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At Ft. Campbell, football is escape for players with parents deployed

Somewhere in Kuwait in late 2007, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chris Croft handed a package to a convoy commander bound for Baghdad. Croft told the commander to deliver the package to Lt. Col. Fred Wintrich.

The phone rang at midnight Baghdad time. Wintrich answered. The convoy commander explained that he had a package to deliver before he continued his journey. Wintrich, the executive officer for the second brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, set out from Camp Victory to a refueling depot about two miles to the north. There he met the commander, who handed Wintrich a brown paper bag.

Inside were game DVDs featuring the soon-to-be Class 2A Kentucky state champion Fort Campbell High Falcons. Croft's son, C.J., was the starting quarterback. Wintrich's son, Josh McWherter, was a star linebacker. "For an hour, you get to be somewhere else besides Baghdad," Wintrich said of watching the DVDs of the Falcons' midseason surge in his tiny office after his 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. workday ended. "You get to be at Fryar Stadium. You get to be part of your kid's life."

*****

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- The soldier wore his combat uniform and a regulation buzz cut under his beret as he strode onto the practice field late last month. In his hand, he carried a kicking tee. Before Lt. Col. Mike Dolata came to command the military police on this 106,700-acre installation, before he saw combat and lost friends in battle, he was a soccer-style kicker at his Glendale, Ariz., high school. So it only makes sense that Dolata tutors Fort Campbell kicker/offensive guard Darien Upshaw the day before the Falcons play their home opener against Kenwood, a public school from nearby Clarksville, Tenn.

Fort Campbell is a public school in that it is paid for with tax dollars, but it is run by the Department of Defense and is open only to children of soldiers who live on post at Fort Campbell. Fort Knox High, also in Kentucky, is another. In all, the DOD operates 63 schools in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Cuba (Guantanamo Bay). Of those only four are traditional high schools with students in grades 9-12. Fort Campbell is a coed school with 720 students, and it faces many of the same issues as other public high schools. It also faces issues unique to an Army base. For example, at most public high schools, ESOL classes help immigrants -- mostly from Latin America -- learn the language before mainstreaming into regular classes. At Fort Campbell, an American citizen who grew up speaking mostly German because a parent was posted in Germany might take ESOL classes before mainstreaming. Nearly every player on Fort Campbell's team has a parent either serving in a war zone or training to go back to a war zone. Dolata doesn't have a son on the team, but like so many on the base, he wants to help. "It's an imperative," he said, "to support our kids with so many parents gone."

The Falcons' football program is the ultimate support system for 75-100 boys whose parents serve in harm's way. Coach Shawn Berner and his staff have learned to serve as de facto fathers and mothers, and they have managed to win three consecutive state titles at a school where the Army can make a sudden roster change at any given moment. In the past three seasons, the Falcons have coped with tragedies on training grounds, in a combat zone and on their own practice field. The adversity has bonded the Falcons like brothers, and their success has inspired soldiers serving across the world.

*****

Sgt. Robert Von Dette huddled close to his computer at about 4:30 a.m. local time one night in late 2008 at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. Few others were awake -- and there wasn't a sandstorm outside -- so WHVO-FM came in loud and clear over the Internet.

Most of the time, the station plays a mix of Elvis, the Beatles and other hits of the '50s, '60s and '70s, but Von Dette hadn't tuned in to hear "Suspicious Minds" or "Hard Day's Night." On fall Fridays, WHVO broadcasts Fort Campbell High football games.

More than 7,400 miles away, Falcons linebacker Chance "Mudbug" Von Dette -- then a sophomore -- helped bring down a ballcarrier. When play-by-play man Brent Dougherty called Mudbug's name, the elder Von Dette screamed, "YES!" He woke up nearly every soldier in the building. Later that morning, they forgave him when they learned the circumstances.

"It's awesome," the elder Von Dette wrote last week in an e-mail from Afghanistan. "You walk around all day with your head a little bit higher and your chest sticking out a little bit further. It makes life out here a little bit better. On the other hand, it's hard because you missed seeing it. But that is the sacrifice that comes with the job."

