Aggies' Dodge can't walk away from 9/11

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The acrid, awful, haunting smell of charred flesh still returns sometimes, without warning.

They're phantom smells, five years old, but that doesn't make them any less real to Mark Dodge. Same with the nightmares, which are less frequent now but no less jarring.

"Certain nightmares will always probably be there," Dodge said.

When you have been where Mark Dodge has been, seen what he has seen, smelled what he has smelled, you don't forget. When you have bagged incinerated bodies and carried them to a morgue truck, the experience lingers. When you have spent days raking through piles of debris for human remains -- sifting out the teeth and bones -- it stays with you.

"I don't think raking will ever be the same for him," said Dodge's mom, Toni Inserra.

On Sept. 11, 2001, 20-year-old Mark Dodge was at the Pentagon when it was struck by the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77. Shortly thereafter, Dodge's 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment was part of the response team.

"I'm sad my son had to go through that," Inserra said. "I'm sad anyone had to go through that. At 20, we all take a lot for granted. I don't think he takes anything for granted now."

That's the perspective gained from going through hell. Monday, on the fifth anniversary of that tragedy, Mark Dodge believes he is a better man because of it. A stronger man. A more appreciative man.

"I've always thought you're put in places to make you a better person," Dodge said. "Those things helped me mature in ways that I wouldn't have done otherwise.

"Just the respect for life. When you've seen death, you respect life."

And you cherish the chance to live a dream, as a 25-year-old linebacker at Texas A&M.

Dodge's difficult path to College Station -- from a rocky childhood spent largely without his father to the military to the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and beyond -- has created a profound enjoyment of his current surroundings. The smell of grass and sweat and liniment is so much more comforting than the smell of death.

For Mark Dodge, perhaps more than for any other player in the country, college football is a beautiful thing.

"When you're on the field, everything else is gone," Dodge said. "I've been through a lot of stuff, but on the field everything's gone. It's my release point."

His discomfort is subtly evident.

Mark Dodge's gaze drifts away from my face and down to the floor. His right hand stretches the leg of his crimson shorts. He's no longer talking in first person, suddenly referring to himself as "you."

"You'd come across stuff you wish you wouldn't," Dodge said. "Stuff you couldn't imagine seeing."

Like most Americans, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, began unremarkably enough for Dodge. As a member of The Old Guard, Dodge was part of an honor guard that often served at military funerals at adjacent Arlington National Cemetery, and at visits by foreign leaders to the nation's capital. He was at the Pentagon that morning to fill out paperwork for security clearance to the White House.

He was in a mall area watching television footage of the World Trade Center attacks in New York when felt the building shake and, shortly thereafter, heard the alarms wail. When evacuating, he saw smoke billowing out of the building and realized something very bad had happened.

Dodge called his mom back home in Nevada to tell her he was OK, then hustled back to his base at Fort Meyer, less than a mile from the Pentagon. From there, The Old Guard was mobilized and sent to the scene of the attack.

Dodge's first job was to set up tents for the survivors. When the fires were put out in the building, he was sent in to search for survivors and recover the dead.

He'd find the corpses and call an FBI agent. The agent would inspect the remains and take notes, then Dodge and his fellow soldiers would bag the bodies and take them to the morgue truck.

At night the Old Guard worked patrol duty around the capital. The few hours of down time the soldiers experienced in the days after Sept. 11 were somber and silent.

"Nobody talked about it," Dodge said.

The suppressed trauma, he said manifested itself in nightmares. Dodge met with Army counselors and a chaplain to sort through his feelings, and eventually saw a psychologist for a brief time.

"He tried to deal with it the most healthy way he could," Inserra said. "We all have events that shape our lives. That will shape his forever."

It was in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that Mark Dodge decided he wanted to go to college. And he wanted to play football.

Dodge had played while growing up near Yerington, Nev., and loved it. But most of his life revolved around work on the family ranch, either farming alfalfa or showing heifers.

"It seemed like I was always working, non-stop," Dodge said.

Mark and his mom were almost inseparable, and he was very close to his grandmother, Jeannie Stillfield. His relationship with his dad, Howard Dodge, was another matter. Howard Dodge and Inserra divorced when Mark was 2.

"Me and my dad struggled growing up," Dodge said. "I didn't have a father figure there."

Said Inserra: "Only two years ago was the first time those two ever threw a football back and forth."

Sports became a refuge for Dodge as a child, and they became a refuge again in later life, while in the military. Dodge played flag football for a D.C. sports bar, and told his Army buddies that he was going to play college ball when his enlistment was done.

