The following feature story appeared in the Army Football Game Day program versus North Texas on Sept. 18, 2010, and was written by Pam Flenke.
WEST POINT, N.Y. - Flip through the pages of this game program to the one titled "Career Defensive Leaders". One player that appears on that page five times is Mike McElrath (West Point '93). It is with no surprise that the former free safety turned-Lieutenant Colonel was officially inducted into the Army Sports Hall of Fame last night. Inducted alongside McElrath were Jonathan Aaronsohn (gymnastics), Clennie Brundidge (football, basketball), Al Rushatz (football, wrestling), Melody Smith (basketball, tennis), Teresa Sobiesk (track & field, cross country), Gen. Joseph Stilwell (basketball, football) and Pete Vann (football).
Lieutenant Colonel McElrath's credentials and accomplishments could fill a football season's worth of game programs. Aside from being Army's career leader in tackles (436) and unassisted tackles (282), second all-time in interceptions (11) behind Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis, and passes defended (29), and fourth in pass breakups (19), the former All-America honoree is still taken aback by the recognition.
"It's very humbling," he said. "My sophomore year here was the 100th-year of army football. I remember watching the video before the Army-Navy game and you see all the people that have come before you the previous 100 years, from the Heisman Trophy winners to guys like Monk Meyer and Don Holleder. It's an amazing group of men. Not only what they did on the playing field but then what they've done since. To be in that group, to just have played Army football is amazing. To have worn the gold helmet, to have represented West Point and the Army, then to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It's very surreal."
As a four-year starter for the Black Knights, McElrath was never aware of how many tackles he made or passes he intercepted while on the field, a mentality which he believes resonates from West Point itself.
"When the Army players take the field, their main focus is doing what they need to do to make their team successful. I never knew any of my statistics really ever until you see them in the media guide the next year. Even at the end of the game I would find out during a post-game interview when someone would say 'Mike, you had 18 tackles, what do you think about that?' You don't think about that. You're just playing your position and doing the things that need to get done to try and make the team successful."
The Pennsylvania native who grew up cheering for the Dallas Cowboys and idolizing Walter Peyton because of his genuine passion for the game and undeniable work ethic, chose West Point from a handful of schools with football scholarship offers. His older brother, Rick, attended the Academy so the McElrath family spent countless hours on the bank of the Hudson, watching football games on Saturday afternoons. When Army football came knocking, he just couldn't say no.
"I remember trying to make the decision and one of the schools was coming to give me an offer and I said to Jen, my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, 'If they make me a good offer, I'm going there.' The offer I got was way better than I was thinking, but for some reason I couldn't say yes. I knew at that point my heart was at West Point. It worked out. No regrets. "
Choosing the Academy and going through the rigors it requires of its cadet-athletes led McElrath to what he considers the biggest accomplishment of his career - the National Football Foundation Scholarship.
"The National Football Foundation Scholarship really encompasses the whole person. To come out of the Academy you have to be well-rounded - you have to have done well academically, have been a good athlete, and have excelled militarily. To be successful here you have to have a great work ethic and you have to have pride in what you do. Those things can get you pretty far."
McElrath currently serves as the associate athletic director for operations as well as the interim head coach of sprint football. With only a few years of military service remaining, he hopes the next chapter in his life involves molding cadets into well-rounded individuals that he undeniably is.
"Two places where my heart is leading me is to stay in the athletic community or return to teaching."
From 2002-04 during his second stint at West Point, McElrath taught economics and money and banking in the Department of Social Sciences.
"More than teaching the subject, it's about life and it's about mentorship. It's the next generation of young people and leaders and I think that's important."
Another goal away from the football field?
"To be a great husband and father."
As impressive and undeniable as McElrath's football feats are, his Hall of Fame qualifications go beyond the numbers.