulling for him to have a HOF bust next summer.

Wolf is a brilliant evaluator of football talent; shrewd enough to select Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselbeck withfifth- and sixth-round draft picks, respectively.  He’s also a historian of the sport and big fan of service academies, in particular.

While in Annapolis, he owned season tickets and regularly borrowed old films of Navy greats from video coordinator John McGuire; always in a genuinely appreciative and unassuming manner.

*****

A no-doubt future Hall of Famer with far-reaching Academy ties, Bill Belichick, said something this week that, I believe, has great relevance to the Army-Navy Game.

The three-time Super Bowl champion head coach of the Patriots and son of the late longtime Navy assistant, Steve Belichick, discussed first-place New England’s upcoming meeting with the winless Indianapolis Colts:

“(Our players) heard me talk about it every week, saying we don’t care about the record, and we don’t,’’ Belichick was quoted in The Boston Globe.  “What difference does it make?  Look, how somebody played two weeks ago against somebody else, who cares?  Us or anybody else.  It doesn’t matter.  The only thing that matters is how we and the Colts perform against each other on Sunday.  That’s all that matters.  Who cares who won three weeks ago in some other game against some other players?  It doesn’t matter.

“We talk about it every . . . It doesn’t matter. There’s 16 games on our schedule, they’re all the same.  It’s our team against that team that week and we look at, try to learn about our opponent and scout them and pick up tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, and all that, but how we match up against that team that day is all that matters.

“The rest of it is just a bunch of garbage.  You guys can write about it all you want, it doesn’t matter.  I mean, really.  The winner of this game will be decided by which team plays better on Sunday, not what happened four weeks ago.  It’s like that every week.  Every week.’’

So what, you ask, does that have to do with the Mids and Black Knights?  Navy has won their last nine encounters, all by margins of 12 points or more.  In fact, overall in the Commander-In-Chief’s series, Army has lost 21 of its last 23 games.

Belichick, you and I all know that despite recent history, what matters is how the Mids match up with the Cadets next Saturday.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded; even if by a coach speaking in the context of Patriots-Colts.

*****

Finally, you might have heard halftime commentary by Bob Costas during NBC’s telecast of the Steelers vs. Chiefs last Sunday evening.  If not, perhaps you at least heard or read about it (check it out here).

Costas linked debased popular culture — opening with a reference to the infatuation many Americans have with the likes of the Kardashians — to an increasing affront to good taste and true class across the sporting landscape; specifically each week on fields around the NFL.
Don't expect to see end zone antics like this...
...when Alexander Teich of Navy meets Steve Erzinger of Army in the 112th encounter of Midshipmen and Cadets.

Maybe you agree with those critics who labeled Costas smug and self-righteous.  I — to the surprise of absolutely nobody who knows me — think differently.  To my ears, Costas’s soliloquy sounded like the best 2 minutes, 20 seconds I’ve heard on network TV in a long, long while.

His words and the video to support them remind me of one of the great rewards in covering the Midshipmen.  And give all of us further reason to look forward to what we won’t see when we watch Army-Navy next weekend.

Join Bob on Saturday, Dec. 10, when he calls his 15th Army-Navy Game, working alongside Omar Nelson, on the Navy Radio Network.