Mike Kamon didn't have much of a spring break. On March 17, the
day he turned 22, he watched on TV as his Commander in Chief gave
Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq. The next night he went to
see Gods and Generals with his mother. The following morning,
around five, he left his family's spacious home on a wooded lot
in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia and made the three-hour
drive to West Point. He had to get back and he wanted to get
back--for lacrosse practice. Kamon is a captain of the Army
lacrosse team. On May 31, graduation day, he'll become a second
lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Soon, the playing fields of his boyhood will be replaced by war-torn battlefields.
Sport has never been more important to him, for he knows what's
coming soon enough, and he's ready to die for his country, if
need be. "I'd rather it be me than someone else," he says.
War and sport, at their root, are both about sacrifice, although
of very different kinds. The elite military academies have always
understood this. At West Point a plaque memorializes the words of
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a former West Point outfielder: "Upon the
fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other
fields on other days, will bear the fruits of victory." Roger
Staubach was always more than a Dallas Cowboys quarterback: He
was a Navy man, a '65 graduate of the academy, who played
professional football with an officer's bearing. You see the same
thing in Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who played
basketball for Bob Knight at Army in the '60s and later coached
At West Point, as is the case at the two other major service
academies, cadets are required to play a team sport. Varsity,
intramural, it doesn't matter, but they must play something. The
admissions process includes a physical fitness screening. Dwight
Eisenhower, class of '15, was a resourceful halfback at Army, and
his classmate, Omar Bradley, the World War II five-star general,
was also a West Point football letterman. Brig. Gen. Vincent
Brooks, (class of '80), who's helping to lead the coalition
effort in Iraq, played basketball and team handball. Don
Holleder, an Army football star, made the cover of SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED on Nov. 28, 1955, and was killed in a jungle outside
of Saigon on Oct. 17, 1967.
The essential code of West Point is country-before-self, and if
you don't have it coming in--and Mike Kamon did not--you'll have it
by the time you're heading out. Kamon has it now, in spades. He
says he picked up some of that ethic of self-sacrifice in the
classroom, some of it in the barracks, much of it on the lacrosse
field. He also appreciates lacrosse's roots as an ancient tribal
sport that Native Americans used to settle disputes. "They could
go to war, and have half the people killed, or play lacrosse, and
only a few would die," Kamon says.
Kamon grew up near West Chester, Pa., and his parents, Christine
and Mark, would occasionally take him to Veterans Stadium in
Philadelphia to watch the Eagles. The family also made trips to
Gettysburg and Valley Forge and Independence Hall. Once, his hero
was Reggie White, the retired All-Pro defensive end. Now his hero
is Tommy Franks, the four-star general who, as they say in the
Army, is "running Iraq." In Kamon's years at West Point, the
President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of
Defense have visited the academy. He heard President Bush deliver
last year's commencement address. It was a major policy
statement, coming nearly nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The President said that day, "The war on terror will not be won
on the defensive." Kamon hung on his commander's every word, just
as he would do on his birthday.
All through high school, and in his first three years as an Army
lacrosse player, Kamon was an offensive beast. In high school,
playing for the West Chester Henderson Warriors, he won more than
80% of his face-offs. As a freshman, when most of his
lacrosse-playing classmates were on the junior varsity, Kamon was
on the varsity, playing in all 15 games, winning more than half
his face-offs. The following year, he started all 14 games as a
first-line offensive midfielder, scoring 25 goals, second highest
among the Black Knights. Last year, he had 15 goals and scooped
up 63 groundballs, the most on his team. This year he's become a
defensive midfielder. Why? Because that's what his team needs.
On weekday mornings Christine Kamon walks with her neighbor Marcia
Taylor, whose son Ryan graduated from West Point in 2000. Taylor
was an intramural boxer, wrestler and soccer player. Now he's in
Iraq, coordinating Army helicopter traffic for the 101st
Airborne. Marcia hasn't heard from her son since March 18, and
she doesn't expect to until the war is over.
If Ryan Taylor could talk to Mike Kamon from the battlefields of
Iraq, Marcia knows what he would say: "You could be here in Iraq
next year. Enjoy home while you can. Beat Navy." The Army-Navy
game will be at Annapolis on April 26, the most important game in
the lives of players for both teams.
Soon after, the problems of the world will come knocking on
Kamon's door. He will be trained in artillery, but he hopes the
war will be over by February, when he expects to be deployed to
Iraq as part of the 4th Infantry Division. If the fighting is
done, he says, his job will be to keep peace, supervise the
building of roads and sewer lines, run a village until the Iraqis
are ready to run it themselves. Of course, there's hubris in that
job description, but self-assuredness is a mark of many great
athletes and officers. He might bring a couple of sticks, a
couple of balls, maybe help spread a new game to Iraq.
Christine Kamon, a tennis player, a golfer, a yoga devotee,
understands the life her son has chosen. "He thinks he's
invincible," she says, sitting in her home. "They all do. The
reality is that he'll go over there, and you hope and pray he
comes home. Statistically, he should come home. But every day
there are people who get in their cars to run errands and don't
come home." She pauses for a long moment and looks away, in the
direction of a wall where a silver sword hangs, the 2002 Lieut.
Ray Enners Memorial Alumni Saber, awarded to her son for picking
up the most groundballs for West Point in last year's Army-Navy
game. Lieutenant Enners, class of '67, died in Vietnam.
On March 22 the Army lacrosse team played its first game since the
war in Iraq began, against Ohio State in Columbus. Jack Emmer,
the West Point coach, entered the game with 300 career victories,
tying him with former Massachusetts coach Dick Garber for the
Division I record. Emmer was worried about things other than the
record. He was thinking about soldiers in Iraq. His players were too.
There might have been 200 fans on hand that day, Mike's parents
and kid sister, Emily, among them. It was not a grand occasion.
The national anthem was piped in on a loudspeaker. The afternoon
was gray, breezy, raw. Army took a 2-0 lead, one of the goals
coming from Kamon. The Kamon cheering section shrieked and
clapped, but the family's joy was brief. The Buckeyes won 11-8.
In defeat, Emmer huddled with his players on the field. "Chins
up," the coach said, shouting to be heard over the wind. "That
was a great effort today." Kamon walked off the field, his arm
draped across the shoulder of a teammate. The cadets changed into
their dress grays and headed home, to West Point. Emmer would get
the record 10 days later in a 17-14 victory over Lehigh, and
last Saturday the Black Knights stunned eighth-ranked Rutgers, 9-8.
The game that matters, Army-Navy, is not far off now, and shortly
after that comes commencement. On graduation day, each student
chooses an officer--a mentor, a teacher--to administer the Oath of
Office. The senior lacrosse players, a band of brothers, have
chosen the junior varsity lacrosse coach, Lieut. Col. Tom Endres,
to administer the oath. Endres graduated from West Point in 1980.
He played four years of varsity lacrosse. He served in Somalia.
He does not have superhuman qualities, Kamon says. What he has is
a profound and contagious sense of teamwork and duty.
On May 31, Kamon will raise his right hand before Lieutenant
Colonel Endres and the Army lacrosse team and say these words:
"I, Michael Mark Kamon, having been appointed an officer in the
Army of the United States, in the grade of Second Lieutenant, do
solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of
the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that
I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take
this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or
purpose of evasion; and that I will faithfully discharge the
duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; so help me
the four-star general who, as they say in the Army, is "RUNNING