Oct. 15, 2012
By Brian Gunning, Army Athletic Communications
Given its history and tradition, the U.S. Military Academy has always been a popular literary subject. A recent search for West Point on a popular online marketplace returned 76,772 results, including such titles as Red Blaik's You Have To Pay The Price and John Feinstein's A Civil War.
The number of results from that online search has increased by two in recent weeks with the release of Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country and Football at West Point by Joe Drape and When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football by Mark Beech. While they share the subject of Army Football, the two books offer contrasting stories. Drape, a sportswriter for the New York Times, delved into the current Army program through access to players, coaches and staff, while, Beech, a Sports Illustrated writer and 1991 West Point graduate, took the historical approach in chronicling the Black Knights' last undefeated team.
While the two stories are different, both were inspired by experiences through family.
"My son, Jack, gave me the idea one night while we were watching the Notre Dame-Army game," Drape said. "I had an uncle who taught at Notre Dame and my oldest brother graduated from there, but as soon as Jack saw the pregame show about Army with the cadets marching in and the game balls parachuting in he was sold. His favorite toys are those little green Army men and he said, 'Let's go see the good guys, Dad.' College football has been scandal-ridden for a long time, and when he said that, it struck me that at West Point they probably were playing football for the right reasons."
Beech's West Point connection runs deep. His father was a member of the Class of 1959, and Mark grew up cheering for Army on Saturdays. A trip through his father's yearbook as a youngster sparked a curiosity that years later led to his latest work.
"My dad, of course, was a big fan, and I became a big fan," Beech explained. "During the 1970s when I was a kid, Army was going through a tough period of football. It was a little bit unthinkable to me that they had ever been undefeated and highly ranked. I used to go through my dad's yearbook, and it was fascinating for me to look through those pages. When you think about Red Blaik and Army football, you always think about those great teams in the 1940s, but I found while I was writing this book that in some ways the 1958 team was as good if not more remarkable."
The 1958 season is famous not only for the Black Knights' unbeaten record, but also the creation of the "lonely end" formation and Pete Dawkins' 1958 Heisman Trophy. Even with players like Bill Carpenter, Dawkins and national lineman of the year Bob Novogratz, after speaking with the members of the team Beech found it abundantly clear who the main character of the 1958 season was.
"All these guys thought that it was about time something was done about this team," Beech said. "Bob (Novogratz) was the first one to tell me, and everyone eventually did, that this was all about Red Blaik. There was a great collection of players, but Blaik was the centerpiece of the team and the reason for that season."
While Beech had his institutional knowledge to draw on during his writing, Drape was a relative newcomer to the West Point experience. He knew about the great teams of the Red Blaik era, and actually covered the 1996 Independence Bowl, but until that night watching television with his son had never really had an interest in exploring Army Football.
Drape's access provided him with an insight to exactly what an Army football goes through on a daily basis. He was able to capture nearly every aspect of the West Point experience, from the trials of plebe year to the anticipation of graduation.
"I wanted to show the broadest cross section," Drape said. "Larry Dixon was going through his plebe year and had remarkable insight into the process. Trent Steelman was candid enough to share his struggles becoming the best cadet that he could be. Steve Erzinger, Max Jenkins and Andrew Rodriguezwere great guys - firsties about to begin their military careers. They were at the end of their journey and were very articulate about how it had gone."
What he found through his interactions with the Army players affected him, not only as an author, but also a person.
"Getting to know everyone involved made me proud that our country turns out generation after generation of young people who are truly the best and the brightest" Drape said. "They hold themselves to a higher standard and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. It made me want to be a better parent, to pass those standards and aspirations on to Jack. It restored my faith in college athletics."