WEST POINT, N.Y. — Not long after the second World Trade Center tower came down, Nolan Gordon’s history professor at the U.S. Military Academy switched off the television and went back to his lesson.
The message: continue the mission.
“It wasn’t like ‘OK, classes are canceled today. Go home,’ ” said Gordon, now a captain, who played center for the Army football team. “It was, ‘Your mission just got that much more important.’ ”
Sept. 11, 2001, changed the lives of all Americans, some dramatically and personally.
For most of the men and women at the service academies, it was both. They entered those prestigious universities knowing a multiyear commitment to the armed forces came along with a top-tier education and, for some, the chance to play major college football.
But they also enrolled during peace time.
Then, in a matter of a few hours, it became clear that the United States was headed to war. Landmarks in Manhattan were destroyed and the Pentagon had been hit.
Instead of questioning their decisions to commit to military service, 9-11 affirmed those choices for men such as Gordon and Marine Capt. Bryce McDonald, who was a junior running back at Navy that day.
“What it did to a lot of people is hone their mindset,” McDonald said. “Or it gave somebody a purpose to go on in that general direction. A person gets more powerful when he has a purpose.
“I knew I wanted to be a Marine coming into this place. Yet that event, that horrific event, just put more purpose in that direction.”
Like most of the men who played in the 2001 Army-Navy game, Gordon and McDonald went on to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan — or both — during the 10 years that followed the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
The passing of a decade has clouded some memories of Sept. 11 and the anxious days that followed for Gordon, McDonald and their teammates.
We practiced that day? Maybe it was the day after? Maybe it was a few days later?
Some memories, however, are as clear as if they happened yesterday.
For Gordon, it was his history professor, an Army officer, taking the opportunity to teach one of the most important lessons he learned at the West Point.
“Of course we were all awe-struck and we’re going ‘What the heck is going on?’ and maybe a lot of us couldn’t think while we were sitting in history class and don’t remember what we learned that day, but the meaning of it was there’s a mentor standing in front of me, a senior officer, and it’s like ‘Hey, continue mission,’ ” he said.
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The 2001 season was not a good one on the field for Army or Navy. The Midshipmen came into the traditional finale against Army winless and with an interim coach. Charlie Weatherbie had been fired seven games into the season and defensive coordinator Rick Lantz had taken over.
“We’d been through kind of a tumultuous season,” said Marine Capt. Josh Brindel, who played defensive line for Navy.
The Black Knights were 2-8 heading to Philadelphia.
But the Army-Navy game is always about more than football, and when the United States is at war, it becomes maybe the most public way possible to honor those who serve in the military.
President George W. Bush visited both teams prior to kickoff.
Bush also took part in the coin toss before the game and Navy quarterback Ed Malinowsk could be heard by on-field microphones calling, “Heads, sir.”
Army won 26-17, its last victory in the series. For Gordon, just getting on the field was a momentous achievement.
He had broken his ankle in the first game of the season. His college football career was over, doctors told him. No way, was Gordon’s response.
His goal was just to get on the field during the Army-Navy game. Doctors weren’t even sure he would be able to walk unassisted by then.
He was able to trot out of the tunnel with his team before the game and when Army ran the final two plays to kill the clock, Gordon took a spot on the offensive line.
Bush returned to the Army locker room to congratulate the Cadets. Gordon said it looked as if Bush hadn’t “slept in 12 days.”
“It blew me away,” he said. “And I said, ‘OK, this is serious.’ Here’s the leader of the country, you can tell he hasn’t slept. What’s my future hold for me? I just met on the field with my brothers and played a game and we just shook hands. And now it’s time to go put on our uniform and go take it to somebody else somewhere else.”
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Gordon was twice deployed to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. Jenkins was deployed four times to Iraq. Dodson went to Iraq once and Afghanistan once. Dial did two tours in Iraq. Malinowski was twice deployed to Iraq. Brindel also did two tours in Iraq. McDonald did one tour in Iraq.
To a man, they all said football helped prepare them for combat.
“The mechanics are very similar,” McDonald said. “The process of planning. The practice. The results are a little different. They’re a lot different. But it’s a great steppingstone. It’s a great learning experience to help you go into it.”
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Not everybody makes it back.
The anniversary of 9-11, the event that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is another reason for McDonald, Gordon and the rest to remember the friends, teammates and classmates who have been lost over the last 10 years.