*****

When coach Berner arrived at Fort Campbell as an assistant in 2001, he expected to find a bunch of shaven-headed mini-soldiers. Instead, he saw players that looked no different from the ones he had coached as a graduate assistant at Cumberland College or as an assistant at a suburban Atlanta high school. That the Falcons had excellent athletes shouldn't have surprised him. Most of the soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell belong to the 101st, the world's only airborne assault division. The Screaming Eagles were activated in 1942. On D-Day, they parachuted onto Cotentin Peninsula, making them the first allied soldiers to set foot in occupied France. Since, the 101st has served in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and anywhere else the Army has needed to deliver a quick, authoritative response.

Needless to say, the members of 101st can handle demanding physical labor, and they have passed along those genes to their sons. So too have the members of the Fort Campbell-based 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, better known as the Night Stalkers. The Night Stalkers, people on post often joke, will never tell a person where they've been or what they've done because most of their missions are classified. Someone asked Rob Jorstad, father of offensive guard Brady Jorstad and a member of the 160th, where he had been before he returned home Friday just in time to head up the chain crew for the Kenwood game. Jorstad, a fire hydrant of a man with a shaved head and a firm handshake, only smiled.

Since most of the soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell must fit a certain physical mold, the Falcons have a lot of physically similar athletes. They have plenty of lithe skill position players and muscular linebacker-types, but precious few jumbo linemen. "You can't be huge to fly in a helicopter," said offensive line coach/co-athletic director Scott Lowe. So for every Koty Hix -- a 6-foot-4, 290-pound sophomore tackle who will be the biggest player Lowe coaches for years -- Lowe knows he must turn 10 more 190-pounders into serviceable linemen.

The same goes at the other positions. For every specimen such as 220-pound junior linebacker Martenez Smith, who dropped in Berner's lap when Smith's father was transferred to Fort Campbell from Fort Jackson in South Carolina, there is a player like Mudbug who weighs 175 pounds -- 100 of it heart. Mudbug's father has taken his name off the list for promotions twice so Mudbug can stay at Fort Campbell High. The elder Von Dette will return from Afghanistan in October for a mid-tour break. His tour ends next year. When it does, Sgt. 1st Class Warren Noble, the father of freshman linebacker Christian Noble, will be in the unit that replaces Von Dette's unit. "It's something that has to be done," said Annie Von Dette as she sat beneath a tree last week watching practice with fellow moms Midge Noble and Jen Jorstad. "It's a way of life," said Jorstad, whose husband was one of the first American soldiers to deploy to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

That day changed everything on post. Because the 101st and 160th are first-response units, DOD officials worried Fort Campbell might be a valuable target if terrorists had hijacked more planes. The base was locked down. Tanks rolled back and forth beside the practice field. Apache helicopters buzzed not far overhead. When the Falcons played their first home game after Sept. 11, anyone attending the game had to be on a pre-approved list to get on post and into the stadium. Snipers stood sentry in the light towers. Life on post slowly returned to normal, but the helicopters hummed through their patrols well into 2002. When the rotors finally stopped, Jen Jorstad said, the silence was the eeriest sound of all.

Berner took over the program in 2002, and led the Falcons to district titles from 2003-05, but he wouldn't win a state title until 2007. That year, the Falcons lost their first two games. Things looked bleak until a players-only meeting got everyone on the same page. Then the Falcons soared.

During that season, Dexter and Raquan Durrante, a pair of brothers who starred at running back and cornerback, respectively, came to Berner and said they had to go to North Carolina. They didn't know when they would be back. Their father, Dexter Sr., had been training at Fort Bragg when a live IED exploded. Berner asked how badly the elder Durrante had been hurt. "He's blind," the brothers told their coach.

Berner wasn't sure if he'd lost the brothers for the season. In five years as head coach during a war, the parents of his players had managed to stay mostly out of harm's way. He prepared for the worst. The Durrantes left on a Sunday. They returned the following Wednesday and didn't miss a game. The elder Dexter Durrante had encouraged them to return. "It was really one of the hardest moments of my life," said Raquan Durrante, who now plays alongside his brother at Murray State. "We had to be strong because [our father] was so strong for us."

