To Fight & Die For That Inch

Written + Photographed by Chris Pestel
originally published December 22, 2014 in West Point Stories

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Did I see something that afternoon? Was this loss different? Are moral victories a thing? There's no substitute for victory, right? Was this new coach just like all the others? 

As a 2003 graduate of West Point and a member of the last Army Football team to BEAT NAVY (2001 season) maybe I am just waving my pom-pom. Maybe I am merely trying to help ease the pain of another December loss to Navy and another season below .500, maybe I am being overly optimistic…or maybe I DID see something.

Today I’m a visual storyteller. It’s my job to display my observations. This photo essay's purpose is to show you what I saw on an early December afternoon in 2014. A Saturday afternoon in which hope welled-up inside of me with the sound of a blocked punt giving Army Football a chance to end a 12-year loosing streak to Navy. 

But that didn't happen.

Though...all was not lost.

My former teammate and classmate, Aris Comeaux. Aris is a MAJ, a math instructor at West Point and also serves as the team chaplain for Army Football. Aris and I were both WRs and ROCK MATH (remedial math) students. Did I mention that he is now a math instructor?

My former teammate and classmate, Aris Comeaux. Aris is a MAJ, a math instructor at West Point and also serves as the team chaplain for Army Football. Aris and I were both WRs and ROCK MATH (remedial math) students. Did I mention that he is now a math instructor?

Rise. Life is in motion. I’m stuck in line.
Rise. You can’t be neutral on a moving train.
— Pearl Jam

THE 6-INCH WAR

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It just sits there. Prior to each snap, its available. Whoever wants it can take it. By its very definition, its neutral.

Despite advancements in technology, game planning, schemes and athleticism, football is still a strikingly simple game: win the 6-inch war. Control the line of scrimmage.

Football is a team game of controlled collisions, a game of 11 individual 1-on-1 battles. A team game of autonomous responsibility - beat your man.

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But, that is easier said than done, and the 6-inch war can get complicated. Superior athletes or schemes can neutralize a given team’s ability to control the line-of-scrimmage. But, success starts up-front and consistent control of that neutral space is still where victories lie for Army Football. Victories lie in the inches in between.

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The 2014 football season ended with a record of 4–8, losing 2 out of every 3 games. And for those keeping score, that’s less than mediocre. As a graduate, former member of the Army Football team, and current member of the Army Football Club, it is frustrating and demoralizing to witness yet another subpar win/loss record. It sucks that the season ended with a one-score loss to Navy (in front of 70,000 in Baltimore and the largest TV audience in 15 years), and it sucks to not be writing about cadets storming the field.

Am I upset? Demoralized? Frustrated? I am, because, well…thats how I am supposed to feel, right? What other option do I have?

Much has been written on the current state of Army football. And this is not meant to be a dialogue with a recipie for ‘fixing’ Army Football. Like I said earlier, it’s simply a visual observation and story. But, if you would like to educate yourself with the current climate surrounding the Pride & Dream, please check-out & support None More American: Army Football in Post 9/11 America. This documentary film, by Rob O’Sullivan, tells the story of Army Football over the past 13 years and offers a great deal of perspective on the type of high quality individuals that make Army Football & West Point a special place.

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Progress is a puzzle. Putting the pieces together is a challenge. Building or rebuilding a foundation can be trying to one's patience and time consuming. But it can be especially trying when stuck between on-field success and eons of tradition, lineage and culture. West Point is a place where the foundation is the culture and the culture is the foundation.

In years past, I have felt ‘let down’ by Army Football…but not this year. I can sense the re-working of a foundation. A shift and a change in culture. And if for no other reason than that, I am optimistic about our chances with the 6-inch war.


THE MONKEN ERA

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It’s year 1. And, unfortunately, Army Football is no stranger to year 1. Patience has worn thin. So we find ourselves projecting and asking: How will the Jeff Monken era be defined? Through the first year I observed “Ownership” & “Solidarity”.

On Saturday, December 13th coach Monken made his way off the field. He tipped his hat to the Corps, thanking them for having the team’s back and disappeared into the tunnel. For a moment his frustration rang loud and clear. Then, a few steps later he made an apology to a pair of Generals. He took full ownership for the team's shortcomings. He didn't make excuses, he didn't point fingers. He just owned it.

Then he got back to work.

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After the Army-Navy game, there were 3 individuals who addressed the team: Head Coach — Jeff Monken, Superintendent — GEN Robert Caslen & U.S. Army Chief-of-Staff — GEN Ray Odierno. Tactical, Operational & Strategic. On the same page...together. As a unit they spoke of disappointment and perspective in light of that disappointment. In solidarity, they clamored not for a moral victory. But seeking momentum, they spoke of something that had been missing — BELIEF. Belief from fans, Belief from The Corps and Belief from within, that this was a different Army team.

SOLIDARITY.

Then coach Monken told the players something I wont soon forget. He told them:

You don’t know if or when you will get another chance to tell your team mates what they mean to you, so do it now 
— Jeff Monken
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And that simple statement carried with it a certain amount of gravitas. It rang more true in THAT locker room, to THOSE players than it did in most locker rooms and to most players after a simple game of football.

Coaches and players, players and Generals, players and players. It was in this somber moment that age, rank & race disappeared. Respect did not. In this moment there was only…The Army Team. Top to bottom & bottom to top.

The Long Gray Line saw its future, remembered its past & engaged its present. There were tears and even some smiles…but all brotherhood…all family.

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But this awareness and idea of family was not mere coach speak. It was the speech of a man who walked the walk. Several moments after speaking those words to his players and coaches, Coach Monken exited that locker room. There stood his family and a man transformed from coach to husband, father, brother and son…or so I thought he transformed.

Then, in the press room, this man…this leader of future officers shared a similar moment with team captains, Larry Dixon and Joe Drummond. It was impossible to distinguish ‘family-man’ from ‘coach’.

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The disapointment I had been feeling disappeared.

I felt a sense of relief.

Army Football had its leader.


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