Conrad Crane first grasped an Army football ticket when he was 6 years old. His family had become season ticket holders that year.
As newbies to the Army fan experience, the Crane family was low on the pecking order when it came to parking during the cold fall Saturday afternoons in the Hudson Valley. And the only heated bathroom they had access to was located at the West Point Cemetery. It was in that cemetery when Crane realized the soldiers battling on the field represented something greater than a football contest and final score.
“So we used to get kind of cold … we would go there to take advantage of some warm facilities,” said Crane, a West Point graduate, former Army officer and senior research historian at the Strategic Studies Institute. “And all of a sudden, got into the mid-sixties, and I started to notice new graves in the cemetery of men that I had seen play football, and obviously, casualties in Vietnam, and started to realize that this is more than the normal game.”
On Saturday, Dec, 10, in Philadelphia, the Black Knights and Midshipmen will face off. But this contest isn’t about who wins or loses. (Well, it is for one day.) But in time, what it represents will float to the top. And an integral aspect of that representation is heroes. Heroes on the battlefield, in public service, in the private sector, in the community, or even on the football field. These two service academies have had them all.
Many well-known alumni from both academies graced the collegiate gridiron, such as Dwight Eisenhower (Army), Omar Bradley (Army), William Halsey (Navy) and former CIA director Stansfield Turner (Navy).
And there were the Heisman football luminaries like Roger Staubach (Navy), Glenn Davis (Army), Doc Blanchard (Army), Pete Dawkins (Army) and Joe Belino (Navy), as well as successful NFL players Napoleon McCallum (Navy), Phil McConkey (Navy) and Alejandro Villanueva (Army).
But hero is a subjective word. Loosely defined, if you will. Below are some “heroes” who played in the Army-Navy game but never achieved household-name status.
The first one up is Tyler Tidwell, a Navy linebacker from the class of 2006. Tidwell didn’t see the field much as a plebe and youngster but made his mark as a second class and firstie.
“He started making his impact his junior season, as both a linebacker and also a defensive end … he was only 225 pounds,” said Karl Darden, a Naval Academy graduate and creator of the Navy Sports Nation Blog and Podcast. “That’s undersized even for a linebacker these days … this guy played at 100mph from snap to whistle.”
Darden said Tidwell recorded 19 tackles for loss in his junior season. But more importantly, Tidwell excelled in his service to the United States as a Marine officer after making tackles on second down and three came to an end. He deployed for two tours in the Middle East and spent three years at the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C. By his early thirties he was promoted to major.
“This guy, bigger than life, has the whole world in front of him, married with three kids,” Darden explained. “A superb example of a career soldier, family man.”
However, what stands out about the Oklahoma native is his determination on a battlefield much closer to home than Afghanistan or Iraq. A few years ago, Tidwell was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“That’s the battle he’s facing now,” Darden said. “At this point in time, he’s in a wheelchair. He’s lost all function in basically his left side. He can’t talk anymore. He can only communicate using an eye-controlled machine.”
Darden believes Annapolis shaped Tidwell into a successful officer and that his bravery in confronting the disease is admirable.
“It’s amazing to me because this guy has never once complained about his condition whatsoever … the odds on you winning are extremely long … there’s just no positive outcome that’s in sight,” he said. “But that has not fazed this guy one bit. He, by all accounts, lives in the moment.”
Bill Carpenter, the All-American receiver on the undefeated 1958 Army squad, was designated the lonely end by head coach Red Blaik. Blaik split Carpenter wide, where he remained at his position and never joined the huddle, creating a new formation. Carpenter was an exceptional player, receiving a healthy amount of media attention during his time at the U.S. Military Academy. He would later become a war hero in Vietnam, his actions worthy of a Hollywood film. But the 1958 team’s other receiver, Don Usry, was a standout wideout in his own right. Usury averaged 14.5 yards per catch and was an important contributor to the Black Knights’ 8-0-1 season. Carpenter told Sports Illustrated in 1993 that Usry was the best all-around player on the Army team and Heisman Trophy winner Dawkins was vastly overrated.
“There’s a story of Bill Carpenter, of course, the lonely and famous lonely end on the 1958 team … he was decorated in Vietnam after he called in friendly fire on his own unit to avoid being overrun by an enemy force,” Crane said. “The other end on that team, a guy named Don Usry, he went into the Air Force, survived a dangerous tour in Vietnam, only to die [when] … he was on a scouting trip for the Air Force Academy football team, and he crashed into a mountain.”
Usry flew nearly 300 combat missions in Southeast Asia and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal. In 1969, he was appointed to the Air Force Academy as a mathematics instructor and became a scout for the Falcons football program. Usry’s end came wrapped in a fog of irony. Returning from a scouting trip, his plane crashed while attempting to land in adverse weather conditions in Colorado Springs.
Paul Bunker was a Walter Camp All-American at two different positions for Army — as a tackle in 1901 and halfback in 1902 — and Sports Illustrated determined Bunker would have been the Heisman Trophy winner for 1902 if the award existed then. Bunker was assigned to a coastal artillery regiment on Corregidor Island in the Philippines during the World War I years and then returned to the islands in 1940 to command the 59th Coast Artillery Regiment at Fort Hughes in Manilla Bay. When U.S. forces surrendered in the aftermath of the Battle of Corregidor in 1942, Bunker was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He was 61 years old. The career Army officer succumbed to starvation and disease while imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp in Taiwan. On an interesting side note, Bunker was the subject of a 1901 Congressional investigation into hazing at West Point, according to the Military Hall of Honor.
“Some of the plebes told the Congressional committee conducting the investigation that Bunker had forced them to consume Tabasco sauce,” read a biography on the Hall of Honor website. “Bunker acknowledged having braced some of the plebes, but denied ever having given more than fifteen drops of sauce to any one.”
The investigation resulted in a ban on hazing at the service academy and became the subject of the 1999 book, “Bullies and Cowards: The West Point Hazing Scandal, 1898-1901.”
And lastly, Greg Gadson, the West Point graduate turned actor and motivational speaker
“And I don’t know if you saw the movie Battleship, but yeah, that’s one of the actors, there was Greg Gadson,” Crane said.
Besides finding success as an actor, Gadson was a Black Knight outside linebacker who spent 25 years in military service, achieving the rank of colonel. He served in Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. But in 2007, tragedy struck Gadson when he lost both legs to an IED. Refusing to be hampered by the loss of his limbs, Gadson remained on active duty for another seven years, and shortly after sustaining his injuries, he became a sort of motivational coach to the New York Giants. One of his West Point classmates, who was an assistant coach with the Giants, facilitated a Gadson speech to the team. The New York football franchise recorded a six-game win streak and a Super Bowl victory after Gadson addressed them.
The list of heroes goes on … too many, but not enough to mention. And perhaps what Crane discovered in the cemetery was that heroes are defined by a valiant and indomitable mindset and attitude that is consistently displayed in friendships, on the football field, in battle and in everyday life.
“They’re comrades in arms later,” Crane said. “I mean, that for one day a year, they’re their big enemies. But after that, they’re all on the same team. Everybody on that field knows that they’re going to have to serve together…it’s a shared sacrifice.”