"He would go to the gym every day -- every single day -- on post," said David Jones, Dodge's closest friend in the Army. "He had a strict diet, too. He was totally committed to it. It kind of blew my mind."

After rising to the rank of sergeant, Dodge got out of the service and went back home. With freshened perspective, he went to work on two things: building a relationship with his dad and finding a place to play football.

Neither were easy.

"I admire him so much, because his dad has hurt him tremendously," Inserra said. "Mark's ability to forgive is amazing."

"We both kind of realized we have one life together," Dodge said of the repaired relations with his dad.

In pursuit of the football dream, he called dozens of junior-college coaches in search of a place to play. None of them called back.

Undeterred, he enrolled at Feather River (Community) College in California, about 160 miles from his home. Dodge made the team and immediately made his mark at linebacker, leading Feather River in tackles both seasons.

Dodge had bulked up from 170 pounds in high school to 200 in the Army. At Feather River, he was 220. Recruiters nationwide took notice.

The school that most appealed to him was Texas A&M. He liked the military influence (the ROTC Corps of Cadets at A&M includes about 2,000 students) and the tradition. The Aggies coaches liked what they saw of Dodge on film, and liked him even more when they met him.

"He wasn't a wow guy or a flash guy," Aggies' defensive coordinator Gary Darnell said. "But he was a mature guy. I knew we needed some older guys."

Dodge enrolled at A&M last January, scarcely believing his good fortune. When he first got to campus he would call his mom and excitedly tell her he was driving past Kyle Field, the Aggies' grandiose stadium.

"He was so grateful to be there," Inserra said.

In what looked like a true odd-couple pairing, Dodge was assigned to live with a teenager who graduated early from high school, wide receiver Cody Beyer.

"I was kind of nervous about it," Beyer said. "My parents weren't too excited about it. But it's like he's a normal guy. I was expecting something different, but he as normal as all the other guys."

The two are still roommates, but Beyer isn't the only Aggie who thinks highly of Dodge. In an unusual move, Dodge was voted to the team's leadership council after just one semester in school. The respect from his peers is team-wide.

"That's just his effervescent personality," head coach Dennis Franchione said. "Mark loves life. He enjoys people and he's very mature."

Spring practice is rarely a joy to veteran players, but it was an absolute ball for Dodge. Franchione recalls one practice where Dodge yelled to 65-year-old secondary coach Bill Clay, "This [expletive] never gets old, does it coach Clay?"

That's the basic message Dodge has driven home to his teammates at every opportunity: embrace this opportunity. Enjoy it. Appreciate it.

"This is more fun than I can ever dream of," Dodge said. "One bad day here is a lot better than a very good day overseas [in the military]. If you complain about anything here, you're crazy.

"Just respect what you've got. There's millions of people who would love to have what we have. Live every day as best you can and do what you can, because it'll go by quick."

That verve helped drive Dodge to the top of the depth chart at inside linebacker coming out of spring ball. He was still No. 1 for much of August, but an injury kept him out of a few days of practice, and he surrendered the starting job to fellow juco transfer Misi Tupe.

When Darnell told Dodge he wouldn't start in the season opener against The Citadel, he expected some disappointment. He got none.

"Coach, I understand," Dodge told him. "That's what you've got to do."

Instead of sulking, Dodge was ready for his chance. On his first play as a Division I-A football player, he blew up a Citadel running back for a 2-yard loss. On his second play he got in on another tackle for a loss and helped force a fumble.

"[Senior linebacker] Justin Warren said, 'As soon as you make that first big play play, you can't forget it,' " Dodge said. "He's right."

Dodge went on to make seven tackles in the game and one more Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette. This week he's looking forward to playing Army in San Antonio. Not only will his mom be there, but he'll take an enlisted man's chip on the shoulder into a game against future Army officers.

"I've got some memories from those 'butter bars,' " Dodge said, using the grunt's derisive term for know-it-all lieutenants fresh out of West Point. "They'll all have their unit patches on, which will definitely bring back some memories."

Other memories will be present for Mark Dodge on Sept. 11. The more he was asked about it by reporters last week, the more those five-year-old feelings stirred in his soul.

"Right now it's getting a little bit too much," he said last Wednesday. "It's a little overwhelming. It brings up a lot of stuff."

Asked how Monday would be, Dodge shrugged his broad shoulders.

"When Monday comes, Monday comes."

Toni Inserra has a pretty good idea what Sept. 11 will be like for her oldest son.

"Hard," she said. "I think it will be very hard."

The good news for Mark Dodge is that Tuesday will follow. He'll be one step further removed from that horrible day five years ago, and one step further into living his dream.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.