In Fort Campbell's state championship game win against 35-point favorite Newport Central Catholic, Raquan Durrante forced a fumble on the goal line to preserve a Falcons' lead. On the ensuing Fort Campbell possession, the younger Dexter Durrante zipped down the left sideline for a 67-yard touchdown run to seal the win. Later, Dexter Durrante Sr. explained to Berner that he knew his son was about to break loose for a long touchdown. "I couldn't see it," Berner remembered Durrante saying, "but I called it."

*****

The moment Raquan Durrante forced that fumble, a group of high-ranking officers from the second brigade of the 101st stationed throughout Iraq were in the midst of a tactical update on a secure line. That occupied one of the computers in Wintrich's office at Camp Victory. An unsecured computer was logged on to a Lexington-based audio feed of the championship game.

Durrante's hit on receiver Matt Ritter jarred the ball loose, and McWherter jumped on the fumble to cap a goal-line stand. Audio of the resulting commotion was recorded for posterity in the tactical update. "I exploded," Wintrich said. "You can hear me in the background yelling."

*****

In an average offseason, most high school coaches have to deal with a player or two moving to another school district. Berner's situation is different, though it isn't as bad as his predecessor's. Before 2002, the Army shifted soldiers to new posts sometimes as often as every 12-18 months. Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq has forced the Army to keep its soldiers based on the same post for years at a time, which has allowed for a modicum of continuity in Fort Campbell's football program. Still, it is the Army, and soldiers are always getting reassigned. In 2008, Berner thought he had enough of a nucleus returning to repeat. By the time the Falcons started preseason practice, seven veterans of the 2007 season had moved after their parents were transferred.

That season's greatest loss took place months before the first snap, though. Linebacker Josh Carter's father, Chief Warrant Officer James Carter, died when the helicopter he was testing crashed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in June 2008. Not long after the casualty assistance team arrived at Carter's home to notify the family, members of the coaching staff arrived to offer support. Berner and his coaches understand some of their players will lose parents, but it doesn't make comforting them any easier. "We just kind of stood by his side," Berner said. "Anything he or his mother needed, we tried to provide. ... We did what a family would do."

Carter dedicated the season to his father, and the rest of the Falcons rallied behind him and made 2008 a fall to remember. Led by Carter, Raquan Durrante and quarterback Antonio Andrews, the Falcons went 14-1 and won their second consecutive state title.

Berner's father served in Vietnam but never talked about it, so Berner can't empathize with his players. Three of his assistants can however. Lowe, defensive coordinator Josh McKillip and defensive line coach Nate Moore all graduated from Fort Campbell High. All were sons of soldiers. Lowe's father was a Night Stalker. Lowe remembers his dad always keeping a bag packed. Once, when Lowe was a student at Fort Campbell, his father knocked on the door and said he was leaving. "Where are you going?" Lowe asked. "Watch the news," his father replied. "Next thing you know," Lowe said, "we invade Panama."

Having coaches who understand helps the players, most of whom have bounced from school to school as their parents have been moved from base to base. For example, the coaches understand when the players are genuinely concerned about a parent deployed overseas. They also can tell when the players are using their situation as an excuse. "There are teachers who let you get away with anything if you say, 'Oh, my dad's deployed,'" Brady Jorstad said. "The coaches are like, 'Nuh-uh.'"

The coaches have earned the trust of the players. More importantly, they've earned the trust of their parents. "They are their fathers when [their fathers] aren't here," Jen Jorstad said. "If I needed to, I would sign my son over to them -- and they'd take him." Wintrich remains grateful for the way the coaches took care of his son, who now helps coach the Falcons when he isn't taking classes at nearby Austin Peay. "Shawn Berner and my wife raised my kid for two of his four years of high school," Wintrich said. "Shawn helped guide my son through a critical phase of his young adulthood."

