DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Tomorrow, Army and Navy take the field to renew their legendary football rivalry for the 114th time. The teams are playing in Philadelphia, and that is also where they faced off in 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11th attacks. The players that year faced a sobering new reality: the nation was at war, and they would soon leave the football field behind for the battlefield.
A new book, called "All American," recalls that game through the eyes of two players - Army quarterback Chad Jenkins and Navy linebacker Brian Stann. Now, these two men didn't come to military academies purely for the chance to serve; these were places that offered a free, quality education and also gave them the chance to do what they love - play football. Chad, a standout high school quarterback from Ohio, remembers giving his parents the news.
CHAD JENKINS: So I come home. I'm like, Mom, Dad, I've finally figured it out. I'm going to West Point. And you know, my mom was quickly breaking down into tears, like, what are you talking about? You're not going into the Army.
GREENE: Brian, a Pennsylvania native, recalls choosing the Naval Academy.
BRIAN STANN: It wasn't one of those things where I thought, OK, I'm going to go to war. It was one of those things where, hey, a guy as serious as me, I think the military would be a good fit for me. But I certainly went there first to play football.
GREENE: Fast forward to 2001: Brian was a junior at Navy, and Chad was a senior at Army. They were just beginning the football season. Then came 9/11. The attacks turned these athletes into hungry warriors. Chad might have come to Army to play football, and after the attacks he had games to play. Yet all he wanted was to be deployed.
STANN: I tell you what - we were ready to go right then and there. I mean, it just lit a fire underneath you, just that it was just such an anger of what had happened. So I think the realization and, you know, the mindset of what it was to mean to be at West Point, and what it truly meant for those four years or three and a half years that had already taken place, well, that's what it was for.
You know, the culminating event is to go and ultimately defend our freedoms, and defend our way of life. And that was becoming a real possibility by the minute, that day.
GREENE: And Brian, did you know that this war would last long enough that it would include you? Or did you sort of think, well, the seniors will fight in this war, it'll be over quickly, and maybe I'll graduate and it'll be over?
STANN: You know, this is going to sound a little odd, and I certainly don't mean to come off egotistical, but honestly, I was afraid it would end before I served. I did not want to be someone who went to the Naval Academy, there was a conflict, and I wasn't involved in it because I graduated late. And that's a horrible thing to say, but it's kind of how you have to think if you're going to be a warrior.
GREENE: I want to ask you about the football season for both of you. Things seemed to change. You would play away games and the reaction from crowds, it sounds like it was just incredibly moving. I mean, Brian, can you take me to some of those stadiums?
STANN: Certainly. You know, the most memorable by far was Notre Dame. That year we played at Notre Dame Stadium, which, you know, for anybody who's a football fan and plays, there's so much history there that it was a really cool experience for all of us. And for me, I kind of took it all in. But when we came out onto the field, the entire stadium gave us a standing ovation.
And it was incredible. I mean it was moving. I mean everything stopped. We kind of all started looking around, we didn't expect it. And we played really, really hard and I think that they noticed that and obviously recognized the fact that most of the men they were watching play were going to go on to do something much larger than themselves and certainly larger than a football game.
GREENE: The Army-Navy game, though, is always the highlight on the schedule for both of the academies. Both of you, Chad and Brian, had some pretty big name visitors in the locker room trying to rev you guys up before the game. Chad, who came to see you?
JENKINS: We were first visited by General Schwarzkopf.
GREENE: This is Norman Schwarzkopf, Stormin' Norman, famous from the first Gulf War.
JENKINS: Absolutely. And it was just - what a pivotal moment. I mean it's, you know, forever burned in my memory, just him walking through. And he said, gentleman, today the Army's at war. You guys are at war with Navy. He goes, let's make no ifs, ands, or buts - the Army does not lose wars. And, I mean, it was just, you know, he gave that look to you like, you better not disappoint me.
You better not let me down. And it was just so neat because it was simple but it summed it up perfectly: What our mission was, what we needed to do that day. And, you know, we were going to fight to the end to try to make it happen.
GREENE: And Brian, you had a pretty big name Navy veteran come to see you guys in the locker room.
STANN: Yeah. You know, we did but, you know, let me address this real quick: I think this game should have an asterisk on the W for Army now, since they had the general come in and give them a motivational speech.
STANN: I mean, you know, Senator McCain came in. He's a fantastic human being; motivational speaker he is not. We had George Bush came in...
GREENE: You think he'd be OK hearing this.
STANN: Yeah. I think he'd be fine with it. And, you know, George Bush comes in, the president, that's really cool. Like I said, no motivational speech, though. We didn't get the rev up from a general. All right? And that's wrong.
GREENE: Now, after those locker room speeches, Chad Jenkins at quarterback led Army to victory. The game had more television viewers than any other college football game that decade. Steve Eubanks is the author who brought these men's stories together and he says the football that day wasn't the draw.
STEVE EUBANKS: The Navy wasn't very good and the Army was having a losing season, so these were two losing football teams. But they wanted to see the men who were playing it, and that Army-Navy game more so than any other, because the people understood who they were watching, if they didn't understand what they were watching.
GREENE: They were watching men who would soon be leading the war effort in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq - which is where both Chad and Brian would serve. They both made it home, but they did lose teammates. Eubanks says the mood at tomorrow's Army-Navy game in Philadelphia won't be quite as heavy as in 2001. But the men on the field face the same reality.
EUBANKS: They are playing the game because they love the game. And they know that for most of them, the seniors, this is going to be the last football game they ever play, the last time they ever take a snap, the last time they ever put a helmet on.
GREENE: That's Steve Eubanks. He's the author of "All American," a book about two football players, now war veterans, Chad Jenkins and Brian Stann.
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GREENE: And you can read an excerpt from "All American" at npr.org. And while you're online, follow us on social media. You can visit the MORNING EDITION Facebook page. You can also find us on Twitter @nprinskeep, @nprgreene, and the program is @morningedition. And of course, as always, thanks for listening to the program on your local public radio station. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
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And I'm Renee Montagne.
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