By rights West Point should be a recruiter's dream. The campus is a mighty stone fortress that commands America's most beautiful river from wooded highlands that blaze with color in the fall. Cadets with crossed white belts on their chests and black plumes fluttering from their hats parade on vast lawns to stirring martial airs while the heroes of the Republic, from Washington to Patton, gaze down on the pageantry from marble pedestals.
The quality of a West Point education is high, its alumni are illustrious and its football tradition is grand. It has produced more Presidents than Yale, more Heisman Trophy winners than Michigan and more movies than Hollywood High. Who else but an Army recruiter could haul out Tyrone Power, George C. Scott and Douglas MacArthur for the benefit of an impressionable high school prospect? Even history seems to conspire to make a West Point recruiter's job easier. On a boulder outside Michie Stadium is a plaque that reads: "I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player."—General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, World War II.
Over hill and dale and dusty trail you would think they'd flock, those 230-pound linebackers and tight ends with 3.5 grade averages. However, while West Point can offer room, board, full tuition, all expenses and a monthly salary for every player, it cannot promise much in the way of high times or a future in football. The West Point recruiter can talk as long as he's able about the Long Gray Line and the Lonesome End and Honor, Duty, Country, but sooner or later he and his hot prospect have to settle down to the basic facts of U.S. Military Academy life, namely that any cadet who attends the first class of his junior year makes a five-year commitment to the Army that will begin on the day of his graduation. It is virtually impossible for an Army football player to move into the professional game. Roger Staubach did it from Annapolis, but the requirement then was only three years and he was able to schedule his leaves so that he could work out with the Cowboys each season.
Furthermore, for four years the Army football player will live under a system of unrelenting military discipline and will follow an academic regimen, heavy in math and science, that is just as rigorous for athletes as it is for the rest of the Corps. His privileges will be as few as his classmates', he will exist in a school with a male-female ratio of 43 to 1, he will probably never play in a bowl game because Army never has, and a certain segment of the population, particularly his own generation, will view him as a killer-in-training.
November 1, 1976
Army football hit rock bottom in 1973. The Black Knights of the Hudson, twice national champions, 10 seasons unbeaten, were 0 and 10, winless for the first time since 1890. Worst of all, they lost to Navy 51-0. Tom Cahill, Coach of the Year in 1966, was fired, and Army's recruiting program, thanks mainly to a long, unpopular, inglorious war, was left in tatters.
But two things were happening in 1973 that meant better days were on their way. A tall, skinny 17-year-old quarterback named Leamon Hall was attending the U.S. Military Academy Prep School in Fort Belvoir, Va., a one-year way station for athletes en route to West Point. And Homer Smith, a 42-year-old Princeton graduate (cum laude, in economics) with an MBA from Stanford, was convincing the brass at West Point that he was just the man they needed to replace Cahill.
Now, after 3-8 and 2-9 seasons in 1974 and 1975, during which Smith retrenched and recruited and Hall waited his turn, good times are on the horizon. The cheating scandal that surfaced last spring, implicating 227 cadets, was an enormous blow, but the worst of that trauma is over now, and it is football, with a new pro-style offense led by Hall and his magic arm, that is helping everyone forget. After last week's 27-10 loss to Boston College the Cadets were 3-4 for the season, a record that included a 21-20 upset of Stanford and a narrow 34-32 loss to North Carolina. Army has a shot at a winning season for the first time since 1972, and its passing combination, Hall and Tight End Clennie Brundidge, is making West Point history. Hall, who has 244 attempts and 119 completions for 1,633 yards, set five single-game school records in one game, and Clennie, with 41 catches for 594 yards, is closing in on Joe Albano's 1970 season marks. The clerks at the post PX are talking football again. The waitresses at Schades' in the village cross their fingers. Even the beleaguered public-affairs officers have begun to smile now and then.
"I didn't recruit Leamon Hall," says Homer Smith. "He was already on his way here when I arrived. But the first thing I heard about him was that he had thrown the basketball up against the wall during the physical aptitude test." The test, which is an entrance requirement for all candidates, consists of pull-ups, a standing broad jump, a 300-yard shuttle run and a kneeling basketball throw. Ninety feet is a good throw; 100 is a great one. Hall, without benefit of leg action, threw the ball past all the marks on the floor and hit the wall at the other end of the gym.
Hall grew up, to 6'5", in Apopka, Fla., near Orlando. His father was a linotype operator for the Orlando Sentinel-Star until computerization arrived. Now he is a foreman of the paper's composing department. In 1972 Leamon was an all-state high school player with his eyes on Auburn or Florida. But in the next to last game of his senior year he suffered a right-shoulder separation and the recruiters who had been keeping in touch since his sophomore year vanished overnight.
