9/11 and West Point football's epic losing streak of 2003

The 2003 team's seniors knew they were entering an Army at war after graduation

Published October 7, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

An unidentified Army defender pulls down Navy quarterback Craig Candeto (11)  in the third quarter the 104th Army-Navy football game, Dec. 6, 2003.  (AP/Rusty Kennedy)
An unidentified Army defender pulls down Navy quarterback Craig Candeto (11) in the third quarter the 104th Army-Navy football game, Dec. 6, 2003. (AP/Rusty Kennedy)

Excerpted with permission from "Football Fields and Battlefields: The Story of Eight Army Football Players and their Heroic Service." Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

While the cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis continued to huddle together and shiver in their respective corners of Lincoln Financial Field's lower bowl, many of the announced gathering of 70,844 who'd come to south Philadelphia for the 104th chapter of the storied college football rivalry between Army and Navy on the first Saturday of December 2003 had long since fled the premises as the game's final seconds ticked down. Navy's starting quarterback, Craig Candeto, had ceded custody of his helmet to some member of the team's equipment staff a few series earlier. The Midshipmen's No. 2 quarterback, Aaron Polanco, had even completed a cameo appearance under center and since given way to third-stringer Lamar Owens. The Middies approached the line of scrimmage for 3rd down and 4 yards to go at their 49-yard line. Owens took the snap, faked an inside handoff, and broke toward the left side of his offensive line. Army linebacker Tom Farrington sniffed out the play early. A reserve throughout his four years on the team who most often played on special teams, Farrington took off in hot pursuit of Owens, came through Navy's line essentially untouched, and lunged at him with both hands. His right hand managed to barely clip Owens's right ankle, bringing down the Navy quarterback one yard short of the first down.




A first down would have stopped the game clock by college rules—at least until the first-down chains along the sideline could be reset. With neither coaching staff interested in using any of its remaining timeouts, the final seconds ticked away. Navy won, 34–6, for an outcome that was widely expected. The Midshipmen were favored by 22.5 points according to the betting line established in Las Vegas. For Army's Black Knights, the 28-point defeat was actually a mathematical improvement; their 58–12 loss to Navy a year earlier was the most lopsided in series history. The '03 Middies finished their regular season with an 8–4 record—their first winning season since 1997—and were bound for their first postseason bowl since 1996. More important to the legion of Naval Academy grads, Navy had won the triangular gridiron competition with Army and Air Force for the first time since 1981. The Commander-in-Chief's Trophy would finally return to Annapolis, Maryland.

Losing was all too familiar to Army's players. They lost every game that they played that season, all 13 of them. The vast majority of college football teams that play in the NCAA's top classification—known now as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) but called Division I-A in 2003—have played a maximum of 12 regular-season games beginning with the 2002 season. West Point played 13 games in 2003 through a scheduling anomaly. That allowed Army to become the first team in the long history of major college football to finish 0–13.

Navy's victorious head coach, Paul Johnson, left the sideline soon after receiving a chilled shower courtesy of Candeto and two teammates, who dumped a half-full cooler of ice water on him, per the custom whose roots trace to the National Football League's 1984 New York Giants. Johnson began his soaked saunter toward midfield, seeking to engage in a football tradition that's much older than the sideline shower—exchanging a handshake, and possibly pleasantries, with the opposing coach. Johnson had walked no more than a handful of steps off Navy's sideline when he was first greeted by someone associated with Army football and offered congratulations. That was Ryan Kent, a senior "sniper" (Army's vernacular for an outside linebacker then) and three-year starter who played his high school football only a few minutes from Philadelphia in the small New Jersey town of Woodbury.

Tradition, at least for Army-Navy football, also called for the competitors to stand in front of their respective student bodies and sing the two alma maters. The losing team always goes first; hence, "singing second" is a year-long goal for both squads. The football playing members of West Point's Class of 2004, seniors that day in Philadelphia, enjoyed the pleasure of singing second after the Navy game only once. That happened when they were sophomores, following Army's 26–17 victory in 2001 just up South 11th Street in Lincoln Financial Field's predecessor, Veterans Stadium.

