Courtesy of Kim Williams
Head Coach Sean Berner gives a pep talk to members of the Falcons football team of Fort Campbell High School in Kentucky.
Head Coach Sean Berner gives a pep talk to members of the Falcons football team of Fort Campbell High School in Kentucky. Courtesy of Kim Williams
The high school football ritual is a little different for the Falcons of Fort Campbell High School in Kentucky. As the name implies, the school is on a military base. Therefore on top of sports, homework and standard teenage drama, many players are also dealing with the stress of having a parent deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Playing football on a military base is a different experience from a standard public school. For one, Gerard J. Counts, a retired command sergeant major, gives the team fiery pre-game speeches before they play.
Almost every high school football team hears such a speech before they do battle. "You are warriors," they are told. "This is combat." Counts riles up his team with first-hand tales of the battle of Mogadishu, which has come to be known by a more familiar title — "Blackhawk Down."
"The only thing Sergeant Reed wanted to do was complete the mission, because he was with his brothers," Counts says. "The ones he trained with for so long — to answer the call if it ever came. And it came. Leadership. Doing things without having to be told to do them. Tonight leadership is going to come out in this team."
The story serves to teach a lesson about brothers who train and sacrifice for a common goal. The team realizes he's talking about football, but also about more than football.
Call And Response
The pre-game speech continues, and players chime in. "I am the god of hellfire," Counts says. The team echoes his proclamation.
"And I bring you thunder," he says, his roar followed by theirs. "Defense! Lightning! Offense!"
An Army base is accustomed to the roar of well-trained and highly skilled young men. Tonight the Falcons are preparing to face the Fort Knox Eagles, the only other team located on a domestic military base.
The game is colloquially known as the "Army Bowl." All week, Falcons Head Coach Shawn Berner has been reminding his team that this time, the game will carry a greater meaning — due to the date it falls on this year.
"Seniors, this is it," Berner says. "This is your last opportunity to play high school football and it's your last opportunity to play in this Army Bowl. And it's scheduled on 9/11. That should mean a lot to you, especially for what your parents do guys. Make your parents proud."
The players are hard at work doing just that. This year the team has been scoring an average of 51 points a game and surrendering fewer than nine. They do this despite their ever-changing roster.
"Two years ago I think we lost nine potential starters off this football team, just to dads getting a change of orders," says Mike Marciano, the school's athletic director and the team's offensive coordinator. "We can lose them during the season; we can gain them during the season. If you gain them you've got to teach 'em — quickly. If you lose them you got to wish them well and you pray for them."
A Higher Standard
Last year Darrian Crank transferred in from New Jersey. He didn't know what to expect, but quickly discovered that a lot was expected of him.
"The coaches understand we're military kids and because we're military kids, they hold us to a higher standard," Crank says. "They think that because our dad's in the military — if our parents have the discipline to be in the military, our household has the discipline to raise the kids in kind of like a military scheme."
Being on the team involves physical training and hard work, but it's not all toil and drudgery. The team runs an intricate no-huddle offense that requires each player to think on the fly. In addition, the coaches know what the kids are going through off the field.
Senior Chris Allen says the biggest difference between playing for a team on a base, filled only with military kids, and playing on any other team is the difference between friendship and kinship.
Courtesy of Dana Chango
Fort Campbell Senior Chris Allen, wide receiver, plays in the Army Bowl against the Fort Knox Eagles Fri., Sept. 11, 2009.
Fort Campbell Senior Chris Allen, wide receiver, plays in the Army Bowl against the Fort Knox Eagles Fri., Sept. 11, 2009. Courtesy of Dana Chango
"You'd be down one day — they wouldn't even know that your parents were gone," Allen says of his experience playing at a public school. "You'd be down one day, you'd be crying and they'd ask what happened and you'd tell them and they'd be like 'Oh man' because they hadn't heard it before and they don't know what to do. But here everyone knows what the feeling is and they know how to comfort you."
Last year's deployments were worse than merely frustrating. The father of Josh Carter, the senior leader of the defense, was killed in Afghanistan.
Even though more than 200 soldiers based at Fort Campbell have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was the first time in Principal Dave Witte's four years at Fort Campbell that the parent of one of his students had died.
"When word came out of the death, within an hour I'd say every coach was at the student's house," Witte says. "They were there to support, they were there to work. Kids came over there to support, there to work. So it's kind of a brotherhood."
Witte was there on the field alongside Coach Berner at preseason practice this August when the brotherhood of Fort Cambell was once again put through the worst kind of ordeal. This time it was a player, Tim Williams.
Though it was only 75 degrees and the practice was no harder than any other, Williams began to feel disoriented, and he fell to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital but it was too late to save him.
'Those Coaches Were His Father Figures'
In the following weeks, the team and the school have rallied around Kim and Bill Williams, who remain as devoted to the team as they've ever been. Kim still serves the team pre-game meals and was at the Army Bowl with Bill. I asked her if she ever thought of blaming or even suing the staff at Fort Campbell.
"Tim's been involved with this since the eighth grade," she says. "Those coaches — when my husband was gone — those coaches were his father figures. There is no doubt in my mind that they would treat their child just like they would treat mine."
Disruptions, deployments, deaths — there's so much going on at Fort Campbell that it's easy to forget the football. But the Falcons play superbly. In the game against Fort Knox, they scored the first time they touched the ball. They then returned a fumble for a touchdown the next time Fort Knox touched the ball. They went on scoring. They scored 41 points in the first quarter. Second and then third stringers were quickly inserted and the Fort Campbell coaches got word to the referees that they would like to go to a running clock, which would mean a less lopsided score.
The staff, like line coach Scott Lowe, still used the game as a teaching opportunity. Underclassmen had a chance to learn the team's complex system in a game setting, even if it wasn't much of a game. A representative from the NFL's Tennessee Titans was on hand to present Tim Williams' parents with a game ball.
Afterwards, the entire program, surrounded by parents and schoolmates, gathered in the end zone. Gerry Counts called forward a star for special recognition. It wasn't a player or one of the men in fatigues that volunteer to help the team. It was Melissa Berner, the coach's wife, who had spent Memorial Day planting flags in a veterans' cemetery.
The team couldn't help but remember Count's words from before the game. "Do I have to do it?" he said. "No. I don't have to do it, that's not my job. Does it have to be done? Yes!"
Using football as a metaphor for life is not unique to Fort Campbell, a place where students and staff are resigned to the fact that life's harsh lessons cannot be stopped.
However, they take comfort in knowing that on Friday nights, neither can the football team.