By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
2:52 PM EST, December 16, 2011
Duty, service and honor are big words. They are also ones that are often abused these days by Washington politicians who thank each other for their "service" even as they sink deeper into partisan gridlock.
"Game of Honor," a documentary about West Point and Annapolis and the Army-Navy football game played Dec. 10 in Landover, reminds viewers of the higher meanings of those words. The two-hour film premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday on Showtime.
Producers Pete Radovich and Steve Karasik say they didn't set out with any such lofty goal in mind for their Showtime-CBS Sports co-production, which was shot during the past eight months in the barracks and on the playing fields at the U.S. military and naval academies. They say their primary objective was simply to "honor" the players and their classmates by chronicling their lives.
"A lot of them could play Division I football at a lot of different schools across the country and have typical college-kid fun and go to parties, et cetera," Karasik says. "But they chose a different path that involved a commitment to their country by going to West Point or Annapolis and then making a five-year military commitment once they graduate to be officers in the Army or the Navy."
In skillfully telling the stories of some of the people who walk and have walked the historic campuses on the Hudson and Severn rivers, the veteran sports producers not only take viewers deeper inside these two institutions than any TV documentary has ever done, they also put last week's game into a context well beyond winning and losing.
And I say that based on seeing only online versions of some of the major story lines in the documentary, not the final two-hour film that will debut Wednesday night.
One such narrative involves a graduate of the Naval Academy rather than plebe athletes. It's the story of Clayton Kendrick-Holmes, a former Annapolis footballer now in the Navy Reserves. He's also a father of two young boys and coach of the State University of New York Maritime College football team.
Maritime's team plays in Division III, the realm of small colleges and tiny universities, and when he arrived at the school there was no team. There was not even a field with goal posts. The program had been disbanded.
As one faculty colleague says in the film, "They handed him a phone, and said, 'Here you go. You're now the football coach.'"
And before long, thanks to the values he learned playing football at the Naval Academy from 1988 to 1992, the former linebacker constructed a team that had a 10-0 record last year. Radovich and Karasik tell the story of him and his family as his team tries to go undefeated and he prepares to leave for deployment to Afghanistan.
From teaching his grade-school age son how to tie his own tie in a half-Windsor knot for school, to long talks with his wife, Johanna, as to how their pain at his leaving connects with the word "duty" that they both embrace, the story of the Kendrick-Holmes family alone would make "A Game of Honor" a standout prime-time production.
"They are symbolic of countless families across the country with parents doing double duty," Radovich says. "One is overseas, the other one is home tending to the family and children. So they become sort of our face of the military family. With Clayton's connection to Navy football, it was an obvious choice for us."
Radovich says the part of their story that has not yet been shown online but will be featured in the documentary picks up with Kendrick-Holmes in Afghanistan.
"What viewers will see is Clayton overseas, and Johanna with the two boys trying to play the role of dad and mom while dad's away," he says. "The characters are great. The family's great."
There are other strong story lines. One of the most eloquent involves Alex Teich, fullback and captain of the Navy team. Teich, one of the midshipmen who looks big and strong enough to have a career in the NFL after his military service ends, was suspended for a game during the season after questioning a controversial call by a referee. His words came after a bitter defeat.
The documentary explores the pain felt by everyone involved in the suspension — from Teich to Navy's coach, Ken Niumatalolo, to Chet Gladchuk, the school's athletic director.
Teich probably would not have been suspended at any school except one of the service academies, but all parties understand that the lesson he is expected to learn from it will make him a better leader who is more in control of his emotions at times of disappointment and distress.
Those who watched the Army-Navy game on CBS will recall the post-game image of Niumatalolo and Teich embracing after Navy's victory over its arch rival. It was one of the most powerful moments in a day of fine coverage from CBS.
When Niumatalolo was asked by a sideline reporter about the embrace and the words he shared with Teich, the coach referenced the suspension and how proud he was of Navy's captain and the leadership he offered in the team's biggest victory of the year.
Not as resonant, but still engaging, are story lines involving new midshipman Maika Polamalu, cousin of the Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu, and rookie Army running back Terry Baggett.
In the end, documentaries are only as good as the access filmmakers get.
Radovich and Karasik declined to discuss "final approval" of what's in or out of the film, but they say they had "fly-on-the-wall" access to the lives of the cadets and midshipmen.
"When we came to them, they looked at it as a great opportunity to showcase their schools," says Radovich, who also serves as co-coordinating producer of Showtime's critically acclaimed series "Inside the NFL."
"As far as limitations, there were none. From a football standpoint, we were given access to locker rooms, sidelines, practices, meetings rooms. It was all in."
The difference, he said, was in access to the athletes' "lives away from the football field."
"Frankly, we were surprised at times how far in they let us go," Radovich said. "Some of the moments when we're out in the field when they're doing their military training, it feels like this isn't even a documentary. At times, I watch it and think, 'This feels almost like feature film.'"
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun