Sept. 12, 2011
By Brian Gunning, Army Athletic Communications
WEST POINT, N.Y. - One of the words most associated with West Point is legacy. From the countless military heroes to the leaders in business, science and industry, each member of the Long Gray Line contributes to the Academy's legacy as the world's foremost leader development institution.
For Army senior linebacker Steven Erzinger, the concept of legacy was brought into focus last December during the Black Knights' preparation for its annual contest with Navy. It was during that time that Army's senior class of 2011 chose him to carry their legacy forward, one that would include the program's first winning season in 14 years and the team's first bowl victory in 25 years.
Erzinger was chosen as a "legacy captain," the player that would best represent the ideals and accomplishments of the previous year's seniors and ensure that the younger generation of Army players are well-heeled in the culture of Army Football.
"We've gone to the legacy captain model," head coach Rich Ellerson explained. "Our graduating seniors, during the Navy preparation, decided who one of the next captains was going to be. He's a guy who the seniors pick looking over their shoulder. Who do those graduating seniors want to carry on the effort, carry on the legacy and carry on the tradition that they've helped create? The graduating firsties have a chance to fire that last salvo by looking over their shoulder and helping articulate that new team's personality as it starts to form in the spring."
Erzinger is both humbled and perplexed by his role within the team. As Ellerson said, If last year's group chose Erzinger to help articulate the personality of the 2011 team, then modesty and the concept of team will be two of the most prominent traits of this year's version of Army football.
"To be honest, I don't really know why I'm looked at as a leader," Erzinger said. "I've played so I have some credibility on the field, and I feel I conduct myself reasonably well. It's a myth to me, but I'm just happy I got the opportunity. I don't look too deep into it, but it's definitely cool to have had last year's seniors hand off the torch to me. It's an honor and something that I really do value, but there were a lot of really good choices. I'm happy they chose me."
The native of Houston, Texas, is also thankful he is not the lone voice in the locker room. In addition to co-captains Max Jenkins and Andrew Rodriguez, Erzinger is relying on the whole senior class to play a leadership role in 2011, especially with so many young players on the roster and sprinkled throughout the depth chart. This year's senior class is the last to go through the recent coaching transition, an experience Erzinger believes has helped bond the group.
"We've been through a lot together as a senior class," he explained." It's been a great transition, but we've had to adapt and be uncomfortable a lot. It's been fun to be with these guys and go through it. Anybody who has ever been in this type of role knows that you can't do it by yourself."
In order to understand Erzinger's point of view, it helps to start by taking a look at his family. He is technically the youngest of four children - seven minutes younger than his twin brother, Scott - all of which have gone on to success at the college level. The oldest sibling, Alison, earned All-America honors in the 400-meter hurdles in 2005. Steven's older sister, Stephanie, is currently enrolled at the University of Texas medical school. Scott, who often tries to play big brother despite their mere minutes of separation, is currently on the baseball team at Texas Tech. Throw in a father who played college football at the University of Wyoming, and the conditions were certainly right to produce an athletic-minded and competitive person who understood the value of teamwork and family.
"I think it was always fun to compete," Erzinger said. "I'd follow my sisters out to their different events, and I got involved when I was really young in things like soccer, swimming and baseball. It was just one of those things that was always part of my life, and I didn't really understand not doing it. It just came naturally. I was always looking for the next season or the next sport that was coming along. I appreciate it now because I got to spend a lot of time with my family."
Erzinger parlayed his upbringing into success on the gridiron. An all-state selection at Lamar High School, the now Army captain was chosen by his high school teammates to serve as their leader during his last two seasons. Once it became apparent he would follow in his father's footsteps by playing football at the Division I level, West Point began its courtship.
"They started recruiting me when I was a junior," Erzinger recalled. "I didn't really know what West Point was, but I decided to investigate a little bit. I got in touch with some family friends, who introduced me to a graduate. He suggested that I come up and see the campus. I did, and I really enjoyed everything it had to offer."
During his time as a cadet, Erzinger has taken advantage of all those things the Academy has to offer. In addition to his football success, he has zeroed-in on what he would like to do once he earns his commission as a second lieutenant in May. Erzinger recently listed the Infantry branch as his top choice for a post-Academy military career.
"It's a team environment, and success is really based on how well you train your team," he explained. "It's a lot like football. You practice the way you play. In the field, if you train and you do all your drills and maneuvers at half speed and just go through the motions, you're not going to do it well when you actually have to do it in theater. I think it's one of the closest links to football, and that's why I like it.
"I want to go to Ranger school, and Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 101st (Airborne Division), but there are a lot of things that are yet to be determined. I could end up doing something completely different and going to a post I never thought I would. I'm sure it will all work out great."
It's that team-oriented approach that has put Erzinger at the forefront of his teammates and coaches' minds when they think of leadership. His influence has been a major reason for the much talked about culture shift that has permeated the Army locker room.
"I think the culture has changed," Erzinger said. "It's not accepting playing your best anymore, it's winning and winning in whatever we choose to do that day. Academically, if you have a test, than get an A on it. In football, maybe you're just loosening up, but you're getting the best stretch that you can. It's really about not doing anything half speed or just going through the motions."
That paradigm shift was rewarded with last season's winning record and bowl victory. The challenge facing Erzinger and the Black Knights in 2011 is playing with higher expectations.
"I think it gets us on the map," Erzinger said of last season's success. "People aren't going to just say, 'Oh well, there's Army. We'll deal with them when we deal with them.' It's going to help us, one, come out and know that people are expecting us to play well, and two, we now know that people aren't going to just expect to come play us and win. It's going to be a fight, and it's going to be fun."
With all the talk that has surrounded him since last spring, one couldn't blame Erzinger if his mind started to wander to thoughts of his last season and place in Army history. Erzinger, however, always mindful of what has made him and the team successful, wants no part of the discussion.
"I don't think it'll dawn on me until the spring when I don't have to come out for spring practice," he said contemplating what it will be like to run onto the field this afternoon for the first home game of his final season. "I'm not too worried about it. The only sense of urgency we have is to get ready and get prepared for each game we have each week."