First post-9/11 naval class ready to serveBy Corey Masisak


They were the first to enter the academies after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the first in nearly three decades to enter with their country at war.

The seniors from this year's graduating class at the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy will play in their last or, in the case of the Midshipmen, next-to-last football game when Navy meets Army for the 106th time Saturday in Philadelphia.

They were sitting in classrooms far from Annapolis and West Point the day the future of their country changed.

Jeremy Chase and Mick Yokitis attended Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., and they knew immediately their future had changed.

Others, such as Lamar Owens and Jake Biles, were still in high school and had yet to decide on a college. They did not know on September 11 that their futures lay at a military institution.

"Even in September [of my senior year], I had no idea I would be at the Naval Academy," said Owens, a quarterback and co-captain. "That was a tough time for a lot of people. For the people in our class to still want to be in the military even though they knew we were probably going to war, I think it means a lot to everyone. I think this will be a class that will always be remembered."

Chase said there was little consideration of opting out of the commitment to the academy.

"I don't know if that had too much of an effect," said Chase, a defensive end and the team's other co-captain. "If anything, there were guys who wanted to come more because they wanted to do something about it. By serving in the military, you can make a difference."

This senior class certainly made a difference in the Navy's fortunes on the field.

The Mids (6-4) will play in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 22 in San Diego, marking the first time in program history that they have played in three straight bowl games. A win over the Army Black Knights (4-6) would give Navy the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, awarded each season to the winner of the football competition among the three major service academies, in three consecutive years for the first time since 1981.

It is quite a turnabout for a program that produced a 1-20 record in the two years before this class arrived and went 2-10 during that group's freshmen season.

The war, never far from the players' minds, really hit home for the Mids last season when two former players were killed in Iraq in a span of a few months. The members of this class knew one of the men. The 18 seniors were plebes when 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith, a Marine, was a senior at the Academy.

As the war on terrorism continues into its fourth year, the seniors at both academies have realized they will be a part of it.

"I guess we were hoping it would be [over by now] because nobody wants to go to war, but I will defend my country," said Dhyan Tarver, a co-captain of Army's team. "I will do my responsibility. That is what I signed up for. At home my friends were like, Why are you going to West Point? 9/11 just happened, and you could be going to war."

"But keeping your family safe -- there is no price you can put on that."

The decision to attend a service academy isn't an easy one, even in a time of peace. The rigorous academic course work and the intense discipline of training make four years in Annapolis or West Point an unwelcome proposition for many football recruits.

Then there is the service commitment after graduation, which is magnified when the country is at war.

"I probably had 10 to 15 situations this past recruiting year where the parents said absolutely no. They say no," said Bobby Ross, a former National Football League and University of Maryland coach who now coaches at West Point. "I sat in the home of a young man in Florida. He was a 6-foot-5 wide receiver/tight end-type that would have been a perfect fit for West Point and really wanted to come. ... "

"I made my presentation, and the family didn't really speak English, so I had an interpreter with me. The boy spoke English. I was sitting there five minutes, and the father grabbed the boy's hand and said, "No military. No military." The boy said, "Coach, what do I do? I want to come, but I can't."

Biles, a linebacker and Navy's second-leading tackler, said he viewed the opportunity to defend his country as a positive when he was deciding where to attend college.

"I hadn't even considered a service academy," Biles said. "If you take a look at the way things are, you have to ask yourself if there is something you can do. I talked about it with a bunch of my friends, and when this opportunity came up a couple of months later, that definitely played a role in it. I felt there are a lot worse things to be committed to than our military."

He and Yokitis are two of the eight Navy seniors who will enter the Marine Corps, and they expect to be deployed in the Middle East within a year of graduation.

"Those that are here are probably more adamant, more determined to be a part of the war", Ross said. "I get constant e-mails from troops overseas that had been football players at West Point. To our program, it is a little bit of a rallying point."