I was a soldier made, not born.
While the tradition of military service is deeply rooted in some families, it was little more than white noise in my early life. Four of my uncles on my mother’s side and one uncle on my father’s side of the family had served in the army: one in World War II, one in Korea, two in peacetime, and one in Vietnam. Their war stories were offered only grudgingly, and I have no recollection of sitting at their feet, taking in with wide- eyed innocence everything they said. It was just something they had done once, a long time ago, and was no more or less important or interesting than the jobs they held now or the families they raised. It would be many years later, when I entered West Point, before I began to understand the depth of commitment that runs through some families, and how many of my classmates were third- and fourth-generation cadets. There was a time, when I worked in the West Point admissions office, that I received a call from a gentleman by the name of Westmoreland. I don’t think it was the General Westmoreland, but it was definitely one of his relatives—a brother or a son, perhaps—and he wasted little time in letting me know that his daughter was applying to West Point, and that the Westmoreland line at the Academy could be traced back, unbroken, to 1827. So the message was clear: Just go ahead and get her in, because this is where she belongs. The Ivies, I learned, had nothing on West Point when it came to tradition and legacy.
If our house hold lacked any overt connection to the military, however, it did not want for structure and guidance. My parents both grew up in Pennsylvania and met as students at Roberts Wesleyan, a small Christian college located near Rochester, New York. My dad, Marcus Bailey Sassaman, attended Western Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and eventually he and my mother, Nancy Jean Sassaman, settled in the Northwest and began raising a family. My father was a Free Methodist minister and his vocation was the family business, so to speak. Mom and Dad subscribed wholeheartedly to the precepts of Samuel and Susanna Wesley in matters both personal and theological, so ours was a conservative upbringing, to say the least. There is a line of scripture that says, in essence, If a pastor can’t control his own home, then he has no business being in charge of a church and a congregation. My parents were young and I was the firstborn, and as a result I suffered the consequences of their taking that advice rather literally. They did not spare the rod, and I can recall taking it in the shorts quite a bit early on. I can also remember as early as first grade, sitting in the front row of my father’s church, and trying desperately to remain still as a statue for the duration of the entire service. No small task for a six-year-old, especially one as energetic as I was, but I understood what would happen if I succumbed to the urge to twitch or even itch. Mom was at the piano, Dad was in the pulpit, and the entire church was watching. If I caused them any embarrassment, someone would take me out afterward and administer a little parental discipline—usually a shoe or a belt across the backside.
There was less of this as time went on, a natural loosening of the leash as more children came into the home (I was the oldest of three children) and my parents grew more comfortable with their social and professional standing. I know they probably look back on this period with some regret, maybe even a little bit of horror, but I’d be dishonest if I said mine was an unequivocally happy childhood. It wasn’t a sad childhood, either. My mother and father were very affectionate toward each other and very kind and generous toward others, but when it came to their children, there was some fear and intimidation involved, coupled with compassion and love. So there were some conflicting dynamics and emotions in our house hold. I guess you could say it was a childhood of... expectations. There was, from my earliest memory, a drive to succeed, and I think it was initially focused on the classroom and in music, and then it just carried over into athletics.
Both of my parents were musical. Dad sang in the choir in high school and college, and later at his church, but my mother was the gifted musician in the family. By the time she completed a twenty-plus-year career as a music teacher in the Beaverton, Oregon, School District, she had become something of a legend for the passion and professionalism she brought to the staging of elementary-school musicals and choir concerts. My brothers and I all became reasonably accomplished musicians, thanks to our parents’ influence. I had to take piano lessons for four or five years until I brokered a deal with my mother in seventh grade. By this time I had also begun studying the slide trombone, and my parents agreed to let me stop playing piano—as long as I promised to remain committed to the trombone throughout my high school years. Having grown tired of watching my friends playing baseball on summer days while I sat inside practicing the piano, I jumped at this offer. In the end I wound up forming a brass trio with my younger brothers, Jonathan (who played trumpet) and David (French horn).
