A look at life on the USS Carl Vinson

SAN DIEGO -- When the planes -- or the birds, as they like to call them aboard the USS Carl Vinson -- go up, for the guys on the flight deck, the ones in the blue jerseys charged with helping things run seamlessly, there is a sensation like no other.

"You can feel your organs shake,'' said James McCaughan, a 21-year-old sailor from Virginia. "There's this huge fire so there's a line you have to stand behind, but you can still feel it burn.''

Which, to the rest of us less brave souls, begs the question: Why? Why do this? Why live on board a floating vessel as long as the Empire State Building is tall, floating around in a dark sea that, at any moment, could go from calm waters to hostile?

"I don't think I'll ever have a job as great as this one,'' said Michael Myers, a 24-year-old from Norristown, Pa., who joined the Navy three years ago. "The adrenaline rush, what we do, there's nothing like it.''

Friday night's Carrier Classic between Michigan State and No. 1 North Carolina will be a basketball spectacle, with a court and stands erected on a flight deck, an outdoor basketball game in the world of indoor climate control. It will be played aboard the same ship that was used to dispose of the body of Osama Bin Laden six months ago.

And on 11/11/11, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, will be among the exclusive crowd of 7,000 to witness a game that is quite literally a logistical operation of militaristic precision.

Except basketball is only the sideshow. The game counts, as Roy Williams and Tom Izzo know only too well, but the final score isn't ultimately what this is about.

This is about Veterans Day and the active military; about the 2,941 crew members aboard the USS Carl Vinson who were in Haiti to deliver more than 1 million pounds of food and 40,000 pounds of medical supplies after the earthquake; who were the first to launch air strikes in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and who will leave their San Diego home again in the near future for destinations unknown.

It is a game steeped in meaning and message -- meaning and message that is especially poignant this week.

As an iconic image crumbles at Penn State, the word hero once again is being reconsidered and sports idolatry exposed as a dangerous love affair.

Yet aboard the Vinson are men and women, many no older than the players who will provide their Friday night basketball entertainment, whose average days are extraordinary and their extraordinary days are unimaginable.

Here are the heroes.

"You know it's dangerous but you try to keep that out of your mind,'' said Cody Erickson, from Minnesota. "You just can't worry about that.''

The baby-faced Erickson has been in the Navy just nine months, a decision his parents supported, though his sister was less than thrilled about it.

He's just 20 -- "about to turn 21,'' he'll remind you. Or one year younger than Michigan State forward Draymond Green.

Green's defining moment? The 2009 Final Four in Detroit, where Michigan State fans took over the city.

Erickson's? Giving Osama bin Laden a burial at sea.

"I don't think I'm mature enough to do what they do, so it really does surprise me how young they are,'' Green said. "It takes a lot of discipline, so in that way it's like basketball. But that's the only way.''

Erickson is typical of a lot of people on board. He joined the Navy after a semester at college made him realize college wasn't for him, at least not yet. They saw the Navy as an outlet as well as a destination, a place that offered the allure of adventure but also the discipline of precision.

They've since learned the reality. That between the adventure, the days can be monotonous.

"It really does get boring sometimes,'' said John Meeth, a 24-year-old from Kalamazoo, Mich., who was born a Wolverines fan but will switch allegiances to the Spartans for one night. "They do things to keep us entertained -- card games, things like that, but it can get old.''

But the reward for the boredom is the chaos and the pressure. They thrive on it like athletes, somehow shutting out the noise to do their jobs coherently and determinedly.

Most people imagine the flight deck of an aircraft carrier to run like something out of "Top Gun," with glib and cocky pilots dashing off in their jumpsuits to best the bad guys.

The reality is a whole lot less Hollywood. It's long days filled with endless training -- something else an athlete can relate to, but with consequences that nothing else can compare.

"You go through hell, training-wise, to make sure you're ready,'' Myers said.

Meeth works with the ship's self-defense weapons, making sure everything is running appropriately for the tactical people in charge.

Myers, Erickson, McCaughan and Darius Hainsworth are part of the flight deck operation that runs the organized chaos that is the reality of getting planes in the air.

They are blue shirts -- one step below the highest-ranking yellow shirts -- but before they could be anything, they walked around with T's on their "cranials." "That's our helmets," McCaughan explained.

The T's labeled them as trainees and meant that they weren't allowed to go on the flight deck without an authorized person.

"I won't lie, the first time you go up there without the T, it's pretty scary,'' Erickson admitted. "It can be a very stressful job because there's so much going on.''

The four call the Vinson home day and night, even on the blackest of nights when the carrier is at sea and the lightless bow makes for an eerie view.

And like anyone, they are protective of their turf. "This is our house,'' Myers said. "So you know how it is. No one comes to your house.''

Except this weekend, when their house has been infiltrated by hulking pieces of metal bleachers, wandering media and basketball players who have to fold themselves in two to take a tour of the close quarters aboard the Vinson.

This game is, without question, an interruption of normalcy on the ship.

And you won't find anyone complaining about that.

"I'm pretty sure, with the president on board, I'll be told to just stay where I am and they'll call if they need me,'' said Meeth, who is on duty and won't be among the 4,000 servicemen and women attending the game. "So it's going to be a little bit different. But we don't mind. We appreciate it. We appreciate all of it. We really do.''

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.