Nov. 9, 2009
With little more than a semester left of his college career, Ross Pospisil is thinking about what it would be like to do it all over again.
Not in his time, but in his maternal grandfather's day, 52 years earlier. More than wondering, he's marveling, really, unsure if he could hack it here in the Annapolis of the 1950s.
Much about the Naval Academy remains the same. Its mission has gone unchanged since its founding in 1845 and, therefore, is no different than 1957, the year Linda Pospisil's father, Douglas Barker, graduated into the United States Navy.
For that matter, what awaits Pospisil and his soon-to-be-commissioned classmates is as perilously and yet promisingly uncertain as what Barker experienced once beyond Academy walls. What's most strikingly different is how Midshipmen are connected to that outside world.
"The institution hasn't changed a whole lot," says Pospisil. "I've talked to my grandfather, and to guys who graduated from the Academy 20 or 30 years ago. I thought my life was difficult. It was so rudimentary back then. We have the internet and phones to connect us, they wrote letters to people.
"We sit down to compare and contrast, and I don't know if I could have done it back then."
Back then is, as Barker's often teased his grandson, "Back when ships were made of wood, and men were made of iron."
The line still prompts a laugh from Pospisil, though Barker was, when you think about it, only half joking.
Yes, building ships required a few more materials than when Jean Paul Jones sailed his wooden vessels as the captain of the high seas. But by the time Barker got his sea legs, as much as they were shaped from metal, those ships were driven by the mettle of the men who steered them.
The dawn of the Cold War, with Vietnam on the horizon; that's what Barker's generation looked forward to as young men. As kids, they'd lived through World War II, when America's boys went "over there," while everybody back here was asked to sacrifice.
They understood a cause greater than themselves. A half-century later, so does Barker's grandson.
Pospisil's demonstrated as much, and more - as player, student and servant - the last 3 ½ years. That may be flesh and blood inside his Navy football jersey, but his heart is made of gold and his will is made of iron.
And to listen to his head coach Ken Niumatalolo, Pospisil would have fit in just as well under Eddie Erdelatz in the fall of '57
"If we as a staff are going out to recruit a player for the Naval Academy, any of us want it to be someone like Ross," Niumatalolo says. "He's a phenomenal football player, well respected in (Bancroft) Hall and a very good student."
"He's probably one of the finest leaders I've ever been around," adds Buddy Green, Navy's defensive coordinator. "I'm not sure I can think of a better leader."
"(Ross is) just a genuine person," said Osei Asante, an offensive guard who shares the title of co-captain with linebacker Pospisil. "Words can't explain how good he is."
Maybe so, but there've been plenty of good things spoken in an attempt to do so.
"He will go down as one of the best linebackers to ever play here," Niumatalolo says, making what might seem a bold statement as if it were a matter of fact.
"Last year he took huge steps in trying to become a complete player," said Green, who's watched Pospisil continue to develop after leading his defense in tackles in 2008. "He doesn't come off the field."
Instead, Pospisil frequently seems to be all over it.
Like when he racked up a career-high 20 tackles as a sophomore vs. Northern Illinois, two weeks before recovering an Army fumble on the 1-yard line and a month before an interception against Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Or when he ended Rutgers' final offensive series with an interception, sealing a 23-21 victory that became Navy's watershed win a year ago. Four defensive plays later, with another theft, he set the tone at Wake Forest, where the Midshipmen picked off four passes in beating the nationally-ranked Demon Deacons.
Pospisil concluded the regular season with 12 tackles in Navy's 34-0 shutout of Army, and made 13 more stops in a rematch with Wake at the EagleBank Bowl.
This fall he remains the Mids' top tackler, averaging about seven per contest. He had exactly that many in last Saturday's triumph over Notre Dame.
There's no such thing as a secret to his success. It's obvious to all, teammates and coaches. Pospisil is indefatigable, his self expectations uncompromising.
"Ross doesn't save anything," Niumatalolo says. "He practices a thousand miles per hour. Everything he does, he never goes less than full speed."
"He's always working out," says Asante. "We'll be outside after practice, waiting to do (media) interviews and I'll look over and see Ross doing back crunches."
You can almost see Asante shaking his head in wonder.
"I'll be like, I'm going to do my interview and get inside," Asante jokes, before his tone takes a more thoughtful turn. "He is always going. His work ethic is unmatched by anybody. You get 100 percent of Ross all the time."
