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Honor, Pride and Glory at The Citadel
Playing football at The Citadel means more than just tackles and touchdowns.
Last Friday afternoon, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Brian Brennan, a 2006 graduate of The Citadel, spoke to the Bulldogs’ football team before its homecoming game.
Brennan, a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, knows of which he spoke. Deployed to Afghanistan as a platoon leader of the 506th Infantry Regiment in May of 2008, the convoy
he was leading was hit by an explosive device that killed three of his soldiers.
“He ended up, basically, putting his body on it and lost both legs,” said Kevin Higgins, the head coach of The Citadel. “He was going to lose his arm. They were going to put a tourniquet on it and he just pleaded with them not to and they didn’t. His arm survived. . . .
“He spoke to our team on Friday and, boy, I’ll tell you. That was a powerful, powerful talk. He talked about teamwork, taking care of your teammates, not giving up. . . . You talk about a guy that loves his country.”
The next day, Andre Roberts returned a punt for a touchdown and The Citadel beat Chattanooga 24-21 to end a six-game losing streak. The Bulldogs (4-7) close out the season at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Florida (9-1). The Citadel, which plays on the Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) level, will receive a $450,000 guarantee for taking on the third-ranked Gators.
It sounds like a blowout, and even Higgins admits it could be a rough afternoon. But the game is so special to Florida officials, they are actually planning to use the day to honor the U.S. military. After all, Florida fans talk about winning a national championship. The Citadel’s followers discuss defending the entire nation.
“There’s a group nationally called The Wounded Warriors that will be involved in this weekend’s ballgame,” Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “Any time you can show respect for people who are fighting for this country, it’s something we are glad to do and proud to do.”
Some of the current players on The Citadel roster likely will be thousands of miles from Gainesville in a few months fighting for their country, not first downs. About 1,300 graduates of The Citadel have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Some never made it home.
Higgins, whose son, Tim, was a walk-on at UF who graduated, then played a year for his dad back at The Citadel last season, talked Monday about reviewing the Gator game films and the task his team has ahead: “It is incredible how good Florida is right now.”
But you won’t hear him call Saturday’s contest “a war.” He’s familiar with the real thing at The Citadel. Higgins mentions Chris Murray, a star linebacker and team captain two years ago who is currently finishing elite training.
“He will,” said Higgins softly, “be over there very soon.”
Florida coach Urban Meyer made it clear Monday that he respects this week’s opponent.
“One of our coaches is a graduate of The Citadel. . . . This outfit, I have a lot of respect for them,” Meyer said. “There was a time where I was hoping my son, and I still do, would go to a military academy or a place like The Citadel because I just have great admiration for them.”
Gator running backs coach Kenny Carter graduated from The Citadel. Carter’s son, Brey, will get his diploma from there in May. As is the tradition, Carter will be allowed to present his son with his diploma at graduation ceremonies. Kenny did not seek a military career but many of his relatives and former coaches have served.
“I really do have a tremendous amount of admiration, appreciation and respect for what (The Citadel graduates) have done for this country,” Kenny Carter said.
A close friend died while completing training in the Marines. Carter has had teammates who went on to participate in U.S. conflicts. He still flinches when he gets an alumni newsletter and reads the list of the most recent graduates who have died in Afghanistan or Iraq. Those who have lost their lives traditionally have their names added to a monument on campus.
Even the Bulldogs’ star quarterback is not immune. Stanley Meyers, the Bulldogs’ signal caller from the mid-’90s, recently returned home after more than a year in Afghanistan as a member of the South Carolina National Guard.
Higgins started a tradition four years ago that before the kickoff of each home game, players touch the Missar-Murphy Vietnam Memorial, named after two Bulldogs’ football players from the class of 1965 who died in the line of duty. It’s a reminder that life inside the fences of The Citadel is about much more than a scoreboard. Especially given the current conflicts in the Middle East.
“I’m sure there will a couple of our guys that will end up going over there, depending of course on what takes place,” Higgins said.
Kenny Carter still talks to many of his old friends at The Citadel. He doesn’t try to hide it. He loves them. And he worries. Football, he will agree, is just a game. The Citadel stands for much more.
“A special place,” he says of his alma mater. “A very, very special place.”
Honor, pride and glory
By David Jones, Florida Today
Photo Credit: Citadel Athletics