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Sunday books: Grueling life of football player at West Point; author Q/A

Army is 2-9 this year. That would count as a losing season, right?

But if you read Joe Drape’s new book, Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country & Football at West Point, losing is the last word you’d apply to the cadets. The New York Times reporter spent the 2011 season getting the inside story of Army football, and what the cadets have to do through to play the game.

As Drape writes, a grueling three-hour practice can feel like a respite compared to the academic and physical demands the cadets face at West Point. And as he concludes at the end of the book, there’s still only one game that matters for Army: Navy.

Here’s my Q/A with Drape.

What was your motivation for writing the book?

My son, Jack, gave me the idea one night while we were watching the
Notre Dame-Army game. I’m an Irish fan – I had an uncle who taught
there and my oldest brother graduated from Notre Dame. But as soon as
Jack saw the pregame show about Army with the cadets marching in and
soldiers parachuting in with the game balls he was sold. His favorite
toys were those little green Army men and he said, “Let’s go see the good guys, Dad.” I’m a Southern Methodist University graduates and saw
what the best football team money could buy looked like. I also had
covered my share of college football scandals. So I guess I was
looking to restore my faith in college athletics.

How much time did you spend at West Point and how much access did you get to coaches/players?

I spent a full year up there and truly had the run of the place. I was
able to go to classes, see them at their summer training missions, see
them in barracks and attend the ceremonies like Reception Day and
Branch night. I knew very little about the United States Military
Academy and needed and wanted to take my time understanding how it
worked.

I wanted to see what the Cadets were up against. I also wanted
everyone to get used to seeing me so they’d open up. Football-wise, I
was at practice and meetings as well as in the locker rooms and
sidelines during games. It was really a learning experience for me.

What stood out most for you in writing this book?

How much stress the cadets are under and how much is expected of them. They take 24 credit hours of an Ivy caliber education each semester. They are training as soldiers every minute of every day year round. They truly are America’s best and brightest. No one gets a break and that includes the athletes.

They are held to the same standard as their 4,000 fellow cadets and
you really can’t say that about any other college football team. The
easiest thing a varsity Cadet does is play football.

I was struck about the Cadets’ mindset, especially how they were
disappointed about the U.S. pulling out of Iraq. What does that say
about them?

I was struck by it as well. It says a couple of things – that they know what their destination is and are committed to getting there: becoming Lieutenants in the Army and leading men into battle. It also says that they remain 18 to 22 year old kids who feel immortal.

How gut-wrenching was the Navy game?

Ask players at either academy and they will tell you that they play a one game season. Army & Navy can both come in 0-10, but their success will be judged by who gets to “Sing Second” – the moment when the victors gather in front of their fellow cadets or middies and sing the alma mater joyously in victory. Army hadn’t done so in 10 years, and they came close last time.

Would you want your son to go to Army?

I would be the proudest father in the world if Jack went to West Point, and at the same time, I’d be the most petrified. And I know that is the way every parent of a cadet fields – pride in their son or daughter’s commitment and fear knowing that the odds are overwhelming their going to experience combat. Ninety West Point grads have died in the war against terrorism since 9/11.

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