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.
“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.
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.”
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.’”
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.
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.”
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.”