The players bond quickly because they are in the same situation and because the constant moving has made them adept at building relationships swiftly. Some of them attended one of the six elementary or two middle schools on post before leaving for another base and returning. Many have lived overseas.

"You learn to adapt through sports and make friends and family that way," defensive end Harley Davis said. Upshaw, the kicker/offensive guard, lived in Washington, Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia before moving to Kentucky. The last four moves came in the past six years. Upshaw's father, Mike Tolbert, recently retired as a sergeant major after 33 years in the Army. Six years ago, Upshaw's mother, Trudy Tolbert, enlisted at age 35. Trudy Tolbert had always dreamed of serving, but she wanted to wait until Upshaw was older before she joined the Army. "I could get hurt or die doing anything," she said. "I wanted to do something honorable."

Upshaw worried about his mother when she spent a year stationed in Iraq, but like his teammates, he has built a layer of detachment to protect himself. Almost all the students at Fort Campbell have seen friends lose parents, and they understand their parent could be next. The players explained the worrying constantly would cripple them, so they've adapted. "You kind of get used to the whole situation," Brady Jorstad said. "It was tough when I was little, but now it's just, 'Dad's leaving.'"

The worry hits home after an incident. Davis' father is home now because getting shot in the chest in Iraq left him with a degenerative disc in his back. Before his father returned home, Davis' mother tried to hide the bad news. "I ended up finding out," Davis said. "I put it together listening to my mom talk to my dad on the phone." Upon hearing this tale, Upshaw offered one of his own. "I didn't know my dad got shot until he showed me the scar," said Upshaw, who is being quite literal when he complains that his father is a drill sergeant. "He thought it was cool."

Having grown up around the Army, the players can talk about war wounds as casually as suburban teens talk about their parents' office mishaps. They also don't find it the least bit odd when a Chinook helicopter buzzes by the practice field or when the sounds of a workout collide with the sound of artillery fire from a nearby range. "I'll hear a cannon and I won't move, but I'll hear a whistle and I'll go full speed," Upshaw said.

*****

In the northern provinces of Iraq in 2009, Staff Sgt. Trudy Tolbert didn't have a reliable Internet connection. The best she could hope for on a fall Friday was the occasional score update from her husband via e-mail. Some Fridays, she couldn't even get those. But those days were always special. On every gameday, she wore a Fort Campbell Falcons shirt under her fatigues.

*****

The Falcons began the 2009 season reeling from another offseason tragedy. Tim Williams, a 6-foot, 273-pound junior offensive lineman died a day after collapsing during a workout in July 2009. Though the temperature at the time was only in the 70s, the cause of death was determined to be hyperthermia.

Berner retired Williams' No. 73, and the Falcons dedicated the 2009 season to their fallen teammate. Fort Campbell ripped through its schedule, going 15-0 and winning a third consecutive state title. Andrews, the quarterback, was named Kentucky's Mr. Football.

Williams, who would have been a senior this season, remains a Falcon. He still has a locker. When Berner called roll before a recent practice, he called Williams' name. The entire team responded, "Here!" Williams' parents, Bill and Kim, remain a fixture at football practices and games. Earlier this summer, Kim hosted a pasta dinner for the varsity players. Then she met Bill at the freshman team's game. Kim takes dozens of photos at each Fort Campbell football event, and Bill posts them on the team's Facebook page.

Why do Bill and Kim subject themselves to so many reminders of their son? "This is the only way," Bill said, "to show them that you don't quit." Bill, who returned from a 15-month tour in Afghanistan shortly before Tim's death, has tried to pitch in for other fathers who serve on the other side of the world. Recently, the quarterback of Fort Campbell's freshman team approached Williams with a question. "Mr. Bill, do you like Chinese food?" asked the boy, whose father had just been deployed to Korea, ending a tradition of father-son trips to a local buffet. "My mom doesn't. Would you go eat Chinese food with me?"

