• Erin Summers

For Service Academy Football Players, Sept 11th Changed Everything

Reporting by Erin Summers

September 11, 2001 is a day that changed our nation and the lives of so many forever. The Service Academy men and women were quickly faced with the prospect of war. Here are the stories of four Academy football players who lived that reality.

The 2001 Academy football season started just like any other - excitement and expectations for a new season.

"We had a really good season [the year] before," remembered Mark Riegel, an offensive lineman for the Army Black Knights in 2001. "Even though we didn't win as many games as we wanted to, we had a lot of high expectations and a lot of excitement going into that season, and really our first week against Cincinnati."

An aerial view of the damage at the Pentagon outside of Washington, DC after Islamic terrorists flew a commercial airliner into the building on 9-11-2001. Photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill; Courtesy Dept. of Defense.

Army lost in the final seconds of that opener, but hopes remained high for a successful season.

Navy started the 2001 season 0-2. And then . . . everything changed.

"I'll never forget walking into my room and watching the first tower collapse. And I was like, 'What? What's going on here?'" said 2001 Navy offensive lineman Dan Peters. "Right then everybody knew. They had freshmen with their bayonets standing in front of the doors to guard stuff, and F-16s overhead. We had all this stuff going and and we're like: 'What is happening?'"

As news of the September 11th attack on the United States spread across the country, football took a back seat.

Dan Peters remembered the football team being called into a meeting with then Navy head coach Charlie Weatherbie:

He told us 'Just be resilient. We're not going to play this week. Let's get through this. This is way more important than football right now.' And we're all shocked because, on the team, we're all getting ready to go serve. And what are we walking into? It's scary!

Football games that following weekend -- at every level, college and pro -- were postponed as the nation grappled with a variety of emotions and how to respond.

Mark Reigel as an Army football player in 2001

"We all knew what we were signing up for, but it became very real that day," Reigel said to Behind The Lines. "And I think a lot of us were trying to process and understand how we were feeling, and what we were feeling. I think I can speak for myself and a lot of our teammates, we wanted to go do something about it and we wanted to get involved."

"It drastically changed everybody on our football team, as well as the entire corps of cadets, and what our trajectory would be then once we graduated from West Point," said 2001 Army quarterback Chad Jenkins. "Because we went immediately -- in a couple of hours -- from a peacetime military, with not too much conflict going on in the world, to a nation at war."

Mark Reigel as an Army officer in Iraq in 2004

As life began to move forward at the Academies, the Black Knights and Midshipmen tried to fight the emotions and keep their focus on the field.

"I think people’s minds were in a lot of different places," 2001 Navy defensive end Glenn Schatz said. "I know there were people that knew people in New York. There are people that knew people at the Pentagon."

"We took football even more seriously," Reigel said, "because it was an opportunity for us to better ourselves as people and as teammates and to be ready to go, one day, into combat. Where else better than to be at West Point playing football to get ready to be on the field of combat one day?"

The 2001 season culminated in usual fashion, in Philadelphia with the annual Army-Navy Game. Navy headed into the match-up winless. Army had just two victories in the season.

Members of the Navy Midshipmen football team rush onto the field during pregame ceremonies before the 2001 Army-Navy Game

"It's more than a football game, it really is," said Reigel, "It's the Army and the Navy coming together as a representation of what's good in our country and pure competition, knowing what lies ahead.

"And, so, I'll never forget it. I get goose bumps thinking about it right now, that day and the helicopters flying over and just what it really means for us, for our families . . . for our country."

That year the Army-Navy Game represented even more, as the players battling on the gridiron would soon be Brothers-In-Arms, fighting for the country in a war against terror.

"I think it took me ten years to realize the magnitude of that game for the nation," said Jenkins. "I think it was more of a patriotic symbol of what 'right' looks like in America, the two teams coming together. They are average athletes, but they're out there to compete at the highest level and then get ready to truly be 'Brothers-In-Arms' and go see what it means to fight on bigger fields."

"At one point I had my hand down on the field, thinking: 'These guys are doing the same thing we are!' Absolutely you realize that special bond you have with the people on the other side of the field with you," said Reigel.

"Over the years, even when I was deployed in Iraq, I came across guys who I played with, either with Army football or Navy football. And the first thing you do is you start telling stories about the Army-Navy Game, or who won or lost. So, absolutely, you build a bond with people that lasts forever."

Army defeated Navy 26 - 17 that season.

Army quarterback Chad Jenkins gets protection from a blocker while he rolls and looks for an open receiver during the 2001 Army-Navy Game

"Right after that," Jenkins recalled, "I knew my destiny as a football player was over. It had expired at that point, and it was now time to shift gears and shift that focus to leading in combat, and that shift took place pretty quickly after that game."

J. P. Blecksmith, pictured here as a Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, played for the Navy football team in 2001 and later died in combat during the Global War on Terror.
Ron Winchester, pictured here as a Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, played for the Navy football team in 2001 and later died in combat during the Global War on Terror.

Two Midshipmen who played in the 2001 Army-Navy Game later died in combat.

"Ron Winchester, he played football with us and he got killed in an IED explosion, and then J. P. Blecksmith got killed as well, a year later," Peters said of his fallen teammates.

"I think the realization became real when that happened. We knew we were going to have to go into combat. We knew that. But when people that you know start dying . . . that makes it a lot different scene."

September 11th changed the lives of these Cadets and Midshipmen forever: Brothers-In-Arms, forever bonded, forever remembered.

edited for web by Joe Harman