It was in the musical arena that I first learned to deal with pressure. In some ways playing in the Army-Navy football game, even on national television, is a walk in the park when compared to playing a trombone solo at a state musical competition when your mother is a music legend in the state and you’re being judged by three of her peers. Slide trombone did not come naturally to me, either—I had to work really hard at that, and there were high expectations in my family to achieve as a musician. By the time I was able to go into sports, which was a more natural fit for me, I had already gone through a crucible of fire with the trombone. Through music I learned the value of discipline and mastery, skills that proved useful in just about any competitive endeavor.
Not that my parents were particularly interested in sports. In fourth grade, on a whim, I entered a football skills contest known as the Punt, Pass & Kick competition, and finished first in my age group at my elementary school. The following week I won the citywide competition, which allowed me to qualify for the regional level. I’m pretty sure this surprised my parents (it surprised me, as well), who no doubt had never considered the possibility that one of their children might have any athletic ability, since it wasn’t of any great concern or interest to them. In fact, I wasn’t permitted to compete in the regionals—my father had planned a family vacation and wasn’t about to delay the trip so that I could kick a football. At the time, my parents considered music and academics far more important than sports, so they went through an education process with their children as we began to excel on the playing field; they started to see that sports, and the natural attention that came with success in the athletic arena, might have some benefit after all.
My first lessons in competitiveness, interestingly enough, were taught by my father. Although Dad had run cross-country and track, and played soccer and basketball in high school, sports seemed to play no role in his life by this time; as far as I could tell, he was a nonathlete. Yet, there was quite a bit of the Great Santini in my father, an unwillingness to appear weak or fragile in even the most benign of situations. Thus did a simple game of backyard basketball become something akin to March Madness. The very first time I shot baskets with Dad it turned into a war. I was ten years old at the time, and absolutely enthralled with the game of basketball. We had just moved to a new parsonage, and I had been begging almost daily for a hoop of my own. It had been this way for a few years. Once I discovered balls, nothing else (including music) held my interest. I never played with toys, trucks, or cars. (I never even played "war" with my friends.) I was always about balls. If you gave me a ball I could disappear for hours on end. Baseball came first, in second grade, followed a couple years later by basketball and football. My father eventually put a basket up in the driveway, probably just because he was tired of listening to me whine. I stayed out there for hours on end; Dad even put up a spotlight, and soon I was dribbling tirelessly through the drizzle and fog of the northwestern nights. One day, tired of playing alone or with one of my brothers, I tried to entice my father to join me in the driveway. I had no motive, no objective, aside from wanting to show my dad what I had learned since he had erected the basket. Basically, I just thought it would be neat to shoot some hoops with my father.
He had something else in mind.
"Let’s play a game."
Even better, I thought.
Dad laid out the rules: two points per basket, fifty-point game. Winner’s outs, of course.
All right! This should be fun!
The final score was 50–2; it would have been 50–3, but we didn’t have a three-point shot in 1973. My only basket resulted not from a concession or moment of generosity on the part of the old man, but rather from a stroke of luck—a hook shot from twenty-five feet that sailed over my father’s head and through the basket. We must have played hundreds of games over the next five or six years, and Dad never relented. Every time we picked up the basketball and walked outside together, it was with one objective in mind: to win the game. We never just shot baskets, never played a lighthearted game of H-O-R-S-E or P-I-G or Around the World. It was always a game, always a battle, the two of us bumping and throwing elbows and doing our best to dominate the other in the driveway. He never went easy on me, never let me win to boost my ego. Over time, of course, the inevitable happened: I got bigger, stronger, and better, and my father got older, slower, and less dominant. I still recall the day we played in the backyard of our home in Portland. I was sixteen or seventeen years old. We were almost the same height by then, and I was perhaps a little wider across the shoulders, a bit thicker in the chest. I had discovered that I could move my father around, put him on my hip and muscle the ball to the basket. I beat him for the first time that day, and I do not recall him taking the loss well. That was the last time we ever played one-on-one basketball.