Asante means just that, all the time. As in virtually every waking hour of Pospisil's every day - conditioning both body and mind to be at his absolute best. Being in the right place on the field so often is no coincidence.
"He studies the game as hard as anybody," says Green. "He studies the opponent and he's always one step ahead. He understands the opponent and he expects what's going to happen a lot of times."
Green cites Pospisil's outcome-clinching interception of Rutgers' Mike Teel, when his pre-game studies led to his late-game anticipation along the Navy sideline.
"He'd seen that (pass) route (on video), he expected that route," Green says with increasing emphasis on each word. "He was breaking on the ball as soon as it was thrown."
Same goes for Pospisil's role in defending the run. Green also notes that as an inside linebacker, Pospisil helps ensure that in-game adjustments are understood.
"I can make changes during the game," he says, "and Ross can get them across."
According to Steve Johns, who's in his second season as Pospisil's position coach, that football aptitude reflects his classroom attitude. Whether studying Ocean Engineering or Navy's next opponent.
"Off the field Ross is a very good student, very thorough," said Johns, who's helped Pospisil cultivate an understanding of the game's nuances that didn't come naturally to him. "He's also a very thorough student of the game. He's a good learner. He also retains things pretty well.
"What he used to lack in football sense, he now has. It just comes with playing. In the past, I'd tell him to do something and he'd do it, but didn't understand why. Now he sees the big picture."
It's come into view finally as a player. But as a person it's been in Pospisil's sights since early childhood. And now, he sees it with crystal clarity.
Pospisil was born in Bloomsburg, Pa., where his father, Scott, was a pastor. Before Ross reached fifth grade and his family settled in Temple, Texas, Dad's calling led him to four other states. Scott pursued a master's degree in Colorado and tended to flocks at churches in Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan.
As shepherd to his congregation, Scott was grooming others who could spread the Word when he moved on to his next station. At the same time, Ross was getting his first lessons in leadership.
"He's a great example in many ways when it comes to leadership," Ross says of Scott. "The concept of shepherding others, and growing and developing other leaders to do his job, he's a great example for me as someone who wants to empower those around you."
Living in so many different parts of the country, Pospisil was developing a world view.
"I've really gotten to know so many people in different walks of life," he says. "It's been an interesting and really neat experience in a lot of different ways."
Though as he saw the faces and heard the accents of so many regions, Pospisil didn't let others see all of him.
"I've always been blessed with friends wherever I've been," he says. "But there was always a part of me hanging back for some reason."
"Just being part of a group of guys like this," Pospisil says of the teammates he proudly calls his brothers, "not only to play with, but to hang out with...I can't put it into words."
Nor can he articulate what it truly means to be their captain.
"It's humbling to be around guys with talent, character and integrity that you won't find anywhere else," said Pospisil. "I can't find words to rationalize it."
What can be said, quite simply and most assuredly, is why he is their captain.
"He has so much respect from this entire team," Green says. "I think (he) was an automatic choice.
"The one thing that jumps out at me is that Ross lives his beliefs. He lives everything he tries to talk about with the team. He does things right. He's a very deeply spiritual person who's looked upon as a leader, and lives the way he believes."
For someone so centered in his faith, his talents are a gift. There's a responsibility to make the most of them. And, by doing so, an opportunity to be an example to others.
Asante considers his role "beside Ross an extreme honor," while Niumatalolo describes Pospisil as the "model student-athlete."
They aren't the only ones to notice. CBS College Sports Network produced a feature this fall, which still attracts YouTube hits, documenting a day in Pospisil's Academy life.
Only a week ago, it was announced that he and offensive tackle John Dowd were selected for ESPN The Magazine's Academic All-District team. Leading tackler of a 7-3 team bound for the fourth bowl game of his career, with a 3.34 grade-point average, Pospisil will now be considered for Academic All-America honors.
"We say this all the time around here," says Niumatalolo, "but I don't know how he does it."
He starts by trying to resist the temptation to hit the snooze button when the alarm sounds at 6:30 a.m. Showered, shaven and dressed in a neatly pressed uniform, he begins class at 7:45.
"When you get used to it, every guy makes it work," Pospisil said of this daily balancing act. "There are times at the end of the day when I think, `You made it through another day.'"
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Pospisil says, are the hardest. Three hours of classes lead to lunch-hour football meetings, another class and then all of a 20-minute window to "zone out" in his Bancroft Hall room before practice begins.
