Lessons learned on Navy football field still paying off

MANAMA, Bahrain -- You would think commmanding submarines and rushing the passer don't have much in common, give or take a swim move. But the truth is that Cmdr. Kent Van Horn, the officer in charge of submarine operations for the U.S. Fifth Fleet stationed here, says the lessons learned during his career as a defensive lineman for Navy in the mid-1980s benefit him to this day.

"There's a mental toughness that you develop in sports," Van Horn said. "You do play after play. You get knocked down. You get right back up. There's another play in 30 seconds. I don't care what happened 30 seconds ago. I have to think about the next play."

Van Horn started for the Midshipmen as a junior and senior in 1985 and 1986, and made 118 tackles in his career. As a junior, he had seven stops, including a sack, in Navy's 24-20 loss to Syracuse, which means he can tell his grandchildren he sacked a College Football Hall of Famer (Don McPherson).

If Van Horn remembers that performance, he keeps it to himself. Standing in the back of the hall where Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis participated in a Q&A session this past Saturday brought forth a memory that made Van Horn wince. Navy went into its 1984 game against Notre Dame with a 20-year losing streak against the Irish.

"Our lead was 17-15," Van Horn said. "We were standing there on the sideline with three or four minutes to go. We needed one first down to put the game away. I remember turning to a guy on the sideline and saying, 'I can't believe we're finally going to beat Notre Dame.'"

The Midshipmen did beat the Irish -- 23 years later. Notre Dame won that 1984 game with a late field goal, 18-17.

Annapolis is in the business of developing leaders, a task for which football is pretty well known, too. The Midshipmen who play football -- and the same holds true for players from Army and Air Force, too -- reap the benefits of learning leadership skills in the classroom and on the field.

When you pile the demands of major college football on top of the physical and mental rigor of a service academy education, the players who graduate have every right to claim an unofficial MBA.

"It certainly made time management critical," Van Horn said. "You don't get the time you get at another college. You can only get up so early in the morning and be functional. … You learn that you can do a lot in that day."

Aboard the USS Nassau, Marine Maj. Tim Millen, who lettered as a linebacker for Navy in 1989, and Ensign Brandon Diggs, who played his first two seasons on campus (2003 and 2004), discussed the nexus between the academy and football. Millen said the pressure of juggling an academy education and football produced an incredible bond in the locker room.

"Anywhere else, if I walk away, I walk away from my scholarship," Millen said. "Whereas at Navy, if I can't keep up with grades or whatever it is, guys will walk over and go do rugby or something that doesn't take as much time. You can walk away from the game for whatever reason. So the guys who stay around [do so] because they love the game. They love their teammates."

We need to be vocal in order to have the men working for [us] execute what needs to be done. Say you have a failure. Parallel that to an audible being called. You need precision, clarity, practice, because you never practice enough.

--Ensign Brandon Diggs

That bond, he continued, extends to other Navy teams. Millen, who answers to the nickname "Moon," said he relishes working with other former Midshipmen players.

"Most of the players I've seen tend to get along with each other, not just football players, but with other folks," Millen said. "They interact well with others and play well as a team. I know that when I work with those guys, they've been through the same training I have. They're competent in what they do. It's sort of a litmus test, I guess, certainly for those of us that played. I know if I pull Ensign Diggs out to help me with something, I know what comes with that. … As a fellow ballplayer, there's certainly more to him, and he walks in with a certain resume."

Diggs, a 2006 graduate testing his skills as a leader, falls back on football when any event strays from its expected path.

"We need to be vocal in order to have the men working for [us] execute what needs to be done," Diggs said. "Say you have a failure. Parallel that to an audible being called. You need precision, clarity, practice, because you never practice enough."

At most schools, the men who play football carry a certain celebrity for the rest of their lives. That's not true for Annapolis grads, unless the last name is Staubach. Van Horn said that when he moves to a new assignment, someone inevitably will ask, "You're pretty big. Did you play football?"

All of them have experienced the joy and frustration of watching Navy football from far-flung locales. Millen recalled being in an officers club in a distant time zone and seeing a Marine colonel walk in to watch the Army game in an academy bathrobe and slippers. Van Horn noted the difficulty of getting TV reception on a submarine. But in the end, it's the games and practices they replay in their minds that provide the greatest lessons and the most joy.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.