In high school, as I became more obsessed with football, my father expressed his competitive nature in other ways. Even though he had never played a down of football, Dad was the kind of guy who felt compelled to share his views on the sport in general, and my performance in particular. After a Friday-night game, I’d typically go out for pizza with my teammates or my girlfriend; sometimes I wouldn’t get home until well after midnight, but my father would always be awake, waiting for me to return, not so much because he worried that I might have gotten into trouble (as I said, bad behavior wasn’t an option), but so that we could review the evening’s competition. It happened without fail. Dad would be sitting in the living room with the light on, reading the Bible, and after an exchange of pleasantries, he would invite me to sit down beside him; there, together, we would analyze the game, breaking it down play by play. He would offer compliments on what I had done right, and suggestions on how to improve in areas where I had been less than stellar. Whether he was trying to help me realize my potential or simply projecting his ambition onto me, I don’t really know. Maybe a little of both. I only know that he’d be sitting there, program in hand, with a description of each play scribbled in the margins. I used to joke that I never had to worry about film sessions in high school, because by the time Monday afternoon rolled around, I’d already spent hours reviewing plays with my father.
It’s different around my house today. I remember when my son, Nathan, was in third grade, and I took him to basketball practice after I’d been away for some time on a deployment. Nathan just sat there bouncing the basketball, kind of dreamily, while the coach was talking, and the coach responded by ordering Nathan to run a few laps—punishment for interrupting and not paying attention. When we came home that evening I said nothing to Nathan, but I told my wife, "In twenty years of playing organized sports, I never had to run laps because of not paying attention. I ate it up, hook, line, and sinker." She just smiled and shrugged, and I knew what she meant: my son was not like me. At first I was mortified, and then I got over it. I think he enjoys the social part of the game more than anything else. He’s going to be a good athlete, he’s going to contribute, and it’s my hope that he becomes the go-to guy. That’s okay. I’ve tried to be very careful about giving advice to my kids or micromanaging their childhood. I’ve lost more backyard basketball games than I’ve won. I’ve never questioned any of their coaches. All I do is thank coaches for spending time with my son or daughter. Again, I think that’s just a by-product of my upbringing. My father was neither an athlete nor a soldier; I was both. Yet, in some ways, particularly when it comes to family and children, I am gentler than he ever was.
Challenging as it might have been, the tough love we received at home had its advantages. I had no chance to go to hell when I was growing up. None whatsoever. From the earliest age I was engulfed by the church and all it represented. There was no alcohol, no smoking, no drugs. There was, instead, devotion and prayer and meditation; there were Bible lessons. None of this seemed odd to me, for it was my only frame of reference, and as a result I was among the most naive teenagers you’d ever want to meet. Here’s an example of the ways things worked in our family. When I was thirteen years old, and it came time for Dad to have the age-old father-son talk with me—you know, the one about the birds and the bees—the exchange of wisdom occurred not in the comfort of our home, but at my father’s office. The time was scheduled into Dad’s day—my mother even called to make an appointment. I arrived at his office early, shuffled in nervously, and sat patiently and silently as my father walked through the dusty pages of a Christian book on human sexuality and emerging manhood.
And that was that.
There were no questions afterward. He checked the block. We had the appointment. The forty-five-minute meeting ended and we never talked about it again. Dad closed the book, gave me a pat on the back, and went back to work, figuring I was good to go. This was fine with me, since I was extraordinarily uncomfortable for the duration of the meeting and wanted nothing more than to get out of there as quickly as possible. High school, for me, was one surprise after another, as the realities of adolescence came slowly into focus. I can recall even as late as my senior year, while visiting colleges as a football recruit, an acute awareness that for all my success as a student and athlete, I was incredibly immature and inexperienced.
"Mom . . . Dad," I’d say when I returned from these visits. "You guys have sheltered me so much. Do you have any idea what’s going on out there?"
