Navy athletes play on, but in perspective With many friends at war, Midshipmen's games mean less

January 25, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- The Persian Gulf war followed Jennifer Rowe into the pool.

War raged and Rowe raced Saturday. She tried to concentrate on her 1,000-yard freestyle swimming race against William & Mary. But when you're a 22-year-old senior at the Naval Academy, and some of your friends are on the other side of the world engaged in Operation Desert Storm, war can't be turned off at the flick of a mental switch.

"I was thinking about how selfish I was to want to win the race," Rowe said. "I was worried about losing. It seemed so petty because everything else was going on."

Rowe won, but her ambivalent feelings about competing in athletics during wartime remain. She is not alone. Naval Academy athletes are struggling to concentrate on their sports, trying to find a sense of purpose in play.

"The mood of the brigade is like the mood of the rest of the United States," said Eddie Reddick, a senior forward on the men's basketball team. "Everyone is concerned. We ought to be over there. It weighs on your mind. You try not to think about the war until you hear the news -- another pilot captured, another pilot shot down. None of us has been in a war."

There are air sorties in Baghdad and Navy basketball games at Halsey Field House. Skirmishes are reported along the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border, and preseason training for lacrosse continues.

"For us at the academy, what this war does is it makes you evaluate your life," Reddick said. "You know nothing is forever. I could be over there in the next year. Basketball is important in one sense, but there are a lot of things more important."

That message was driven home Jan. 16, when the Allied raid against Iraq began. Many of the Midshipmen heard about the war during Navy's basketball game against Richmond. But the game continued, and the season continued.

"You don't deal any differently with the games," said Pete Herrmann, the men's basketball coach. "You've always got to get ready for another game. The kids here know their responsibilities and their mission to the academy. They know they're here to become officers."

To fight in this war. Or the next.

"I try to be realistic about this," said Brett Bourne, a senior wrestler who is headed for the Marines. "Every time I come back from class, from the library, from the lunch period, we deal with the news. CNN is on all the time. In the dorms, in the classrooms. You ask if the Iraqis have launched more Scuds. Have we launched a ground force? Whether or not I wrestle doesn't affect anything in Saudi Arabia. That's not hard to separate."

For now, the Midshipmen go to class, go to practice,go to games. They offer prayers for their friends and former classmates in the gulf. They help their companies assemble packages of gifts to be sent to ships sailing in the war zone.

"We try to send a little bit of America over there, and carry on over here," said Angela Dobbs, a junior on the women's basketball team.

Dobbs is closing in on 1,000 points for her career. Normally, achieving the mark would call for a celebration. But these are uncommon times.

"One thousand points, that's so minute," she said. "The reason I'm here is so real now. We all know why we're at the academy."

But, clearly, sports retain their importance at the academy. Jack Fellowes, a retired Navy captain, spent six years and six months as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam at the Hanoi Hilton. To keep his mind alert, he replayed every Army-Navy football game he had seen during his four years as a midshipman, and concentrated on remembering Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics games from his youth. He thought he was going crazy, when, for several days, he couldn't recall the name of a backup quarterback for the New York Giants. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he shouted "Earl Morrall," and knew he was sane.

"You were just sitting there," said Fellowes, an assistant promotions director for the Naval Academy Athletic Association. "You had to do something."

Once a year, Fellowes organized an imaginary Army-Navy football game. The prisoners tapped scores in Morse code, but Fellowes always gave the final score. Navy never lost.

"Seven games, seven wins," he said. "When I came home, I never looked up the scores of the real games those years. I didn't want to rain on the parade. You might say Navy had a fantastic record, even if the record was always in my mind."

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