Thursdays feature evening Bible studies and Saturdays are game days. Every day is devoted to serving others.
In earlier years, when confronted by adversity, Pospisil was pushed and pulled by his football brethren. As elder statesman, and spokesman, he's giving back in a way that's changing the culture of the program.
"Other people woke me up and helped me to see the big picture," says Pospisil. "Even in tough times, during the lowest of the lows, there have been guys who provided a glimmer of hope.
"I'm thankful because life's hardships are preparing me for bigger things. I believe to develop as an individual, build character and develop as a human being you have to go through the fire. Through my faith in God, I know there's something greater on the other side."
So as a leader of the Mids, he's made it a priority to lend support to others. On The Yard, that might entail something symbolic. In the community, it's much more substantive.
A day after experiencing a narrow defeat to Temple, Pospisil rounded up about 40 teammates to turn out for the women soccer team's Senior Day. Cheering loudly, as the Mids beat Howard, their presence was widely recognized within Academy circles.
"We've been more supportive of the lacrosse and basketball teams in the past," Asante explained, while crediting other teammates who did the same at a rugby match. "But we decided to come back on Sunday and have fun. It definitely showed, we got really good remarks from people around The Yard."
They wound up getting more than they gave, including a good time had by all.
"We've been blessed with something special, just enjoying everyone's company," Pospisil says. "The most amazing thing is that we had a blast. It helped me rebound."
"We're trying to do our best to support other teams, the way they support us," says Asante. "We want to keep it going, and continue to leave our mark as a team.
"We're always going to be remembered for what we've done on the field. That's all well and good. But we want to make a difference outside Bancroft Hall, and outside the Academy walls."
No one's made more of a difference than Pospisil. A nominee for the American Football Coaches Association "Good Works" Team, he's turning his own community-service initiatives into team-wide causes.
Last year, as well documented in Camille Powell's recent profile of Pospisil for The Washington Post, he organized a drive to raise nearly $600 to purchase Christmas toys for needy families in the Annapolis area. Anne Arundel County's department of social services helped him to identify three families in need.
In all, 12 Midshipmen shopped for the gifts and gave them to the kids. This year the effort that Pospisil began on his own figures to grow significantly. The hope is, that in future years, it won't stop.
"Last Christmas, (Ross) put it on his shoulders to organize a toy drive for kids in the Annapolis area," Asante says. "He's the only one who thought about it. He took it upon his shoulders to go out of his way to do something to help people he doesn't know."
"It's a great source of joy, just putting a smile on someone's face, imparting (happiness) on their life, or their day," says Pospisil, who's also volunteered extensive time with youth football players. "We've all been blessed. The guys on this team have the same mentality. There's no greater joy than working with people to help others.
"That's what's most important. Certainly, it's centered in my (religious) faith, having an `other-focused' attitude. But whatever you believe in, it's a thank you for how I've been blessed."
And it will be appreciated far after the specifics of his football career fade from our memories.
"In a lot of ways," Pospisil responds, when asked if this is the greatest legacy his team can leave behind. "That's been my prayer. Ten or 15 years from now...what will be remembered is spending time with little Timmy who plays in a youth football league. Or with others, while handing out food. At the end of the day, that's what I pray for."
One suspects Pospisil has also prayed often in deciding on the career he'll choose at the end of his Academy days. He's certain of being a Marine. Initially, he was gravitating toward aviation. But now sees a possible place in infantry. If it's the latter, Pospisil would seem the perfect candidate to help America win hearts and minds.
As for ears, that's an entirely different story.
Prior to the season, Pospisil completed a questionnaire on which he wrote of his singing voice. Intrigued by this apparent talent, CBS College Sports tempted him to croon on camera for a recent telecast.
"I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow," Pospisil started, before eventually cracking up before a national audience that included some of his closest family members.
"I got emails from my mother and my Grandpa on my father's side," Pospisil says with a laugh. "He told me to keep my day job. I guess I should have learned not to include something like that on the sheet.
"It sounds good in the shower. If it got some laughs, then I accomplished my mission."
Unable to carry that tune, opting for Harold Arlen's classic standard was still an interesting choice by a young man born in the 1980s.
There was Pospisil, trying to impersonate Michael Buble with a song made most famous by Frank Sinatra in the 1950s.