The football team at the U.S. Military Academy is not like other college football teams. At other schools, athletes are catered to and coddled at every turn. At West Point, they carry the same arduous load as their fellow cadets, shouldering an Ivy League–caliber education and year-round military training. After graduation they are not going to the NFL but to danger zones halfway around the world. These young men are not just football players, they are soldiers first.
Meet some of the personnel featured in Soldiers First
Rick Ellerson, Head Coach
Coach Rich Ellerson has turned a down and out Army football program around by embracing the virtues of the United States Military Academy. His father went to West Point as did two of his brothers. Ellerson doesn't want 300-pounders or lower academic standards for his athletes. He wants them to participate in all military duties and understand that their destination is to become a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. On the field, Ellerson wants the Black Knights to be “good always and occasionally great.” In 2010, He led Army to its first bowl victory in 25 years.
Steve Erzinger, Linebacker
Steve Erzinger did not enjoy his Plebe year – few do – and nearly transferred back to his native Texas where several big time programs saw promise in the quick, but undersized linebacker. Some upper class Cadets intervened, however, and assured him that developing into a leader and becoming an officer would be far more rewarding than anything he might accomplish in football. As a Firstie, or senior, he has done both: “Erz,” as he’s known, was tabbed by the departing Army class to be an Army Captain and his hard-nosed play is drawing the attention of professional scouts.
Max Jenkins, Quarterback
Max Jenkins is the backup quarterback who has earned the respect of West Point’s command as well as the Corps of Cadets. He is the Brigade’s Deputy Commander, the second highest ranking Cadet, as well as an Army Football Captain. The Army sees the makings of a career officer, but Max, whose father died suddenly during his sophomore year, understands how fleeting life is and is weighing his options.
Andrew Rodriguez, Linebacker
Andrew Rodriquez is the son of General David Rodriguez is ranked third in his class and carries a 4.17 grade point average. He is walking computer with a military career as illustrious as his father projected for him. “A-Rod,” as he’s known by his teammates, wants nothing more than to be able to play linebacker his final year at West Point, a goal that is in jeopardy after Rodriquez missed his entire junior year with a severely injured back.
Trent Steelman, Quarterback
Trent Steelman is the first Army freshman to start at quarterback in the modern era and is closing in on the school record for most consecutive career stars. He may be comfortable and accomplished on the football field, but Trent heads into his Cow – or Junior Year – as a work in progress as a cadet, struggling with the demands of military life as well as the expectations of greatness on the field.
Larry Dixon, Fullback
Larry Dixon is a Plebe just trying to cope with the rigors of Beast Barracks – learning how to fire weapons, recite Plebe knowledge and endure the stress and sleeplessness that is rules the lives first year Cadets as they are indoctrinated in the Long Gray Line. He’s also a good student, determined Cadet and one of the most talented recruits in the Ellerson Era who is trying to crack the starting line up at fullback.
Joe Drape is the author of the New York Times bestseller Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen, The Race for the Triple Crown, and Black Maestro. He is an award-winning reporter for The New York Times, having previously worked for The Dallas Morning News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.