As more frigid fans left "The Linc," Army players gathered in front of the Corps of Cadets, seated in the stadium's northwest seats. And they didn't simply crowd around the stadium wall like impatient shoppers on Black Friday. They lined up in formal rows, standing at attention. The nearby West Point marching band began to play, and the players—some with tears in their eyes—began to sing. The final lines:

E'er may that line of gray . . . Increase from day to day . . . Live, serve, and die, we pray, West Point, for thee.

The alma mater reflects West Point's three-word motto: Duty, honor, and country. "Those hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be," General Douglas MacArthur told the cadets in May 1962—sixty-three years after he had initially arrived there as a wide-eyed freshman from Wisconsin—when accepting the Thayer Award for lifetime service to the academy. "They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn."

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Kent, Farrington, and all of the Army football players then crossed the field and stood behind the exultant Navy players, who sang second. The Black Knights then made their way to their locker room—as the day's designated home team, they occupied the quarters normally held by the Temple Owls—left to ponder a season that they had approached with enthusiasm and promise. Farrington and Kent were two of the eight fourth-year seniors—or firsties in West Point parlance—who played that day for Army. The Navy roster, in contrast, featured fifteen seniors. Only three of Army's seniors started on offense or defense—Kent (outside linebacker), Brian Hill (inside linebacker), and Clint Woody (receiver). A fourth, Anthony Zurisko, was Army's first-string placekicker.

Four starters among eight seniors from the 51 inter-collegiate football "candidates" who had reported to West Point during the summer of 2000 as freshmen, or plebes. The process of welcoming freshman football players to Army, Navy, and Air Force is vastly different from what's practiced at other universities that play major collegiate football. The "mainstream" teams award football scholarships to about 25 promising players each year with a maximum of 85 allowed on scholarship at any time. (The math indicates someone's going to be displeased along the way.) Army, Navy, and Air Force don't award athletic scholarships; each newly enrolled student receives free tuition for the balance of his or her stay (pending academic eligibility), and some are invited to participate in intercollegiate athletics—corps sports, in West Point lingo.

Varsity football has long held a storied place in the history of the United States Military Academy. The Army Cadets claimed national championships in 1944, '45, and '46, their games attracting a huge national audience. In two of those seasons, a West Point football player was recognized as the best in the nation, with the awarding of the Heisman Trophy to Felix "Doc" Blanchard in 1945 and Glenn Davis in 1946; they were nicknamed "Mr. Inside" and "Mr. Outside," respectively, for their running styles. Army's clashes during the 1940s with another college football program that was hugely popular from coast to coast, Notre Dame, were staged at the nation's most well known sports venue, Yankee Stadium in New York, and were among the most memorable sporting events of the mid-twentieth century. The stature of an Army football player both on the field and off is symbolized by words long attributed to General George C. Marshall during World War II: "I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player." The George C. Marshall Foundation can't verify if the general actually said that, but the words now appear on a plaque that's fixed to the wall near where Army players run out onto the field at the academy's long-time football home, Michie Stadium. Every Army football player touches that plaque on his way onto the field before each game. The practice is considered such a revered, imperative aspect of West Point football that a reproduction of the plaque is brought to each away game, so the tradition can continue.

While Army doesn't award football scholarships, it isn't a stretch to conclude that most of the high school seniors who seek to play football for the Black Knights decide to enroll at the academy primarily for that very reason. For many, Army represents their only opportunity to play major college football beyond walking on elsewhere and hoping to earn an athletic scholarship. Enrolling at West Point means committing the first five years after graduation to being an active-duty army officer and, for those who elect to leave the service at that point, the subsequent three years to duty in the reserves. Political writer Bill Kauffman, in a 1999 contribution to The American Enterprise, cited a survey taken of cadet candidates for West Point's Classes of 1998–2002 during their first days of summer military training—a kinetic mutation of freshman orientation appropriately called Beast Barracks—in which fewer than 20 percent of the males identified a desire to become an army officer as their primary reason for enrolling at West Point. Consider what military service distills to according to John McCain and co-author Mark Salter, as stated in "13 Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War":

Scared kids. That is what combat mostly comes down to in the end. Scared kids fighting and killing other scared kids. The main objective of a soldier's training is to show him how to act while he is afraid, how to use a rifle and bayonet and his hands to kill a man he is afraid will kill him. A soldier's training is supposed to be intense and unpredictable and realistic so that even if actual combat isn't a familiar experience when you confront it—even though fear is choking your throat, even though your hands are shaking and your legs trembling, even though you are confused, shocked, terrorized, even though you want to run away—you still know how to fight, how to do your job, and you will still follow orders, you will still kill your enemy if you can.

