“I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point Football player."
General George C. Marshall
There were nine games on the football schedule in 1944, including Army’s annual intramural tete-a-tete with Navy, and the Black Knights won them all on their way to the first of three straight national championships, but the Army varsity had a more immediate priority. The rivals of greater concern were the German, Italian and Japanese armed forces. And Gen. Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, wasn’t interested in any particular position. Quarterback. Offensive lineman. Didn’t matter. His interest was in the player’s collegiate pedigree.
There are certain teams whose history confers upon them a certain de facto tie with legend. Yankees. Celtics. Canadiens. Notre Dame football. UCLA basketball. But none carries the real-world responsibilities and legendary status associated with being – or having been – an Army football player.
There are scores of players with the aforementioned teams who shattered records, won championships and became subsequent members of their respective sports’ Halls of Fame. Army players? All they’ve done is protect freedom, win wars, walk on the moon, and in the case of one – Dwight Eisenhower – become President.
And, to answer your next question, yes, current members of the Black Knights are well aware of those that preceded them. Marshall’s famous quote is engraved on a plaque at the door of the Army locker room. And as they leave and return to it on both practice and game days every player touches the plaque, almost the equivalent of Catholics blessing themselves with holy water when entering or leaving church.
It means something. Seventy years later, it still means something.
“For me, it means a lot to me and I make sure every time I step on or off Michie Field I touch it,” linebacker Colby Miller said. “It really means a lot because I’m a senior and I know what General Marshall is talking about. It’s tough times we’ve faced. I’m a civil-engineer major and we all have these crazy work schedules and stuff like that. It’s just a tough situation. I know what he’s talking about, I know what he’s saying. “
“It definitely does provide inspiration,” quarterback Angel Santiago said. “When we touch that plaque it’s like we’re drawing strength from it.”
“It’s the definition of an Army football player,” linebacker Jarrett Mackey said. “That’s it. Bottom line, it defines the school and what a football player should and will be. That’s why you come here.”
“There’s pride in what we do,” running back Tony Giovannelli said. “There’s pride knowing the people who’ve been here and played here and we all know the kind of people who were here before us. There’s a certain standard here that we’re part of and part of our responsibility is to live up to the people, the players that were here before us. You see what General Marshall said and you know what he was looking for back then. We’d like to think that if any of us were ever called upon for something like that we’d be up to it.”
“You touch that plaque and it reminds you that you’re part of something special,” linebacker Justin Trimble said.
Special, of course, is a relative term. If you played for Notre Dame or UCLA or the Yankees, you have a certifiable link to championships and magazine covers and legendary players. But such perks don’t include little things, like the knowledge that you helped preserve democracy and expedited people like Hitler and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein receiving early excursion dates to hell.
“The people I’ve looked up to, [former teammates] Steve Anderson and Pat Mealy, all the seniors I looked up to my freshman year, they got it done so I can do this, too,” Miller said. “That’s the attitude and mentality I have. He’s saying we can get the job done no matter what, anything that’s thrown at us. When I touch it, I want to get something done because a whole lot of people before us did.”
Guess that’s part of the attraction. Even the standard practice of getting from class to class or building to building at West Point has a sort of historical context. Who’s to say you’re not literally following in the footsteps of MacArthur or Patton? Of U.S. Grant or Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson? Hey, they had to walk to class, too.
There’s no telling if any current member of the football team will be directly involved in winning a war or flying in space or be called upon for one of those secret and dangerous missions. But they know that many of their predecessors were. And they prepare themselves for it. Just in case.
There’s never been any definitive word as to the nature of Marshall’s mission, or even if it was a success. But if it was carried out by a West Point football player, would you bet against it?