|The view from above|
By Wayne Drehs
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- As the helicopter begins to levitate, begins to lift itself from the safe securities of land and ascend into the choppy unknown above, you wonder -- for the fourth time in five seconds -- why aren't there any doors again?
Some six inches separate the tips of your toes from the edge of the sky. The only thing holding you to your canvas seat, the only thing keeping you from falling to a horrific death, is a standard-issue seatbelt. Your left hand, clinging mercilessly to the ceiling-bound safety handle, is ghostly white. And your digital camera, tucked deep into the palm of your other hand, is dripping with sweat from the frazzled nerves that shoot through you.
And you're just along for the ride. You're just here to snap a few pictures, jot a few notes and get a sense for the most entertaining half hour of a home football Saturday for four Army cadets.
In 28 minutes, these four, members of the Black Knights Parachute Team, will leap out of this helicopter -- with proud smiles strapped across their goggle-clad faces -- and try to land at the 50-yard line of Army's Michie Stadium, hand-delivering the game ball for a 3:30 kickoff against Tulane.
The tradition takes place before every home football game. This coming Saturday -- weather permitting -- the Corps of Cadets, the fans and the South Florida Bulls (Army's opponent) will look to the sky, see the black and gold parachutes open and watch the game ball float to midfield.
"Permission granted," the pilot says to the jumpmaster through a headset. "And by the way, how are you today?"
"Sir," cadet Brian Montgomery politely responds, "it's a beautiful day and I'm about to jump out of an airplane into a football stadium -- things couldn't be any better."
And right there it hits you. You're scared out of your mind, your knees are knocking and you're wondering how your wife will cope if you fall out of a helicopter, while the four cadets riding with you can't wait to jump.
"Put it this way -- picture the wildest, craziest roller coaster you've ever been on," said cadet Ryan Dennison. "Picture that on steroids. That's what it's like."
This is the heart of a football Saturday at West Point. What dotting the "I" is to Ohio State, what Mike the Tiger is to LSU, what the stampeding Buffalo is to Colorado ... that's what parachuting the game ball to the 50-yard line is to Army.
Sure, the Black Knights have won just five of their last 32 games. Sure, the I-A team is 176th in Jeff Sagarin's latest college football ratings (below 57 I-AA teams and two I-AAA teams). But this place still oozes with historical importance.
Where else can a "notable alumni" page in the team media guide boast of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and Norman Schwarzkopf?
Where else does a mid-major team -- a team that's won one of its last 15 games -- regularly draw near 30,000, including a constantly-charged student body that unwinds from the rigors of school by screaming its lungs out?
And where else does one step on campus instantly trigger the goosebumps of patriotism, transforming a football Saturday into a celebration of Duty, Honor and Country?
Here, words like "discipline" and "responsibility" are literally set in stone -- etched into the granite benches lining the sidewalks. The crisp, clean notes of the National Anthem ring across the Plain as the cadet parade files past the standing-room only metal bleachers.
Tailgating here is more Johnnie Walker Black and a slice of Brie than a keg of Bud and case of brats. Card tables are covered with table clothes, candelabras and cloth napkins. The local Lite FM station replaces traditional parking lot anthems like, "Welcome to the Jungle" and, "Nothin' But a G' Thang."
"It's definitely different here," said one parking lot attendant who also works at Rutgers games. "I'm not sure if you can even call it tailgating. They talk about their portfolios and stuff. But at least they listen to us. They're well-behaved."
On the field, the team has struggled for more than a decade, finishing with a winning record just three times since 1990. This, at a school with three Heisman Trophy winners, three national championships and over 600 victories.
Part of the problem is the challenge in recruiting -- any Army cadet has a six-year, post-graduate military requirement, which essentially eliminates any prospects who dream of the NFL. And part of it is trying to compete in a college football landscape rife with under-the-table illegalities. Life at West Point is built around an honor code: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do."
Imagine everyone in the SEC living to standards like that.
"I've always said, a Saturday game is the easiest part of their week," cadet David Rokhlin said. "Those (football players) get the ultimate respect from everyone on post."
"These are our friends," Dennison said. "Sure, we'd like to win more, but it doesn't matter. Football is just our vehicle. It's just a way to bring everyone together and be ourselves for an afternoon."
And few things bring the corps together more than the aerial delivery of the game ball. On this particular Saturday, the weather couldn't be better. Up in the chopper, the jumpers are buzzing with excitement. They're like fourth-graders the night before a field trip.
"Isn't this great?" jumper Brent Hopps screams through the wind and propeller noise while giving a thumbs up. "I've got a back flip coming for you."
You nod in approval. And for the first time since the helicopter took off some 10 minutes ago, you're somewhat relaxed. You've lessened your grip on the security handle, stopped pushing your feet through the helicopter floor and started to appreciate the breathtaking view. Gradually.
Each year, roughly 100 plebes try out for the parachute club, but only 10 make it. Once they're in, they train 25 hours a week. They've practiced landing in 16-inch-by-16-inch squares. They've had their parachutes tangle up, began to think they were headed for disaster and then figured a way to safety. They've jumped in winter storms and felt the pellet-like pieces of sleet pierce their faces. And you got up here because of a press pass.
After dropping a series of yellow streamers to analyze the wind speed and direction, after killing 20 minutes by flying in circles waiting for the on-field pageantry to come to an end, it's finally time for the jumps. The helicopter turns around, gets into place and you can feel the tension crank up.
And comprehending the fact that the guys sitting next to you are going to end up down there, in that soup bowl of a stadium, is impossible. But one by one, they begin.
First, it's Hopps. He stands with his back to the world, holding on to the safety bar above his head. When given the signal, he tumbles backwards, flipping his feet up over his head while plummeting below.
The next jumper lines up, assumes the same position and falls back, looking up at you and waving. It's one of the strangest sights you've ever seen. A human being, suspended in the middle of the sky, looking up at you with an I-just-met-the-girl-of-my-dreams smile and a see-you-back-at-the-dock sort of wave.
The next jumper plunges with a 360-degree salute; the final jumper a head-first dive. It all happens within a span of 30 seconds. Ten seconds later, all four parachutes open, revealing alternating bands of black and gold. "We're all clear -- we have open chutes on all four jumpers," the co-pilot says.
Four minutes after that, the jumpers land in exact order, each of them hitting the midfield Black Knights logo precisely as planned.
"Wow," the pilot says. "Those guys are good. They nailed it."
Thirty minutes later, inside Michie Stadium, the four jumpers look no different than any of their cadet counterparts. Their jumpsuits have been traded in for the standard gray West Point slacks and white button-downs. The only thing that sets them apart is the tiny silver skydiving pin they wear on the left side of their chest.
One of the jumpers, Dennison, is still flush with adrenaline.
"I'm still in a state of shock," he said. "I'm just totally numb. Every time I'm up there, it's absolutely surreal."
Funny thing -- I know exactly what he means.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org