Sept. 11, 2011
The following article appeared in the New York Times on September 9 and was written by Joe Drape.
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- They were gathered here on the banks of the Hudson at Trophy Point among captured artillery, a one-of-a-kind setting for a one-of-a-kind college football moment. The speaker was First Lt. Tyson Quink, and he was here to remind the Army Black Knights of why each of them had chosen to come to the United States Military Academy, of what the Long Gray Line really meant.
He was an offensive lineman here. His wife, First Lt. Tera Quink, leaned against his wheelchair. She was the football team's first female head manager, a coveted position held by such celebrated former cadets as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the astronaut Frank Borman and the former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Now her husband was telling the team about how the improvised explosive device he stepped on last spring in Afghanistan took both his legs below his knees and how the brotherhood that is at the heart of the cadet corps really works.
"I had a squad leader holding my head," he said. "Everyone was tourniquetting my legs, getting me together. They were getting me a bird and getting me out of there. Those guys, I'll never forget, I see their faces all the time. It's important what they did. They would have done it because it was their jobs, but they did it because they didn't want to lose someone they were tight with, close to. We slept together. Me and my platoon sergeant slept together; we practically held hands we were that close."
What Quink did not tell the Black Knights was that he was here last Friday to bury another member of the class of 2009, First Lt. Timothy J. Steele, who died last month in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan and is among the 84 graduates of West Point who have lost their lives over the past decade in support of missions there and in Iraq.
"You go what you go through," Quink said, his voice cracking. "You guys stay together. It will help you on the field. It will help you when you're a first lieutenant."
The Black Knights lost their opener at Northern Illinois, 49-26, the following day, but Army is a resurgent program coming off its first winning season since 1996. It was capped by a 16-14 victory over Southern Methodist in the Armed Forces Bowl, its first postseason victory since 1985. Last Saturday's loss to Northern Illinois was a disappointing start to a promising season, but one that will be forgotten Saturday when the Black Knights take the field against San Diego State (1-0).
"You don't have much time to dwell on things here at West Point, especially something like a football game," said Steven Erzinger, a senior -- or firstie -- linebacker and co-captain.
The life of any cadet means balancing an Ivy League-caliber education with the rigors of military life and absorbing the art and science of leadership. Time is precious. Sleep hard to come by. Summer vacations nonexistent.
Over the past two years, Army Coach Rich Ellerson has done what four of his predecessors could not: win. Ellerson, 58, has done it by embracing the challenges of cadet life. Instead of asking for more practice as other coaches did, he shortened his team's time on the field. Instead of asking that his players be spared military training obligations, Ellerson encouraged them to do more.
That meant that quarterback Trent Steelman spent part of this summer at nearby Camp Buckner leading a squad of 10 cadets through combat exercises while his backup, Max Jenkins, was in Germany with the Army Corps of Engineers and defensive lineman Jarrett Mackey was among a group of players at Fort Benning, Ga. It also meant that Larry Dixon and the rest of the Black Knights' plebe class returned to Beast Barracks from training camp to make the more-than-12-mile march in full military gear from Camp Buckner to campus, the traditional end to what is known as "Hell on the Hudson." A war room was set up, complete with a white board bearing the names of more than 100 Black Knights, and it was consulted frequently throughout the summer. It not only kept track of the players' whereabouts on different bases and missions but also those of the strength coaches.
At Camp Buckner, Steelman and teammates were up at 5:30 a.m. to run, lift weights and throw, but those sessions were not nearly as taxing as the countless hours in the woods for Cadet Field Training.
"It was the hardest thing I ever did," said Steelman, a junior, or cow, who is a three-year starter. "Coach has a saying, 'Let's stack up W's in everything we do,' in the classroom, in the corps. It will all translate on Saturdays."
Ellerson's father, Col. Geoffrey Ellerson, graduated from here in 1935, and two of his brothers, Maj. Gen. John Ellerson, a captain of the 1962 football team, and Col. Geoffrey Ellerson Jr., followed suit. His brothers are now retired, but Rich Ellerson came here after eight years at Cal Poly, where he built a perennial power in the Football Championship Subdivision with similarly motivated and intelligent players.
Where previous coaches have fixated on the academy's weaknesses, Ellerson has concentrated on its strengths.
"These guys are so invested emotionally in this place," he said. "It's so demanding. It's so uncertain. It's so competitive. I don't think that's why they are playing at Tennessee or Texas or the places with the big Hollywood models."
Beyond running a triple-option offense and a defense built on speed and flexibility to make the most of the smaller, quicker athletes who fit the academy's physical requirements, Ellerson has tapped into the values and virtues of West Point.
"I think those things still impact the scoreboard," he said. "There's some physics going on out there. How you can counter it is with culture and character. These are guys that are willing to sacrifice for one another. They want to do something special with their life. They don't want their life to be easy or pampered. It's not in our DNA."
He also wants his players to understand exactly why they are here: to become officers in the United States Army, not to play what he calls this "silly game we all love."
"The destination is the first thing we bring up," he said. "Where it goes from here probably is to many great things, but football is just one thing on the way to the destination."
Last Friday, on the steps of Battle Monument, the iconic memorial to the fallen Army officers and soldiers in the Civil War and erected by their surviving comrades, the Quinks reminded the cadets that the destination was fraught with peril but that members of the Long Gray Line had the heart and the skill to endure. The two are living at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as Tyson builds his strength and learns to walk on artificial legs. He has been fitted for one, and is awaiting the other.
This year's firsties, like Erzinger, were freshmen when Quink was playing his final season for Army.
"It's real and it's out there," Erzinger said of the danger that potentially awaits all cadets. "But Tyson's still working and fighting. He really brought to life what is to be in this brotherhood."