They did, of course, and their attempts to protect and shield their children, while perhaps a bit extreme, no doubt sprang from someplace genuine. In many ways my parents were (and are) an amazing couple. They have totally dedicated their lives to God and to their work (and to their family). I learned from my father not only competitiveness, but compassion. It would be unfair to suggest that my father was a total monster; he wasn’t. He was an intimidating and domineering presence around the house, but he was also the type of man who would, quite literally, give you the shirt off his back.
For a long time I just thought my father had a lot of friends, because every Saturday when we lived at the parsonage, my mom would rise with the sun and create elaborate breakfasts, with eggs and bacon and pancakes, and giant bowls of fruit. Dad and his buddies, generally a quiet, disheveled lot whose names I never knew, would usually eat out on the patio, rather than at the kitchen table with the rest of our family. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized who these men really were. They weren’t friends of my father’s—they were men he had found at the city mission or the Salvation Army. Dad would drive down there every Saturday morning and pick them up, take them home, feed them breakfast, and help them find work. For all his flaws, Dad was a very sensitive and kindhearted man to those less fortunate than he. He had a great sense of empathy for others (even if he sometimes had difficulty sharing those feelings with his own children). I know for certain that some of those traits were passed on to me, because of the way I felt about the people in Iraq and their situation. In the midst of so much brutality and hatred, while trying to protect my soldiers and bring everyone home alive, there were times when I wanted nothing more than to hold a small Iraqi child and tell him that everything would be all right. Even if I knew that it wasn’t true. I know I have my father to thank for that.
West Point presented itself as an option during my senior year at Aloha High School in Beaverton, Oregon. Football had been the defining experience of my adolescence. If I wasn’t practicing, I was in the weight room or out on the track running. Playing Division I college ball had become a serious goal of mine, but I was a five-foot-ten, 170-pound quarterback, so the odds were not in my favor. I got a brief look (but no offer) from Stanford; a couple other Pac-10 schools extended opportunities to walk on (although they strongly suggested a switch to the defensive side of the field). Moreover, there were serious economic considerations. I was recruited by Princeton, but when the financial numbers came out, there was just no way it was going to work for us. Princeton was generous with its financial aid, but almost anything short of a full scholarship was going to be insufficient.
Although I was not a kid who had ever expressed any interest in a career in the military, the service academies offered a legitimate and attractive alternative to what I had been hearing from other college recruiters. I was intrigued by the possibility of leaving the Pacific Northwest, and I liked the notion of graduating from college without a penny of debt. There was, obviously, the little matter of a five-year commitment to consider, but that seemed at the time like a small price to pay. The U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy offered appointments; in the end, I chose West Point, primarily on the strength of a subtle but powerful recruiting visit in January 1981.
During the air force recruiting visit, I spent most of my time off campus, hanging out with other football players, observing and testing a lifestyle not markedly dissimilar from that of any other college athlete. The most notable aspect of my visit involved a close encounter with a flight simulator, a dizzying, disorienting contraption that left me slightly nauseated and sweat-soaked. I’d never been the kind of guy who lay on the hood of his car and watched airplanes take off overhead at the local airport, but I was something of a traditionalist in my views: it made sense to me that if you were going to serve in the air force, you might as well be a pi lot; clearly, though, that wasn’t in my makeup. If the flight simulator told me anything, it was that I was better suited to land duty.
The West Point visit was different. We spent considerable time in the classroom, mess hall, and dorms. We rose early to attend church services. I requested and received an hour-long meeting with the chaplain. Nothing seemed to be hidden at West Point, and there was only a modest amount of emphasis on football. The sales pitch, such as it was, could be distilled to this simple sentiment: This is what we’re all about. If you’re up for the challenge, great. If not, that’s all right, too. Maybe this isn’t the place for you. I decided pretty quickly that it was the place for me. Not that I really understood what I was getting myself into. I found the academy attractive not because of any fascination with the military (I had never been the type of kid who played "war" or built forts in the backyard; I had never learned to hunt, never owned so much as a BB gun), but rather for a combination of practical reasons. West Point offered a first-rate education without demanding a penny in return. It held the promise of access to a different stratum of society, one where important decisions were made and power was brokered. On some level I was intrigued by the idea that I would be challenged—physically, emotionally, socially. Really, though, I went there for one reason: to play football. It was as simple as that.
