The following feature story on senior Mike Gann appeared in the Football Game Day Program on Nov. 6 against Air Force and was written by Tracy Nelson.
WEST POINT, N.Y. - He’s been called the centerpiece, the spearhead, the cornerstone of the Army defense. Ask Mike Gann about himself and he’ll tell you about his team.
It’s a team he knows well and one that he could not take more pride being a part of. Gann is in his fifth year with the program, a rarity for any cadet-athlete. He’s endured three head coaching changes and seen a program go from a 3-9 mark as a freshman in 2006 to now one win away from becoming bowl eligible (5-3) as a senior in 2010.
The road for Gann has not been an easy one, but one that he would not change for an instant.
Gann grew up with football as a way of life. He’s named after his father, Mike, who spent nine years playing in the National Football League with the Atlanta Falcons after enjoying a stellar gridiron career at Notre Dame.
“I can’t remember a fall not playing football,” said Gann.
Born and raised outside of Atlanta in Roswell, Ga., Gann began playing for Marist School, a private Catholic institution that had also produced Will Sullivan ’05, in seventh grade.
“Athletics played a big role in high school,” he said. “I started progressing as a player and imagining myself playing at a higher and higher level. I knew about West Point and my defensive ends coach, Danny Stevens, was a huge influence. He’s an Atlanta homicide detective and I really respected him. He knew it would be the best option for me.”
As Gann’s high school career progressed with great success, including an all-state selection, he began getting serious looks from other Division I programs. Duke, North Carolina and Connecticut all wanted him, but they all wanted him to play center. Gann was a defensive line guy and wanted to continue in that role. Enter West Point. He visited for the first time ever in December of his senior year at Marist School, was told he could play defensive line and become an officer, two things he had wanted for a long while.
“I was in eighth grade when the September 11 attacks happened, and then the Iraqi war started in 2003,” Gann said. “Both of those events influenced me a lot. To see all of the men and women on T.V. and what they were giving up and sacrificing for our freedom, it was humbling. It made me feel like I could give back and I felt a sort of calling. I still had my dreams to play football at the highest level I could and I did want to serve in the military. West Point was an opportunity to do both and get a great education along the way.
“They were all great schools (Duke, UNC, UConn) and offered outstanding academics, but West Point was so unique and an experience I knew I couldn’t get anywhere else. The tradition both on the football field and in the Corps is what drew me here. I would be a part of something great and bigger than myself.”
Gann showed up on the banks of the Hudson a fresh-faced plebe for BEAST Barracks in the summer of 2006. After enduring the grueling summer training, football camp began and Gann got a dose of reality.
“Showing up at football camp on the first day as a brand new college player was an experience,” he said. “When you’re in high school, you’re one of the best kids on the field. Then you get here and you realize that’s not the case. It drives some people to work harder and that’s definitely what happened to me.”
Gann played in two games as a freshman, but really exploded on the scene as a sophomore when he drew duty in all 12 games, totaled 22 tackles and played split series every game. With his career on the rise and showing no signs of slowing down, Gann was hit with a huge blow on Sept. 20, 2006. After starting the first three games of the season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Akron, tearing both his PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) and MCL (medial collateral ligament).
“It was crushing,” he said. “But after a few weeks of seeing what could be done for me, I was given the option of going back home to Atlanta, continue to rehab and solely focus on getting better. I wanted to make sure that I would be commissionable and be able to play my sport again.”
That’s exactly what Gann did. He dropped all of his classes and re-took them the following year. Essentially erasing 2006 to do it all over again in 2007.
“I still love that I made that decision,” Gann said. “You only have a limited amount of time in your life that you can play football. Being able to get those games back was so great and I’m forever grateful that I was given the opportunity to make the most of my time here.”
Gann wasted no time getting back on the playing field and stepping right back into the starting role he had left vacant the year prior. That may have been the only constant for Gann as the Black Knights went through a third head coaching change since 2004 with the hiring of triple-option expert Rich Ellerson. The first-year mentor quickly realized Gann’s value as both a physical specimen that could match-up against offensive linemen week after week and a leader who had earned his stripes.
“One of the things that we’re consistently challenged with is the ability to knock a hole or win the line of scrimmage,” Ellerson said when asked about the 6-2, 280-pound Gann. “We just don’t have a lot of guys in the program that have that physical prowess. We have some tremendous athletes and guys that play really hard, but a guy that can physically match-up with some of the behemoths we face weekly, there just aren’t many of those guys. Mike is absolutely that force for us.
“You can argue that as Mike goes, so goes the effort on defense,” Ellerson continued. “If he’s having a good day, we’re probably having a good day. If he’s not, we’re not. Certainly his play is pivotal, but his maturity is even more so for a guy who has played as much football as he has and been though as much as he has. He’s seen the program done one way and bought into it being done a very different way.”
Those sentiments are echoed throughout the team and perhaps best said by fellow seniors Steve Anderson and Josh McNary.
“He is the biggest man on the defense,” Anderson said. “He is the centerpiece, the one that brings us together in our defensive huddle. Mike is a man that no matter what situation I am in, I would love to have by my side. He is fearless and he has a great head on his shoulders. He is through and through team first, a ‘me second’ kind of guy. He is my brother.”
“Mike Gann has been that steady anchor in the middle of defense; essentially the spearhead,” McNary stated. “He has been able to consistently hold down our front lines. He is easily one of the hardest workers on the team. He is selfless and completely content with making the play without being awarded with the stat.”
Gann is certainly not lacking in the statistics area in what has been a banner year for the bruising nose guard. He has started all eight games heading into today’s service academy showdown against visiting Air Force. He has 14 tackles on the season, including 4.5 for loss, and a couple of sacks, all while anchoring a defense that enters today’s contest ranked 17th in the country. No matter what story the numbers tell, Gann is solely focused on the team’s success and checking off the team goals one-by-one – continuing today opposite the Falcons.
“The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy is on our goal sheet every year, and it’s one of the first things we talked about at the start of this year,” Gann said. “To be honest with you, I haven’t beat Air Force or Navy the entire time I’ve been at West Point. This is my last chance and this senior class’ last chance. Now is the time.
“This year has been great, but it’s been tough too with three really frustrating losses,” he continued. “We are just a few plays away from having a couple more wins. The expectations on the field are so much higher for us as a team this year. Not once have I felt going into a game that we weren’t going to win. Before, it’s not like I ever felt we didn’t have a chance, but this year is different. We should win. If we don’t win, we messed up.”
Including today’s contest, Gann has just four football games remaining in his career. Next fall will likely be the first that he can remember without strapping on the pads and lining up on the gridiron. Instead, the management major who branched Field Artillery, will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in December with a new set of goals waiting to be crossed off the list.