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.
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
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
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
The same goes at the other positions. For every specimen such as 220-pound junior linebacker
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,
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
The Falcons began the 2009 season reeling from another offseason tragedy.
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,
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
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: "Am the god!"
Players: "Am the god!"
Counts: "Of hellfire!"
Players: "Of hellfire!"
Counts: "And I bring you!"
Players: "And I bring you!"
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
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
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."