Sept. 24, 2010
Last Friday morning, sipping a cup of Starbucks and sitting on a bench near the Delta counter at BWI Airport, I couldn't help but observe a very private moment in a very public place.
A few steps to my left, a young woman, dressed in her camouflaged fatigues, was leaving loved ones, off to the next stop on her tour of duty. As you can imagine, theirs was a tearful embrace as they said goodbye.
I was caught in this awkward time and space, waiting to board the chartered plane that would transport the Navy football team to Louisiana. Gourmet coffee in hand, living a good life of fun and games, I thought about how little the country has asked of me these last nine years, and how much America has demanded from someone else's son or daughter.
Every day service men and women are separated from their families, who, I only imagine, can never distance themselves from constant worry. Certain inalienable rights require our citizen soldiers to pay a steep price. Sometimes, far too often, it's a cost that can never be repaid.
Around Annapolis, of course, sacrifices in service are never forgotten.
A stroll along Stribling Walk, or a visit to Memorial Hall offer powerfully moving reminders of the heroism behind our history. The same is true where patriots play, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, a 34,000-seat tribute to the fallen.
Four more times this autumn, as on the anniversary of 9/11 a couple of weeks ago, thousands will gather there for a football game. Before them - in bold type on the stadium facades, and in the lettering raised from the plaques of the North Memorial Plaza - will be a roll call of battles fought by the Navy and Marine Corps.
As much as the vast majority will seek to celebrate a victory on the field, they will celebrate the young men and women willing to sacrifice off it. March-on to sun down, until the final words of Blue and Gold, they will honor the call all midshipmen have chosen to answer.
In many ways, it's no different elsewhere, even when the football Mids wear white. Navy's road schedule often amounts to a tour of gratitude, as fans in places like Columbus or South Bend pay their respect - at least, prior to kickoff and after the final whistle - and say "thanks" to today's student-athletes who are tomorrow's military leaders.
Last week at Louisiana Tech, for example, the street leading to Joe Aillet Stadium was lined with American flags. So was each side of the stadium grandstand - east and west, one end to the other, the Stars N Stripes fluttering in the warm breeze. A chief petty officer sang our national anthem, before a B-52 bomber flew over the field.
It was, I suspect, a bit different from some other Saturday when the Bulldogs might be hosting Nevada or Boise State.
There was similar treatment for those from Air Force by the 85,000 jamming Owen Field last weekend at the University of Oklahoma. The Falcons emerged from their locker room to a standing ovation. Hardly what the Oklahoma State Cowboys can expect the next time they pass through Norman.
The applause was born from an understanding - made all too clear in this decade of two wars - that college life is different for Navy midshipmen and Air Force cadets. And our lives are different, too, because of people like them - be they officers or enlisted.
Next weekend, those two service academy teams will occupy the same turf, about 6,000 feet above sea level, for one of the three games that annually stand apart from every other in Division I. In Colorado Springs, they will complete the first leg of the Commander-In-Chief's series, which includes their counterparts from West Point.
As always, they will try to beat each other as fiercely as, if not more than any other rivals in college football. Three hours or so after they start - however bitterly they go at one another - the Mids and Falcons will stand for their alma maters.
And anyone paying attention will realize what lies ahead for the respective seniors. After clashing in pads for four years, they will soon graduate into a common cause, with all that it entails.
This year, they will compete just days after the jolting reminder that the level of their commitment can know no limits.
Brendan Looney was once a Navy football recruit out of DeMatha Catholic High School in the DC area. The oldest of three Annapolis bound brothers from Silver Spring, Md., he picked up lacrosse as his sport of choice while at the Naval Academy Prep School.
He wound up playing it alongside those brothers, Steve and Billy, a sophomore and freshman, respectively, on the 2004 Midshipmen who came within a single goal of a national championship, falling to heavily-favored Syracuse, 14-13. Upon graduation, Looney was first denied entry into the elite of the Navy's elite, the SEALS, because he was color blind.
Looney seized a temporary assignment to assist a SEAL unit and, as Navy lacrosse coach Richie Meade told Bill Wagner of The Capital, wouldn't let go of the opportunity.
"It was like a tryout and Brendan kicked their butts until he was asked to join," Meade said.
On Tuesday, the worst fear for Meade - or any other academy coach - became reality.
A helicopter carrying servicemen above southern Afghanistan crashed. Nine were killed, all of them Americans. Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, was among the fatalities.
While Looney's death most directly and profoundly impacts his large and loving family, including all of his Navy lacrosse brothers, it is the Academy's loss. It's America's loss.
Because we associated with the Academy learn to view athletics through a broader scope, we already understand the relative importance of a single sporting event. Or, if you prefer, the unimportance of same, compared to the overall mission of its graduates.
When tragedy strikes as it did this week, it's natural to look at a game - even Navy at Air Force - and wonder how much it really matters. It is, after all, a game.
"It just puts a lot of things into perspective," head football coach Ken Niumatalolo said eight days before his Mids confront the Falcons. "There are things that are way more important. It helps you remember who these young men are. It's the stark reality of what this place is all about."
Niumatalolo never knew Brendan Looney, who was originally recruited by Charlie Weatherbie's coaching staff. But he's known, and coached, hundreds of others just like him - kids who mature into men, dedicated to ideals that extend well beyond their own self interests.
This week, he and his players knelt in the privacy of their own domain for a moment of silence.
"He was an American," Niumatalolo said. "He was a Naval Academy graduate. He was in that locker room. We honored him in a quiet and respectful way, without fanfare."
As for us fans, a fallen hero is a tragic - and unnecessary - reminder of why a game like Navy-Air Force remains just a game, but also that the people who play it are different than most.
The Commander-In-Chief's Trophy is football's most precious hardware. Not because of the victories that it represents, but rather the valor of those who vie for it in the first place.
"These games are different," said Niumatalolo, his soft-spoken tone more somber than usual. "When two academies go against one another, it definitely garners respect for these young men."
Next Saturday, those young men will play a game, before placing their hands on hearts, to sing their alma maters. They will be in very public view, leaving us with our own private thoughts.
May they include a son who died a hero this week, and everyone else willing to do the same.