A blow to the heart

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Navy senior wide receiver Amir Jenkins can still see his old teammate joking with him in the huddle or showing off his throwing arm by heaving a football 80 yards on a cold day.

Head coach Paul Johnson holds a lasting image of his former player polishing his chiseled physique with maniacal dedication in the weight room. Senior safety Josh Smith marvels at how easily his buddy could turn strangers into friends.

At the Naval Academy this week, as has been the case in 104 previous years throughout one of the greater rivalries in all of sports, the primary focus is on beating Army.

From there, Navy will move on to the Emerald Bowl, its second consecutive postseason appearance, marking another emphatic step in the program's resurgence.

But a palpable sense of pause has grabbed the coaches and players, who are thinking often these days about J.P., the young man who was all about sacrifice, the young warrior who died doing exactly what he had set out to do.

When word came three weeks ago that James Blecksmith, a 2003 graduate and second lieutenant in the Marines, had been gunned down on Veterans Day in Iraq by a sniper during the takeover of Fallujah, football got kicked down the priority list. One of their heroes was gone.

And the Midshipmen, especially the seniors who soon will embark on obligatory five-year commissions, were left with a taste of what could await them in a world considerably more perilous than the day they arrived in Annapolis four years ago.

"When you're here for four years, your mind-set about life in general changes," Jenkins said. "The longer you're here, the more you start to grasp what your job is going to be. You grow up fast."

The reality checks are unrelenting. Two weeks ago, the seniors, who committed to their military duties two years ago and will graduate in May, chose their service assignments. Smith will train to become a fighter pilot, and could be put into action within two years. Jenkins will be a surface warfare officer. He could be exposed to battle much sooner.

They harbor no delusions about their possible fate. Nothing drove that realization home more sharply than hearing about Blecksmith, the strapping, 6-foot-4, Southern California native with the strong arm who passed up a chance to play quarterback in the Pacific-10 Conference because he was determined to become a Marine Corps officer.

Blecksmith did not make an impact on the field under former coach Charlie Weatherbie, who never found a home for him in his option offense. Blecksmith bounced from quarterback to safety.

He was named top scout team player as a freshman, toiled on special teams as a sophomore and appeared in just two games as a junior. He finally earned a letter as a receiver in his last season in 2002, under Johnson.

Shocked at the news

The calls and the stunned reactions shattered a bye weekend while players were relaxing with televised football.

Johnson heard about Bleck- smith, a platoon commander, while on his way home from church with his wife and daughter. Wide receivers coach Brian Bohannon returned home from shopping with his wife and felt his jaw drop after hitting the play button on his answering machine.

At the season's outset, the Midshipmen had paid tribute to former player Ronald Winchester, a 2001 graduate who had been killed in Iraq. But hardly anyone from the current roster or staff had known Winchester.

This time, it was personal. This time, it really hurt.

"It just hits too close to home, and you don't want to believe it," said senior receiver Lionel Wesley. "I was kind of denying it for a while. He really didn't die. He was just playing. Maybe he was just shot and was still alive."

"J.P. is the first guy I've actually coached who we've lost in battle. I had to sit down for a minute," said Johnson, who called the next day to express his sympathy to Blecksmith's father, Edward. "Having a kid of my own, I can't imagine anything that could be worse."

"I know [Blecksmith's] posture, how he acts, how he reacts to things," said Bohannon, who followed Johnson to the academy from Georgia Southern in 2001. "I've gone through a little bit of soul searching. I'm not sure I fully understood what these kids could be doing, the reality of what this situation is, the finality of it."

Said Smith: "We worked on a project together when I was a sophomore and he was a senior. You could throw him into a roomful of strangers and he'd make friends with all of them. I was kicking back watching football when I got the call. My stomach dropped out. The reality is, two years from now, people could be talking about me [in the past tense]."

It's a reality that frames a poignant backdrop for the 105th Army-Navy game. The nation is engaged in a war against terrorism, its world forever altered in light of 9/11, which happened shortly after each senior class entered its respective academy.

What Johnson referred to as "unparalleled respect" always exists between the two schools. This is not a rivalry marked by cheap shots or brawls or trash-talking. In light of the tasks that lie ahead for players from both sides during wartime, the mutual sense of admiration goes even deeper.

"We haven't lost any football players, but I've heard we've got about 250 former players serving in Iraq or somewhere else," said Army senior tackle Seth Nieman.

"They've made some announcements on the poop deck at breakfast about us losing graduates. When I came here four years ago, no one expected we'd be fighting a war on terrorism.

"As a senior, it would mean the world for us to win this game. [But] I guess [being at war] creates the reality that this game is about brotherhood. We're two academies fighting each other on the field that will end up fighting with each other on the same side of the ball."

The Midshipmen can't help but rally around the memory of Blecksmith, who starred at Flintridge (Calif.) Prep School, attracted the recruiting interest of more than 50 schools and could have picked a Pac-10 program to join.

According to Edward Bleck- smith, who served with the Marines in Vietnam, his son was so miserable playing for Weatherbie that he seriously considered leaving Navy after his sophomore year. USC and UCLA even offered him a chance to walk on.

More than football

"But he signed his letter [before his junior year] and that was it. J.P. accepted that there was more to life than playing football. He was jacked around terribly [before Johnson arrived], but he didn't quit and he loved his teammates," said Edward, who added that about 1,200 people attended the funeral for his youngest son.

"Before he graduated, he told me, 'I wanted to better myself as a football player and become a Marine officer. One of those goals I'll never achieve.' He did a lot in his 24 years. He was a real physical specimen. It's hard to accept that he got killed by one lucky shot to the left shoulder."

Jenkins said he was amazed at Blecksmith's raw talent and appreciates more than ever before what he gave up.

Blecksmith was part of the three teams that went a combined 3-30. Then, he watched from afar as Johnson turned the program around during the past two years. Jenkins figures Blecksmith could have become a collegiate star had he played in a pro-style offense.

Blecksmith's last football accomplishment was earning his only letter on the team that pounded Army, 58-12, two years ago.

"J.P would have been the perfect fit at any of those [Pac-10] schools, working out of a shotgun [formation]. He had the strongest arm on our team, by far," Jenkins said.

"He sacrificed a lot to be here. Not only did he sacrifice maybe an NFL career, he sacrificed a lot of wins that his senior class didn't get. But he came here with the intention of being a Marine, and that's what he did."

Added Wesley: "I remember two years ago [a 2-10 season] when we were still losing, J.P was so happy to win that [Army] game. We've just got to win this for him."

Next for Navy

Matchup: Army (2-8) vs. Navy (8-2)

Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Navy by 13

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