I arrived in July of 1981, and I don’t think I stopped sweating until Christmas. I can remember standing out at formation in the first week of Plebe Summer (also known as Beast Barracks) as one of the upper-class cadets in charge of my platoon stood in front of me, screaming, "New Cadet Sassaman, I order you to stop sweating!" I could not. My entire uniform was drenched. This was an unfortunate quirk of physiology (I do sweat more than the average person), combined with an acclimatization process that hadn’t quite taken root. I’d grown up in the Pacific Northwest, where summers were mild and humidity was rarely an issue. To me, the northeastern summer was as stifling as a sauna. Add to this recipe an exhausting, pressure-packed schedule—one that included a ceaseless barrage of insults and a daily to-do list that could not possibly be completed—and you have one seriously soaked cadet.
Indoctrination at West Point began the moment I bid farewell to my father and walked through the front gates. For a tough old minister, my father was surprisingly nervous and emotional. I later discovered, tucked within the pages of my Bible, a collection of handwritten notes—quotations from scripture, mostly, but personal messages as well. He was not the type to share these thoughts face-to-face, but he did take the time to commit them to paper and place them strategically, in the hope that they would provide strength and wisdom during difficult times. And I’d be less than truthful if I said I didn’t have some of those. On my very first day, while reciting a list of factoids and trivia and personal information (something required of all plebes) to one of the upper-class cadets (known traditionally as the Man in the Red Sash) in charge of my dorm, I copped a bit of an attitude. All plebes know that this sort of testing is part of their introduction to West Point; they know that shortly after their arrival, they will be ordered to report to the Man in the Red Sash, who, after testing their mettle, will give them their roommate assignment, their dorm number, instructions on setting up their room, and various other bits of information. So there is ample opportunity to prepare. I had the recitation down perfectly, ripped it right off without making a single mistake; unfortunately, as I finished, I couldn’t resist smiling just slightly, not so much out of arrogance or cockiness, but from relief at having passed the first test. The Man in the Red Sash was not amused. "Wipe that smirk off your face!" he screamed. Then I was ordered to exit the room, go to the end of the line, and perform the duty all over again. There were some cadets, crippled by nervousness, who spent hours with the Man in the Red Sash, and I don’t doubt that some of them became part of the roughly 30 percent of the class of 1985 that ultimately washed out of West Point. That is not an unusual rate of failure at the Academy. Indeed, it’s typical. Most of those who choose to withdraw from school do so in the first year.
The first day was a blur—immersion therapy, you might say. They cut our hair, fed us, ran us from one station to another as we frantically tried to keep pace and soak up all the information being thrown at us. In the afternoon we took part in a reception parade, marching in ragged formation (we hadn’t yet learned the intricacies of proper marching) down to Eisenhower Hall for an orientation lecture as our parents stood off to the side, craning their necks for one last look at their children. My father, like most other fathers, was desperately searching for me, rising on his toes and scanning the line of cadets for some sign of familiarity—but none was forthcoming. We were as one, each wearing gray pants and white shirt, with a cap pulled snugly over a newly shaved head. I was indistinguishable from the cadet to my left or the cadet to my right, and there was no way that I was going to wave to my father to let him know where I was—not with so many upper-class cadets all around. I glanced once more to the side, saw him walking through the crowd, struggling for a final glimpse. Then we were gone. It would be Thanksgiving break before we saw each other again.