How and why did the original 51 Army football frosh of 2000 become eight who played against Navy in 2003? Reasons for such significant Army football attrition were many. They were related to factors particular to attending a military academy (such as deciding after arrival at West Point that you didn't really want to be an army officer) to enrolling at a college whose academic demands are often equated to those found at an Ivy League school (in autumn 2003, the Princeton Review named West Point as the most selective college in the United States, having accepted only 1,300 of the 13,000 applicants). What often shakes up and shakes out any college sports team's roster is a change of head coaches. All of those affected the gridiron hopefuls among West Point's Class of 2004.

Those who lost an appetite—or at least a tolerance—for the prospect of future military service likely could trace their figurative about-face to the events of September 11, 2001. Each member of West Point's Class of 2004 had agreed to attend the academy during peacetime. Each tuition-free academic year at West Point is valued between $50,000 and $65,000. A cadet in good standing can pack up and, in civilian terms, withdraw from the university anytime during the first two years and not be liable for any financial restitution to the U.S. government or service as an army officer. That all changes the night before a cadet's third year begins. The juniors report to Thayer Hall and stand, right hands raised, for the affirmation ceremony. That is a blood oath without the blood. From that day forward, any cadet with a change of heart toward military service will be informed before his or her exit how much of a bill is due to Uncle Sam. And there's a military commitment, but for two years as a soldier instead of being an officer. The Class of 2004 was the first student assemblage brought to West Point that, in the wake of 9/11, had the opportunity to decline a military obligation that could lead to armed conflict. The academy, asked to provide numbers on how many '04 cadets left between 9/11 and the affirmation ceremony in August 2002, stated no such tally exists. One Army football staffer who was there then estimated that ten players in the combined Classes of 2004 and 2005 left school before their affirmation obligations because of 9/11. Academy records show 1,200 West Point hopefuls walked into Michie Stadium on that first day of Beast Barracks in 2000. That included 63 high school valedictorians and 39 salutatorians, 222 who were either class president or student-body president, 500 who captained one or more high school athletic teams. The Class of 2004's graduation roll numbered 960, right at 80 percent.

Eight football seniors endured the humbling, disheartening record 13th attempt at victory during the 2003 season that was unfulfilled. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells (an Army assistant coach from 1966–1969) famously stated during his NFL coaching term, "You are what your record says you are." The eight players' previous football seasons at West Point were unfortunately similar to 2003 when defined by the cold reality of wins and losses. The Black Knights finished 1–10 in 2000, 3–8 in 2001, and 1–11 in 2002. Their combined, four-year mark was 5–42. Five of those firsties arrived at West Point following a year's stay at the academy's prep school in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. They were South Jersey's Kent; Farrington from greater Pittsburgh; Josh Davis from New Smyrna Beach, Florida near Daytona Beach; Brad Waudby from the town of Oakland in North Jersey; and Zurisko from little Springdale, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. The other three were 2000 high school graduates who came straight to the academy, located on the banks of the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City: Hill from Port Orange, Florida next door to New Smyrna Beach; Peter Stewart from the north end of Houston, Texas's urban sprawl; and Woody from rural Hayesville, North Carolina.

Those eight could have waved goodbye to West Point after what initially appeared to be five years of peacetime military service were replaced by likely war-zone deployments. Five-hundred and thirty-nine days after graduation day, on May 29, 2004, the class suffered its first wartime casualty about 7,000 miles from West Point. Even in electing to remain at the academy, those eight could have walked away from a football program that drained valuable time and energy that could be have directed toward other pursuits—like studies. Those eight were convinced another victory lay just ahead. Those eight didn't want to be defined by the steady stream of football defeats year after year.

By Jeff Miller

Jeff Miller has been a sports journalist for more than forty years. He has worked for the Dallas Morning News, CBSSports.com and ESPN.com. Miller is the author of six books, including "The Game Changers," which detailed the racial integration of major college football in Texas. He lives with his wife, Frances, in DeSoto, Texas. They have four children and one grandchild.

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