Football players have often said they are going to "war" against a particular opponent. But Fisher DeBerry has coached players who served our country in the Gulf War. And following last week's tragedies, he's coaching players now who may end up going to war in the near future.
The longtime Air Force Academy football coach carries a heavier burden than your typical coach. It's one thing to coach a player who gets drafted and then fails in the NFL. It's another thing to coach a player who may go to war and never come home again.
While some coaches may lose track of players who pass through a school's revolving door every three to four years, DeBerry can't afford to lose contact. His coaching umbilical cord is firmly attached to his players.
It's one thing to coach a player who gets drafted and then fails in the NFL. It's another thing to coach a player who may go to war and never come home again.
He can't say to them, "Good luck in your life and your future. Oh, sorry you didn't make it. I'll try to help you get a job." His players go on to work in the military, always living with a real threat of war. He looks at his young players and doesn't know what lies in their future. And they don't either.
Now in his 22nd year at the Air Force Academy, his 18th as head coach, DeBerry was ready to sign up for service soon after last week's attacks. Being around the cadets, he understands what the terrorist attacks mean as well as anybody. He sits down and talks to the players about what is happening now and what could happen next since the tragedy affects them more than it does other college football players.
It's impossible for DeBerry's players to remain focused on football. Security is tight at the academy. The cadets are not allowed to leave the base. They are under Threat Condition Delta, the highest form of alert. But times like these are why the cadets came to the academy. They didn't come to Colorado Springs, Colo., to play football. They came because they wanted to go out into the world and be leaders.
Here's what Air Force football players currently face: They got embarrassed in their season opener against Oklahoma, 44-3; their last game against Utah was cancelled; they don't have another game until Sept. 29 at San Diego State; the country is going to war; many former players could lose their lives; and the current players are ineligible to be drafted into service until they complete their requirements.
So the cadets can't help their country, and right now they can't play football.
DeBerry said the current situation is different from the Gulf War, one fought halfway around the world in the Persian Gulf region. But last week's terrorist attacks hit home. And the nation is declaring war on an enemy we don't know. The war on terrorism, DeBerry said, will last long enough for some of his current players to fight.
It's impossible for DeBerry's players to remain focused on football. Security is tight at the academy. They are under Threat Condition Delta, the highest form of alert.
As the all-time winningest service academy coach, DeBerry has had great football success at Air Force. But he's not leaving anytime soon. He is still drawn to the athletes, these future leaders. He looks at them like a father looks at a son.
In the past week the nation has viewed firefighters and policemen with a greater amount of respect. But we must also not take the service academy cadets for granted. They are preparing for war even when there isn't one. Now that a war is upon us, all cadets -- including DeBerry's players -- will be defending our nation soon.
And the battlefield won't be shaped like a gridiron.