I was not, in the beginning at least, a model cadet. In the first month I received several performance reports that made specific note of my "lack of military bearing." This was a way of suggesting that I was not taking my duties seriously, and I don’t deny that the reports had some merit. I was at West Point for two reasons: (1) to play football, and (2) to get an education. I was not particularly fastidious about how my bunk looked, and frankly wasn’t interested in cleaning my room or shining my shoes. In time I would come to understand the importance and value of these things, and I did eventually embrace the extra duties expected of plebes; but it did not come naturally to me. I had to work at it. As a result, the first official counseling report I received from my squad leader offered the following opinion: "New Cadet Sassaman has no military bearing whatsoever, and will never make a presentable army officer." I believe that sentence ended with an exclamation point. It was followed by a second, even harsher assessment: "I doubt he’ll make it through the first semester at West Point."
Whether the cadet who authored this evaluation believed it was true or was merely trying to get my attention—firing a warning shot across the bow, as it were—I don’t know. Regardless of the intent, it worked. From that day on I became a more committed and serious cadet, one who tried hard to balance the demands of athletics, academics, and military leadership. Really, though, there was no other option. There was no way I could go home, no way I could quit. The decision had been made and announced to the press, which naturally provoked a good deal of small-town hoopla. For reasons related to pride, economics, and family pressure, there was absolutely no chance I was going to fail. I signed up, and never looked back or questioned the decision. I was just somewhat clueless about the things expected of me. That’s why cadets who had been to prep school or cadets with West Point lineage were so far ahead of middle-class kids such as me. For some cadets, the learning curve is rather steep, and I was one of those cadets.
Football was my salvation. It kept me sane and focused, and, difficult as it was, provided a welcome respite from the drilling and studying that devoured so much of a cadet’s time. I made the varsity travel team as a freshman, which was a bonus because the football team left campus every Friday evening. When playing at home we’d stay at a hotel in nearby Newburgh, so that we could bond and prepare without any distractions. Of course, we’d fly all over the country for road games. In many ways I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t get a lot of playing time as a freshman, but I did suit up for every game, and on several occasions I found my way onto the field. Pittsburgh, a national power at the time, beat us 48– 0 in the second to last game of the season, but my primary recollection from that day is the thrill of warming up alongside Pitt’s Dan Marino, who would become one of the most successful quarterbacks in NFL history. A minor brush with greatness, perhaps, but it meant a lot to me. Football made the West Point experience tolerable. I didn’t mind the off-season workouts or the daily sessions in the weight room. Football was familiar, comfortable.
In contrast, I found daily life as a West Point plebe to be enormously stressful. The academy courts and attracts type A personalities—overachievers driven to lead and succeed. I certainly fell into that category, and I quickly discovered that if most cadets shared a common trait, it was an almost pathological fear of failure. Washing out was not an option; yet, the statistics did not lie. A significant portion of our class would not graduate. I was determined to avoid being a casualty, and that determination allowed me to survive the first year—but there were consequences. When my parents drove me to the airport at the end of Christmas break, I found myself so racked with anxiety over returning to the academy that I had to duck into a restroom and vomit before boarding the plane. This, unfortunately, was the beginning of a rather disturbing pattern that persisted throughout most of my college career. Every time I left campus for more than a few days, I would become physically ill at the prospect of returning. It didn’t matter if I was visiting my parents in Oregon or an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. Each vacation ended with an unsettling and perhaps cathartic trip to the bathroom. It wasn’t until sometime in my senior year that I developed an ability to handle the tension in other ways.
In all candor, I was neither a gifted student nor a gifted athlete. Whatever I achieved came at a significant cost. I was a worker. Whenever my name appears in the media, it typically is accompanied by the descriptive phrases "West Point," "football star," and "dean’s list student." Well, I made the dean’s list exactly once—in the spring semester of my junior year. A minimum grade point average of 3.0 was required for inclusion on the dean’s list; I made it by the narrowest of margins (exactly 3.0), and I worked my butt off to make it happen.