"It was a frustrating senior year, wondering right into the spring where I was going to go," he says. "My coach told all the schools around that I might be the best throwing quarterback in the South, but nobody believed him."
Army, with nothing to lose, was less skeptical and someone saw to it that Hall was sent an application. Up to that point, Hall says, he had always thought that Army was "a bunch of soldiers who got together and formed a team" and that West Point was "someplace like the back side of heaven, meant for a special kind of people." Not him. He threw the forms away. His teachers and his friends concurred in his judgment. Only his mother and his coach persisted. "I was very undisciplined," says Hall. "I wasn't the kind of guy that teachers like to teach."
In point of fact, his math teacher told him he would never make it. And the friends who had helped him with his schoolwork for years laughed at the idea of Hall at West Point. "They all figured I was too happy-go-lucky," he says, grinning happy-go-luckily. "But I'm also very hardheaded. The more people laughed at me the more it made me want to do it."
The next year Hall was at Fort Belvoir, playing football, living in Army barracks, learning how to apply himself, how to pass the college boards and how to deal with military discipline and military haircuts. "For about six months the Army and I didn't get along at all. I was a mama's boy, homespun and green," he says.
By the time he reached West Point the following summer, the worst of his adjustment was over and he had added some needed weight to his lanky frame. He got into four games as a plebe and immediately became something of a hero. His first call came in a 38-14 lost cause against Vanderbilt. The Commodores were leading 38-6 late in the third quarter and all Leamon did was hit with seven of his first eight passes and put a touchdown on the scoreboard.
The next game, against Air Force, he moved the team 64 yards into field-goal range. The field goal was good and Army won the game 17-16. "After that," says Homer Smith, "people expected something sensational every time Leamon went into a game. It wasn't going to happen that way. I told him after the Vanderbilt game that he had seen a six-man pass defense and that was the last time he would ever see it. And it was."
Last year Smith gave the starting job in his wishbone offense to senior Quarterback Scott Gillogly. But just before the fourth game, against Stanford, he switched Gillogly to split end and started Hall at quarterback. Army lost 67-14. Gillogly broke his collarbone and was out until the last game of the season. And Hall, starting every game after that in an offense ill-suited to his talents, completed 93 passes for 1,107 yards.
"It was difficult for him," says Smith. "I've seen him when he was all dirty and sore and sometimes bloody. But he's a rugged character now. You grow up tough if you're the quarterback in a wishbone offense."
This year Army's offense, a pro set, is tailored to Hall's abilities. "I like the wishbone," Hall says, "and if I was a coach I would really like to coach the wishbone. But I am not gifted with the kind of talents that it takes to run it."
Hall is gifted not only with a fine arm and a talent for command but, this year, with an excellent receiver in Brundidge, the 6'4", 220-pound sophomore from Oviedo, Fla., which is about seven miles as the crow flies from Apopka and less than half its size. Brundidge was a sophomore at Oviedo when Hall was a senior at Apopka Memorial, and when the two teams met that season, a member of Brundidge's team suggested that Oviedo players contribute to a pot that would go to anyone who could put Leamon out of the game.
"It was a good idea," says Clennie, "but I didn't participate. I didn't play that way, to hurt somebody. He was such a good quarterback. He threw for so many touchdowns, I can't even remember how many. We couldn't have hurt him very much."
Hall remembers Brundidge mainly for his basketball. "He was really good as a sophomore," says Hall, who was all-region in basketball himself. "Later he became a great basketball player."
Brundidge pretends that every Army practice is a real game, and sometimes, out on Daly Field at West Point, when he messes up an assignment, he looks as though he can barely drag himself back to the line, so badly has he let himself and the team down. Before the fifth game he said, "This week I'm imagining everybody's Penn State and that's their linebackers out there."
"Clennie is very religious," says Jeff Jancek, a senior from New Jersey who is team captain and who was moved from end to guard this year, partly to make room for Brundidge. "He has faith in God linked with faith in the power of the mind, and he knows it is possible to beat guys who are heavier and quicker. If we have a new attitude this year you could say that Clennie was its founder."
The attitude survived the Penn State defeat, but the bodies took a beating from the big and fast and well-coached Penn State defense. Hall and Brundidge were harassed unmercifully all afternoon, Hall almost never getting a chance to set up properly and Brundidge almost always having a couple of Penn State defenders at his elbow, "like a basketball defense," said Smith later.
Last year Brundidge started on both the football and basketball varsities, but by the end of the year he had decided he could not handle the load a second time. "The academics here are so hard sometimes I don't know where to turn," he said one morning in the break between his 7:45 chemistry class and his 10:25 physics class. "I was disappointed in myself academically the first year, so I decided to concentrate on basketball and devote the rest of the year to academics."