Tim Williams' locker sat empty on Aug. 27 as the Falcons prepared to face Kenwood. As usual, the Fort Campbell's resource officer gave the pregame pep talk. Unlike most schools, Fort Campbell's resource officer isn't a local cop. Fort Campbell's resource officer is Gerard Counts, who retired from the Army as a command sergeant major. At the time of his retirement, he was the highest-ranking enlisted man on the post, and he answered only to a two-star general or higher. With his close-cropped hair and ice-blue eyes, Counts looks like G.I. Joe would if G.I. Joe had any guts. Though Counts actually appeared as a Russian soldier in Stripes, he shook his head last week when asked if he'd seen Blackhawk Down. "It's all up here," he said, pointing to his temple. Counts served in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in October 1993. During five years of pep talks, he has told several stories from the battle. After one fiery speech, several Falcons punched holes in their locker room ceiling.

Counts told the tale of a lieutenant colonel who lost a leg trying to clear a live grenade from a training field on post. After recovering at Walter Reed hospital, the soldier wanted to return to active duty. To do that, he would have to pass a physical test that included a timed two-mile run. The soldier taught himself to walk on a prosthetic leg, Counts told the players. Then he taught himself to run. He made his time. Counts wanted the players to remember that one setback can't keep them from accomplishing their goals. A week earlier, Christ Presbyterian Academy had snapped Fort Campbell's 20-game winning streak with a 23-21 victory. The Falcons realized a fourth title wouldn't come so easily after losing 18 seniors from the 2009 team. Counts wanted the Falcons to rise up and start a new streak against Kenwood.

After his speech, Counts led a call-and-response that works as well on football players as it did on soldiers.

Counts: "I!"

Players: "I!"

Counts: "Am the god!"

Players: "Am the god!"

Counts: "Of hellfire!"

Players: "Of hellfire!"

Counts: "And I bring you!"

Players: "And I bring you!"

Counts: "Thunder!"

Players: "Thunder!"

The Falcons, clad in new black jerseys, walked out of the locker room for their first regular-season game on their new turf field. A paratrooper delivered the game ball from a Blackhawk Helicopter floating 10,500 feet in the air. Kenwood, still burning after a 57-0 loss to Fort Campbell last year, wasn't impressed.

Running behind 6-5, 372-pound center Greg Hughes, running back Maleek Hall cracked the 200-yard mark. Meanwhile, Fort Campbell quarterback Aaron Hills threw a costly interception that allowed Kenwood to break the game open in the fourth quarter and roll to a 52-34 win.

After the loss, Hills crouched with his head in his hands. When Hills rose, Kim Williams -- whose son, Tim, should have been blocking for Hills -- threw her arms around him. Back in their office, Fort Campbell coaches watched the carnage again and prepared for the following week's matchup with Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High. (Fort Campbell would lose to Pearl-Cohn on Sept. 3 and rebound with a 28-26 Army Bowl win against Fort Knox on Sept. 10.) The Falcons have played the first four weeks without one of their best players -- senior receiver/safety Tre Powell, who is scheduled to return in October from a knee injury -- but they refuse to make excuses. "We're going to get this fixed," defensive coordinator McKillip said after the Kenwood loss.

They certainly will try. Because the Falcons desperately want to win that fourth title. They want to win it for themselves, to prove they learned from the champions who came before them. They want to win it for Tim Williams, who will always be their teammate. They want to win it for the 101st. They want to win it for the Night Stalkers. They want to win it for all those parents who take up arms for their country in a foreign land and can't watch their sons play football.

"Those guys in the NFL are fun to watch," Berner said, "but my heroes are their dads."

*****

Sgt. Robert Von Dette listened to the Kenwood game from a two-man container at Camp Cole in central Afghanistan. He hated to hear the Falcons lose, but he believes they'll turn things around -- just like they did in 2007. "The boys will find a way," he wrote in an e-mail. "They always do."

A few hours after the Kenwood game, Von Dette responded to an e-mail from a reporter requesting an interview. Unsolicited, he offered the following analysis of the Fort Campbell program. "The coaching staff is more than a coaching staff," he wrote. "They are my extended family. At times, their job is harder than mine."

Von Dette added one request.

"If you see Chance or Annie again," he wrote, "tell them I said hi and I'll see them in October."

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