I majored in international relations, but the core curriculum at West Point is so demanding and broad-based that a sizable portion of any cadet’s time is devoted to classes outside his or her area of interest. I took numerous science-based courses: electrical engineering, systems engineering, and thermodynamics. I probably received a minor in engineering, whether I wanted it or not. In general, what I remember most about the academic end of West Point was spending vast blocks of time on classes that did not interest me, and that I found enormously difficult.
Perseverance, I discovered, was the key to survival at West Point (and, indeed, in the army); much of what I learned was absorbed on the football field. Between my sophomore and junior years we experienced a major coaching change, with Ed Cavanaugh’s departure from West Point, and the arrival of a man named Jim Young. Coach Young came to Army from Purdue University, where he had instituted a sophisticated, pro-style passing offense. Mark Herrmann and Scott Campbell had excelled as quarterbacks in Coach Young’s system, but I knew that his coming to West Point would not be a good thing for me. I was not a drop-back passer; I was an option quarterback, a bit on the smallish side, but with decent speed, field vision, and toughness. Predictably, I was moved to defense shortly after Coach Young’s arrival. I played safety throughout spring practice sessions, and after a while I began to question whether I wanted to remain part of the program. I was really down on myself, debating not only whether I should continue playing football, but whether I wanted to stay at the academy. Cadets are permitted to opt out at any point in the first two years of their education without incurring any sort of penalty; anyone who leaves West Point after that point, however, owes the military a term of service. Football had been largely responsible for making my academy experience tolerable, and now, suddenly, football wasn’t a lot of fun, either. We had a new coach and I was out of the picture. At best, it appeared that I would be a second-string defensive back.
Coach Young was an impressive motivator. His motto—and it could be found plastered on the locker room walls and in the weight room and just about anywhere he traveled—was this: "Those who stay will be champions." I think Coach Young actually borrowed that phrase from Bo Schembechler, for whom he once toiled as a defensive coordinator. Regardless, Coach Young made it his own. Frankly, I found it a bit hard to swallow in the beginning, as I moved from the glamour of quarterback to the faceless work of defensive back, with barely a nod from the coaching staff. Deep down, I understood that football was not the key to my future. I was too small to play professionally; in all likelihood my athletic career would end the moment I graduated, so common sense dictated a bit of introspection, and the posing of some hard questions. What did I want out of life? What did I expect? From this period of crisis came a moment of clarity, during which I decided that I would finish my education at West Point, and that I would leave just as I had entered: as a member of the football team. Why? Because I had made a commitment, and for some reason it seemed important to fulfill that commitment. Maybe it was nothing more complicated than the fact that I couldn’t stomach the notion of being branded a "quitter."
As fate (or good fortune) would have it, Jim Young’s pro-style offense, intelligent and ambitious though it might have been, proved incompatible with the talent available in the West Point locker room at that time. I spent most of my junior season on the sideline, watching Army suffer through a 2-9 season that ended, embarrassingly, with a 42–13 rout at the hands of Navy, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Coach Young, though, was nothing if not practical. He looked around, assessed the talent at his disposal, and did something few coaches are willing to do: he changed. By the spring of 1984 Army had instituted a wishbone attack and I was back on the offensive side of the ball; in fact, I was at the top of the depth chart at quarterback, a reversal of fortune attributable primarily to the fact that I was the only person qualified for the job. My high school team had run a veer offense, which is similar to the wishbone, and that experience, coupled with my status as an upperclassman, suddenly proved a tremendous asset.
Jim Young was one of the most intense people I’d ever been around. He was totally committed to winning, and for that reason, more than any other, we formed a strong connection. As much as I respected him, I also feared him—and I wasn’t alone. Everyone feared Coach Young—even the men on his coaching staff. I can still recall the day that one of our offensive coaches failed to respond quickly enough when summoned by Coach Young. We were in the middle of a passing drill when the assistant realized what had happened, and he heard Coach Young screaming his name. The drill came to a dead stop as the beleaguered assistant, his face ashen, sprinted down the field, unconcerned with anything other than the tongue-lashing he was about to receive. I’d never seen a grown man act that way before, and it had a profound and lasting effect on me. Our entire team had tremendous respect for Jim Young because he was committed to winning, and he was going to do whatever he thought was right to get Army football turned around. In part, that effect came out of his intensity, and an absolute, palpable fear of having to endure being dressed down by that man.
