MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Tonight's installment of our high school football series, Friday Night Lives, comes from Kentucky. We'll meet the Fort Campbell Falcons. The team has won the state AA title two years in a row, powered by a vicious aerial assault - and that's fitting. Many of the players have parents in the Army's 100 1st Airborne Division. Fort Campbell High School is on Fort Campbell itself.
And as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, the military is a big part of the football tradition.
MIKE PESCA: Almost every high school football team hears a fiery pre-game speech before they do battle. You are warriors, they are told. This is combat. But only one team, the Fort Campbell Falcons, get it from Gerard J. Counts.
Mr. GERARD J. COUNTS (Retired Command Sergeant Major: Well, as you let go of that grenade, a sniper, Somali sniper, caught him.
PESCA: Counts is a retired command sergeant major. He's been using his firsthand tale of the battle of Mogadishu, which has come to be known by a more familiar title.
Mr. COUNTS: Blackhawk was down.
PESCA: To teach a lesson about brothers who train and sacrifice for a common goal, he is - the team realizes - talking about football. But he's also talking about more than football.
Mr. COUNTS: The only thing that Sergeant Reed would - even though he was still conscious - wanted to do was to complete the mission. God bless him, complete the mission because he was with his brothers.
PESCA: Counts reaches a crescendo and brings the troops along with him.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Mr. COUNTS: I…
Unidentified People: I…
Mr. COUNTS: Am a (unintelligible).
Unidentified People: Am a (unintelligible)
Mr. COUNTS: And I bring you…
Unidentified People: And I bring you…
Mr. COUNTS: Thunder.
Unidentified People: Thunder.
PESCA: An Army base is used to the roar of well-trained, highly skilled young men. On this night, the Falcons face the only other team located on a domestic military base: the Fort Knox Eagles.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Mr. COUNTS: Blue Falcons.
Unidentified People: Blue Falcons.
Mr. COUNTS: Blue Falcons.
Unidentified People: Blue Falcons.
PESCA: They call it the Army Bowl. All week, Falcons head coach Shawn Berner has been reminding his team that this year's game is special because of the date on the calendar.
Mr. SHAWN BERNER (Head Coach, Fort Campbell Falcons): You're not going to get another opportunity, guys. Seniors, this is it. This is your last opportunity to play high school football. And it's the 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.
PESCA: And they do. This year, Coach Berner's team has been scoring an average of 51 points a game and surrendering fewer than nine. They do this despite a roster that's subject to change. Mike Marciano is the school's athletic director and the team's offensive coordinator.
Mr. MIKE MARCIANO (Athletic Director, Kentucky School Boards Association): Two years ago, I think we lost nine potential starters off this football team just to dads getting a change of orders. But we can lose them during the season. We can gain them during the season. If you gain them, you've got to teach them quickly. If you lose them, you wish them well and you pray for them.
PESCA: Last year, Darrian Crank transferred in from New Jersey. He didn't know what to expect, but he quickly found out a lot was expected of him.
Mr. MARCIANO: The coaches understand that, you know, we're military kids and because we're military kids, they hold us to a higher standard. They think that because our dad's in the military, if our parents have the discipline to be in the military, they think that our household has the discipline to raise the child's, kind of like a military scheme. So, basically when we're at practice, it's kind of like PT in the morning.
PESCA: Of course it's partly physical training and lots of hard work, but it's not all grunt work. The team runs an intricate, no-huddle offense that requires each player to think on the fly. And the coaches know what the kids are going through off the field. Senior Chris Allen says the biggest difference between playing for a team that's on a military base, filled only with military kids, and playing on any other team is the difference between friendship and kinship. Allen once played at a public high school off base.
Mr. CHRIS ALLEN: You would be down one day. They wouldn't even know that your parents were gone. You'd be down one day, you'd be crying and they'd just ask what happened and you'd tell them and they'll be, like, oh man, because they hadn't heard it before and they don't know what to do. And then they would just let it go off. But here, everybody knows what the feeling is, and they know how to comfort you. And it's just a whole lot better environment for this.
PESCA: Last year's deployments were worse than just 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.
Mr. DAVE WITTE (Principal, Fort Campbell School): When word came out of the death, within an hour, I would say, almost every coach was at the student's house. They were there to support, they were there to work. They were - the kids came over, there to support, there to work. So it's kind of a brotherhood.
PESCA: Witte was also there on the field, alongside Coach Berner, at preseason practice this August when the brotherhood of Fort Campbell 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.
In the weeks since, the team and school have rallied around Kim and Bill Williams, who remain as devoted to the team as ever. Kim still serves pre-game meals and with Bill, was there at the Army Bowl. I asked Kim Williams if she ever thought of blaming or even suing the staff at Fort Campbell.
Ms. KIM WILLIAMS: Tim's been involved in this since the eighth grade. Those coaches — when my husband was gone — were his father figures. And I have no -there is no doubt in my mind that they would treat their child just like they would treat mine. They would never, ever put him in any condition that would harm him. They loved him, you know, they love him just like he was one of theirs.
PESCA: Disruptions, deployments, deaths — there's so much going on at Fort Campbell, it's easy to forget the football. But man, do they play great football. Against Fort Knox, the Falcons scored the first time they touched the ball. They then returned a fumble for a touchdown. They went on, scoring 41 points in the first quarter. Second and then third stringers were quickly inserted, and the Fort Campbell coaches got word to the refs that they'd like to go to a running clock, meaning a less lopsided score. The staff, like line coach Scott Lowe, still used the game as a teaching opportunity.
Mr. SCOTT LOWE (Line Coach, Fort Campbell Falcons) Drop behind it and then jam and get squared. You got me?
PESCA: An underclassman got a chance to learn the team's complex system in a game setting, even if this wasn't much of a game. A representative from the NFL's Tennessee Titans was on hand to present the Williamses with the game ball. And afterwards, the entire program, surrounded by parents and schoolmates, gathered in an end zone. Gerry Counts called forward a star for special recognition. It wasn't a player or one of the many men in fatigues who volunteer to help the team. It was Melissa Berner, the coach's wife, who spent Memorial Day planting flags in a veterans cemetery. The team couldn't help but remember Counts' words from before the game.
Mr. COUNTS: Do I have to do it? No. I don't have to do it. That's not my job. Does it have to be done? Yes.
PESCA: Using football as a metaphor for life is not unique to Fort Campbell, a place where they're resigned to the fact that life's harsh lessons cannot be stopped. But there's comfort in knowing that on Friday nights, neither can the football team.
Mike Pesca, NPR News.
SIEGEL: We have received some great listener suggestions for our high school football series. Thanks for those. And keep them coming. You can go to npr.org/football or follow our Twitter feed. It's nprfootball.
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