In June Brundidge wrote a letter to Smith explaining his decision and then he spent his summer leave practicing basketball and playing pickup games with college players around home. Smith, whose disappointment must have been profound, wrote Brundidge back, wishing him well and saying he hoped he would change his mind. Brundidge's football teammates, however, kept at him, writing him letters, begging him to play, telling him they needed him.
As they truly did. Of the 34 lettermen eligible to return this year, only 15 finally did. Seven resigned, one was dismissed, six quit football, two were found guilty in the Honor Board investigations and three were injured. As an athletic department staffer said, mournfully mixing metaphors, "Coming out of the gate we had two strikes against us."
All summer long Brundidge wavered. Finally, a week before training was to start, he made up his mind. "What influenced me most was when the 82nd Airborne troopers from Fort Knox came out to Camp Buckner during summer training. I didn't realize how involved they were in Army football. I realized I could make people happy just by being out there."
Clennie Brundidge made a lot of people very happy when he showed up, unannounced, on Aug. 21. Homer Smith wrote in his weekly newsletter to the Friends of Army Football, "...On the first day of practice a coach came into my office with a message that I will not forget—'Clennie is here.' "
Brundidge has changed in many ways since his recruiting visit to West Point when he spent a weekend on the post and averaged three words a day. He had been discovered by Assistant Coach Bud Neswiacheny, who was handling recruiting in Florida. Neswiacheny, watching films of another high school player, saw Brundidge score for Oviedo on plays of 95 and 55 yards, and immediately Army joined Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Florida in the chase.
"Me and my friends couldn't see ourselves as West Point cadets," says Brundidge. "I had a friend who quit Annapolis after two weeks and he told us how hard it was and what he had to go through."
Clennie, too tactful to say he had no interest in going to West Point, took to hiding from the Army recruiter. "Sixth period was the time for the recruiters. Someone would bring a slip into class that said to come to the office. I got to anticipating the slip and I'd ask the messenger who it was, and if the messenger said West Point, I'd get out of class and I'd go to the parking lot or go home." Brundidge even successfully evaded Smith's one visit to Oviedo. The visit was to coincide with a baseball game, but the game was rained out and Brundidge had disappeared. "I hunted a good part of the afternoon for Clennie," says Smith. "Couldn't find him, so I left a note and went on my way."
The night before Brundidge planned to sign his letter of intent with North Carolina State, Neswiacheny showed up at his home with a film, a projector and a screen. "Unfortunately for me," says Clennie, smiling ruefully because a rueful smile makes the story funnier and he likes being the butt of his own stories, "he showed all the good things about West Point, a lot of parades and things, and my family went crazy."
Being a sophomore, Brundidge has until next fall to decide whether to stay at West Point. He has learned the ropes and feels comfortable in the life now. Also he has high hopes for the young Army basketball team. He says, "I am positive I will probably stay."
Hall, a junior, is committed. "I have mixed feelings about pro ball," he says. "It was always a dream of mine to be recruited by the pros. In a way, it's the ultimate for an amateur athlete. But I think pro ball is a lot more glamorous on the outside than it really is. You're almost enslaved. Right now I play because I love to play and that's the only reason anybody does here at the Academy. You don't get any bennies [benefits] for doing it."
Homer Smith turned 45 on the day of the Penn State game. The team, at a lunch stop in the Pocono Mountains during the five-hour bus ride back to the Point, gave him a cake with blue icing and sang happy birthday. Smith has been around. He has been an assistant at Stanford, the Air Force Academy and UCLA, and he has been head coach at Davidson and the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. Of West Point he says, "This is a remarkable school, full of remarkable experiences and it's fun to sell a good product. Any school could be good that got its students up at six every morning and made them take certain hard things and tested them frequently."
It would be a lot easier to sell his product if Army could produce a bona fide hero or two in the next couple of years. Army football has needed a hero for a long time now. Felix (Doc) Blanchard and Glenn Davis date back to the mid-'40s, a decade and more before any of the current team was born. Pete Dawkins, Army's last Heisman Trophy winner, graduated in 1959.
With a little more help from his line, Leamon Hall could lead Army into a new era. So could Clennie Brundidge if he stays. But unless Congress rewrites the laws about five-year commitments. West Point football teams will probably not again be competing for national championships. Homer Smith is a realist. He wrote recently, "An immediate recruiting objective of this staff is to put talent on the field that can win games regularly against the North Carolinas, Dukes, Vanderbilts, Northwesterns and Baylors, against the major schools which have what those schools have in common."
In the meantime Army is giving the folks at West Point, from plebes to generals, the time of their recent lives. The noise from Michie Stadium these Saturday afternoons is deafening. Tailgaters fill the parking lots from morning until dark. The band plays On, Brave Old Army Team over and over and the Corps of Cadets, their gray capes flapping in the autumn winds, bark "Yoos-may, Yoos-may, rah, rah, rah." Et cetera.