I’ve always said that I learned as much about leadership and winning during my time at Michie Stadium, playing football, as I did while training with the other cadets in more traditional military exercises. Working with Coach Young confirmed a few things I’d already experienced and suspected to be universal truths. I learned that fear, respect, and intensity were intertwined, maybe even inseparable. Here’s a story that illustrates my point, at least as it relates to the concept of fear as a motivational tool. In my senior year, in the fall of 1984, we traveled to Knoxville for a game against the University of Tennessee Volunteers. First of all, we had no business playing Tennessee; they were a big-time football power from the Southeastern Conference, a legitimate Top 20 program; we were somewhere near the bottom of the bottom 20. I don’t know who scheduled that game, but he must have had a sadistic bent. Regardless, there we were, on the field in Knoxville, in ninety-plus-degree heat and wilting in the late-summer humidity, holding our own against a team that was favored to beat us by four touchdowns. The Tennessee crowd of more than ninety-five thousand fans was wild—I’ve never seen so many orange leisure suits in my life—but we were holding our own. This was only the second game of the season (we had easily beaten Colgate in our opener), but already it was quite a departure from the previous year. Late in the game, with Tennessee trying to run out the clock while nursing a 24–17 lead, I found myself sitting on the bench, attempting to cool down by applying wet towels to my head and neck. The game appeared to be over by this point, and none of us felt particularly disheartened by the way things had gone. We had traveled half a country away and acquitted ourselves admirably against one of the best teams in college football, in front of one of the sport’s largest and most fanatical crowds, in a storied stadium. The next thing I knew, we had stopped Tennessee cold and the Volunteers were lining up to punt. We’d have one more shot on offense. As I stood up, wobbling slightly from the heat, I caught Coach Young’s eye. Now, I’m sure he would never remember this, but the look he cast seemed to say, It’s on you, buddy. All I could think at that moment was how much I did not want to let him down; I feared Coach Young far more than I feared anybody on the Tennessee defense, because I knew I’d have to answer to him sooner than I’d have to answer to anybody else. So we went out on the field and got it going. I scored with a minute to go, we tied it up, and that was that. There were no overtimes back then, so we left Knoxville with a tie against a Top 20 team, which, considering where we’d been just a few months earlier, was tantamount to victory. What stands out for me isn’t the crowd or the tying touchdown or anything like that. It’s the memory of fearing my coach, and fearing failure. That, more than anything else, became the driving force in my football career.
Coach Young had vowed to make champions of those who remained at West Point, and he made good on that promise. The turnaround he engineered was nothing less than astonishing—from 2-9 in 1983 to 8-3-1 in 1984. From a humbling loss to our archrival one year, to beating both Navy and Air Force the next year and winning the Commander in Chief’s Trophy outright for only the third time in West Point history. We finished the season ranked twenty-second in the nation, and in Army’s first major postseason appearance, we beat Michigan State, 10–6, in the inaugural Cherry Bowl, at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. This was rarefied air, and the climb had confirmed for me everything that life was supposed to be like. I had rushed for more than 1,000 yards and been selected as corecipient of the Exemplary Player Award by Football Roundup magazine; I shared the award with Boston College’s Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, who would spend the better part of the next two de cades in the NFL.
Sometimes I’m still at a loss to explain this transformation, but I do believe much of it had to do with Coach Young, and my desire to please him and to avoid his wrath. As I would discover many years later in Iraq, where the stakes were exponentially higher, fear can be a powerful motivational force. It may not be optimal, but at times it’s more than adequate.
Excerpted from Warrior King by Lt. Col. (Ret.) Nathan Sassaman with Joe Layden
Copyright © 2008 Nathan Sassaman with Joe Layden
Published in June 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.