After Sept. 11 attacks, Navy's 2001 players knew war was next for them

As a senior in high school outside Pittsburgh, Ed Malinowski was the quarterback on an undefeated team. His parents were both English teachers. So when he entered the Naval Academy during his plebe summer in 1998, he wasn't thinking much beyond playing football and getting an English degree. Like a popular Navy recruiting ad once said, Malinowski figured his post-graduation military commitment was going to be spent seeing the world.

When Bryce McDonald entered the academy the following year, his mission seemed clear. He was there to get his degree and to play football, but his main purpose was to follow his father Thomas, a retired lieutenant colonel who had fought in Vietnam, into military service.

Brian Stann, who had been born on an air base in Japan, came in the same year as McDonald, ready for whatever the military offered and hopeful that his class of plebes would help restore some of the early success the team had after Charlie Weatherbie was been hired in 1995.

By the fall of 2001, playing football was no longer much fun for any of them. All were role players on a losing team. The Midshipmen had won just one game the previous season and, though it was against Army, it did little to temper the turmoil that had enveloped the team. It was clear that Weatherbie, whose 1996 team finished 9-3 after beating Cal in the Aloha Bowl, had lost the confidence of many of his players and most of his coaching staff. Weatherbie would be fired before the 2001 season was over.

One of the low points in their lives as Navy football players came during a humiliating 70-7 loss at Georgia Tech on Sept. 8.

It was the worst loss for Navy since being shut out by Maryland, 76-0, in 1913.

Three days later, none of it mattered. When the two hijacked planes exploded after crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that morning, when another did the same at the Pentagon and a fourth, Flight 93, fell from the sky and into a field in Shanksville, Pa., those on the Navy football team realized their lives were about to change more than the average college student. More than the average American, too.

Malinowski knew that he had now signed up for more than a chance to see the world.

McDonald knew that he would follow his father's legacy in the Marines sooner than he planned.

Stann knew that football had become an afterthought.

"It put a lot of things into perspective," said Stann, then a junior. "Our lives were never the same. After the season was over, 9/11 made it easier to go 0-10 and learn lessons from it. We knew we were headed for much more important things. It changed our lives forever."

Point of emphasis

Two of their former teammates, Ron Winchester and J.P. Bleckwith, would be killed in action, as would more than a hundred of those with whom they served. On one of his two tours of duty, Stann would receive the Silver Star for helping save 42 other Marines during a six-day battle near Karabiliah, Iraq in 2005. McDonald earned the Purple Heart, but declined to discuss the specifics other to say that it came in Iraq when his Humvee was attacked. The knee injury he sustained sent him to a military hospital in Bethesda and will lead to a medical discharge next year.

In the days immediately following 9/11, McDonald said that "there was still business to be done, but everyone knew in the back of their minds, when they graduated, there would be a different point of emphasis to their mission. We knew we would be involved in an overall greater plan, but we didn't know how we would be deployed."

Malinowski said he now realizes that he was pretty naïve coming into the academy.

"When I signed on the dotted line, I didn't know what I was going to get myself into," Malinowski recalled recently. "I'm sure I liked the idea, I liked the lifestyle. I was worried about graduating and playing football. If 9/11 didn't go down, it's very possible I could never have been to Iraq or never deployed to a combat zone. The rest of the season flew by for me, it was like 'What's going to happen next?'"

Admittedly, it still hadn't sunk in completely after hearing about the attack during an English class called "Games, Sports and Survival."

"If you would have told me then that I would have been in that battle (at Falluja), I would have been, 'Yeah, right, whatever'," said Malinowski. "It doesn't hit you until you graduate."

Malinowski and his former teammates say that life at the academy changed dramatically after 9/11. He and others recall seeing the F16s occupying the air space above the yard, and battleships sitting out on the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay. Though the game at Northwestern scheduled for the following Saturday was canceled, the football team returned to its routine — and to its misery. The Midshipmen would lose their remaining eight games. Weatherbie was fired with three games to go after a 1-point loss at Toledo, ranked 23rd in the nation and led by future Ravens running back Chester Taylor.

Navy would finish the season with a 26-17 loss to Army at FedEx Field.

It marked the only time in school history that the team failed to win when it played more than one game.

McDonald, a Navy captain who now works as the executive administrator and military liaison officer for the school's football team, refuses to use 9/11 as an excuse for what happened on the field that season.

"We had been a bad team. We had other issues off the field," he said. "Every program has its ebbs and flows and that was the ebb. I was fortunate to have played for Coach [Paul] Johnson the next year and now I've gotten to work with Coach [Ken] Niumatalolo. I've seen the very dark side of Navy football and now I see the bright side with a very successful program."

Weatherbie, who would go on to coach at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, said in an interview last week, "Things had started to change. That's when [athletic director Chet] Gladchuk had come in. I think he was brought in by the superintendent to make the change. I don't know if 9/11 had anything to do with the won-loss record that season. We had some serious injuries, one of them being our starting quarterback [Brian Madden]."

Dale Pehrson, the only remaining assistant from Weatherbie's staff still working for Niumatalolo, said, "There was a chemistry problem. I'm sure 9/11 had its impact. The focus changed a little bit for the players, they were probably thinking about other things, especially the seniors who were supposed to be leading you, they're thinking, 'What am I going to be doing six months from now?'" .

Life lessons

But even with all the losses, including the 10 incurred in Johnson's first season, the players who were at Navy then talked about how playing at the academy helped prepare them for battle. As he sat in a makeshift briefing room taking in images from video of Falluja prior to the battle, it eerily reminded Malinowski of sitting in meeting rooms at Rickets Hall watching tape of the team's next opponent.

"One of the things you learn in the Marine Corps is that if you don't rehearse, going into battle, you're going to fail. That's something you definitely take away from football is the preparation and being able to plan for something that is extremely physical," said Malinowski, who left the Marines in August 2008 and is now working for a company that sells parts for military transport vehicles. "It sounds like a cliché, but there are so many parallels between warfare and football. Also going to the academy itself helps you become a better warrior, a better military officer."

Said McDonald, "Every situation we go into teaches us to go with a very clear, very simple gameplan."

Stann left the Marines in May of 2008, two months after he won the World Extreme Cagefighting light-heavyweight championship. Now competing in Ultimate Fighting Championship, Stann feels the experience he received as a Navy football player, and later as a Marine, has given him a "competitive edge" over many of his opponents. Stann was brought back by Niumatalolo to give the pre-game speech prior to the 2009 Army-Navy game.

"He does that often, he brings back guys who've been in the operating forces, deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, to come back and talk to his guys," Stann said. "It's important to teach these young men that they are more than just football players, they are warriors in training. It's very important that they always execute correctly, that they are disciplined. What those guys are being taught by their coaches is absolutely applicable when they go off to the military."


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