The 2003 Army football team achieved futility in major college play that might never be equaled, losing all 13 of its games. The squad that took the field on a frigid December 2003 day in Philadelphia for the celebrated Army-Navy game featured only eight fourth-year seniors, just a slice of the fifty energetic freshmen—“plebes” in academy vernacular—who reported to West Point amid the heat and humidity of the summer of 2000, hoping to land spots on the football team.
For most of the fifty, West Point represented their best—or only—opportunity to play major college football. They were bypassed by the big-time football schools that award athletic scholarships, which aren’t available at the nation’s military academies. Making a five-year active-duty military commitment following graduation was a small price to pay during peacetime. But peacetime in America ended only days into their second year at the academy, on September 11, 2001.
Those eight seniors, like virtually all of their cadet peers, maintained their commitments to the US Army in the wake of 9/11. They worked their way up from West Point’s JV football team as freshmen, earned positions on the Black Knights’ varsity team as others left the program—voluntarily or otherwise—and walked to the center of the field for the coin toss before that final opportunity for victory, against the arch-rival Midshipmen.
The football field then gave way to the battlefield.
Most of the eight were deployed overseas, serving at least one tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan. One won the Bronze Star, another the Purple Heart. One qualified for an elite Rangers battalion, another for the 160th special operations aviation Night Stalkers.
They took on enemy fire. They grieved at the loss of brothers in arms. They hugged their loved ones tightly upon returning home.
There was no more talk of football losses. They were winners.
Jeff Miller has been a sports journalist for more than forty years. He has worked for the Dallas Morning News, CBSSports.com and ESPN.com. Miller is the author of six books, including The Game Changers, which detailed the racial integration of major college football in Texas. He lives with his wife, Frances, in DeSoto, Texas. They have four children and one grandchild.