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Sports & Outdoors

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Released: 2012-09-04

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Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country, and Football at West Point by Joe Drape


Bestselling author Joe Drape reveals the unique pressures and expectations that make a year of Army football so much more than just a tally of wins and losses.

The football team at the U.S. Military Academy is not like other college football teams. At other schools, athletes are catered to and coddled at every turn. At West Point, they carry the same arduous load as their fellow cadets, shouldering an Ivy League–caliber education and year-round military training. After graduation they are not going to the NFL but to danger zones halfway around the world. These young men are not just football players, they are soldiers first.

New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape takes us inside the world of Army football, as the Black Knights and their third-year coach, Rich Ellerson, seek to turn around a program that had recently fallen on hard times, with the goal to beat Navy and "sing last" at the Army-Navy game in December. The 2011 season would prove a true test of the players' mettle and perseverance.

Drawing on his extensive and unfettered access to the players and the coaching staff, Drape introduces us to this special group of young men and their achievements on and off the field. Anchoring the narrative and the team are five key players: quarterback Trent Steelman, the most gifted athlete; linebacker Steve Erzinger, who once questioned his place at West Point but has become a true leader; Andrew Rodriguez, the son of a general and the top scholar-athlete; Max Jenkins, the backup quarterback and the second-in-command of the Corps of Cadets; and Larry Dixon, a talented first-year running back. Together with Coach Ellerson, his staff, and West Point's officers and instructors, they and their teammates embrace the demands made on them and learn crucial lessons that will resonate throughout their lives—and ours.

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Editorial Review

A Conversation between Jim Dent and Joe Drape about Soldiers First

Joe Dent

Joe Drape, the author of the best-selling book Our Boys, is an award-winning sports reporter for The New York Times and the author of Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country, and Football at West Point, just published by Times Books. Jim Dent is the author of several best-selling books, including The Junction Boys and Courage Beyond the Game. His new project is The Kids Got It Right, about the integration of high school football in Texas.

Dent: You have a remarkable gift for seizing a story and then living it. This was especially true with Our Boys. Now you have brought the Army football program into focus by jumping on the train and writing Soldiers First. How much fun did you have traveling to West Point and spending that much time with the team?

Drape: You know better than most that when there is no fun it is just work. I really didn't have much knowledge on the history, football or otherwise, of West Point and to even know what the story was I felt like I had to walk the grounds, be in the locker rooms and classrooms and on the military training grounds and get to know these guys. It's the discovery part that is the most important part. We're never too old to learn, and the more you know the better the story.

Dent: You also included your son, Jack, in the story. Has he read it and how much fun did he have?

Drape: Without Jack, there's no book. He gave me the idea one night while we were watching the Notre Dame-Army game. I'm an Irish fan from the Parseghian or Resurrection era of your book. I had an uncle who taught there and my oldest brother graduated from Notre Dame. We made a football game every year. But as soon as Jack saw the pregame show about Army with the marching and parachuting he was sold. His favorite toys were those little green Army men and he said, "Let's go see the good guys, Dad." You and I are Southern Methodist University graduates and we've both seen what the best football team money could buy looks like. College football has been scandal-ridden for a long time. I went looking for the good guys, too. Jack and I had a ball, and we will for a long time now as season ticket holders.

Dent: Long ago, it was said that only baseball could provide the vehicle to intriguing sports stories. I think you will now agree with me that football is the king of great sports books. How did you develop your feel for the sport?

Drape: I'd argue football is really our national pastime because it's truly a team game. It can be brutal and you must rely on the guy next to you to do his job or it can be bone-crunching if he doesn't. It revolves around trust and camaraderie and usually there's a coach who uses charisma and fear to make you execute his vision. You wrote about Bear Bryant in The Junction Boys. I've written now about Coach Roger Barta in Smith Center and Rich Ellerson at Army and their philosophies and methods are all different, but all three of them taught life lessons and tried to develop character in their players. At heart, they are great educators and they have to be. I still don't fully understand the triple option-–it might as well be calculus. But I do understand human nature and I'm fascinated about how you get 120 guys juggling an Ivy League workload with state-of-the-art military training to prepare for literally a life-or-death career, to come together on a football field and compete well and with pure joy.

Dent: We both began our writing careers in the newspaper business. There are a lot of "ink-stained wretches" out there, like Michael Connell, making it big in the book business. I believe that deadline writing sharpened my skills. I just bet you feel the same way.

Drape: You've made it big, too. Hell, I still am in the newspaper business and I absolutely love it. I like the variety of subjects and the immediate gratification you get of breaking a big story or writing one pretty well. It’s like a golf swing-–the more you practice, the better you are. You learn to trust your instincts and you know immediately what is poetry and what's cliche. We both have sat in stadiums with a 100,000 people roaring and we have twenty minutes to write a thousand words that capture the magic we have all just witnessed--to tell an epic tale in miniature. I think you'll agree with this: I can look back at deadline stories done in minutes and know that some of them were the best writing I will ever do. I led with my heart, found a zone, and didn't over think it. It's good training for books or any other storytelling.

Book Details

Author: Joe DrapePublisher: Times BooksBinding: HardcoverLanguage: EnglishPages: 288

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