Mourning a Midshipman who gave his all

Winchester's death in Iraq is reminder of true field of battle

College Football

September 10, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

When a player enters the Naval Academy football program, he is virtually certain of two things about his future: The bright lights and big money of the NFL do not await him, and very soon he could well be trading his football helmet for a combat helmet.

The phrase "in harm's way,"often mentioned about the seniors' future destination when the service academies clash on the football field, is not just idle banter.

But that realization doesn't make it any easier when the dreaded word comes that a former Midshipman has been killed in action.

Navy faced that moment the day of its opening game upon learning that Marine 1st Lt. Ronald Winchester was killed in Iraq little more than a week after beginning his second tour in that country.

For Tyson Stahl, whose brother Hoot was Winchester's best friend, and Kevin Schwind, who often competed against Winchester as a plebe, the news was particularly crushing.

They remember Winchester as a fierce competitor on the field, but a fun-loving guy off it.

"I was on the scout team defense and faced him many times," said Schwind, a senior. "He was mean and nasty out there, but all smiles and laughs when all was said and done."

"Ron was the left tackle and Hoot was the right tackle," Stahl, also a senior, added. "They were like bookends. I was Hoot's little brother, and that's how he treated me. He always greeted me on game days with a pat on the back and said he was glad to see me."

Tyson Stahl carried the flag while leading the Midshipmen onto the field Saturday after delivering a pre-game talk to the team in honor of Winchester, class of 2001.

"I just told the guys to play this game for Ronnie," Stahl said. "I wanted to share that with them because I knew he was going to be watching from wherever he is now."

Winchester, 25, died with three other Marines after a mine exploded as his unit traveled on foot guarding convoys west of Baghdad.

A resident of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Winchester was "definitely a no-nonsense kind of person, full of grit and spirit," Stahl said. "He was the kind you could trust."

Stahl and Schwind are also offensive linemen. As a group, they were struggling during the preseason with injuries and ineffectiveness, but against Duke, the line was back in full force, leading Navy to 301 rushing yards. Stahl made one crunching and conspicuous block on a screen pass.

"We definitely came together," he said. "Wednesday and Thursday last week we started executing and we just put our trust in each other. We were all playing for the guy next to us. I think that was the effect of Ronnie's death."

Stahl knows firsthand the reality of Iraq. Brother Hoot is also deployed there for the second time.

"When somebody you know is over there, it makes it all real," he said. "I think of Hoot every day and we e-mail every other day. But I haven't heard from him in 2 1/2 weeks."

"We definitely had inspiration," Schwind said. "It's getting pretty heavy over there [Iraq], and we have friends in it. I think Hoot being there weighs on his [Tyson's] mind."

When Military Appreciation Day is observed tomorrow at the game, Winchester will be remembered by many people as one who gave the supreme sacrifice.

A memorial service in honor of Winchester will be held at the Naval Academy chapel Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.

The family is asking that, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the U.S. Naval Academy Athletic Association for Ronald D. Winchester, c/o Football office, 566 Brownson Road, Annapolis, MD 21402.

Next for Navy

Matchup: Northeastern (1-0) vs. Navy (1-0)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 1:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: CN8/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

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