Jan. 24, 2012
By Ross Maghielse
This story originally appeared in The Flint Journal. Read the story here.
On college campuses across the country, being a Division I athlete usually comes with a lot of glamor and a celebrity status. That's not the case at West Point Academy.
Former Michigan Warriors goalie and North American Hockey League MVP Robert Tadazak has found that out first hand during his freshman season with the Army Black Knights.
At West Point, military service and academics come first. And for those athletes who arrive there thinking otherwise, there's an immediate reality check in store.
"Wow, just thinking back on my first week here is crazy," Tadazak said in a phone conversation as he was leaving his chemistry class, which is just a portion of his 20 credit semester. "That first week we were out under the sun for eight hours just getting yelled at and pressured constantly... Athletes don't get special treatment here. If anything, it's the opposite."
Tadazak, from Lapeer, made his decision to attend West Point during his final season with the Warriors, in which he led his team to the NAHL Robertson Cup Finals. As the son of a military man - his father Bob worked for the department of defense for 37 years - Tadazak knew what he was getting into by attending a military school, to an extent.
"I knew it was going to be tough but after my first few days I remember coming into my room, just throwing my bags down and saying 'What am I doing here?'" Tadazak said. "It was difficult trying to get accustomed to life out here... Going to bed late after long days of hockey stuff and studying and then getting up early for physical training. It was tough, to say the least."
Army hockey coach Brian Riley is used to that type of reaction from his incoming players.
"You see them and they kind of have that look in their eye of 'Oh my God what did I get myself into.' (Tadazak) had that look but he's been great for us and I think he's found a comfort zone," Riley said.
In addition to the physical and academic challenges of a school like West Point, athletes are also tasked with fending off stereotypes from their military peers. Earning respect takes time.
"A lot of people think that the athletes who get in don't deserve to be here because they're here just for athletics," Tadazak said. "I did well in high school and had good grades but it's just that stereotype that you're just here for sports. You've got to work hard and be dedicated, especially as an athlete here, to make sure people know you're putting forth the effort. If people feel like you're not working hard or you're trying to dodge things because you play sports, you'll be a target."
Rob Tadazak 1 (2)-1.JPGCourtesy of Army AthleticsRobert Tadazak, of Lapeer, has gotten plenty of time in net during his freshman season with the Black Knights.
It's because of these trying conditions that some students don't make it at West Point. Each student has a two-year "tryout" window at the school, where if the military lifestyle becomes too harsh, they can leave. Once you show up for the first day of your junior year, however, you're committed for up to an eight-year term of military service. Despite its challenges, Tadazak's intentions at West Point remain the same as when he committed to play there last February. He's in it for the long hall.
"I think it says a lot about the kind of character you have and person you are if you can come here, survive here, and be successful," Tadazak said. "I know I'm doing something that I can be proud of, my parents can be proud and people from my town that know me will be proud of and respect."
From a distance, not everybody gets that. As a coach and recruiter, Riley said his best selling point is getting kids to come for an official visit and see what the school has to offer. Tadazak cited his official visit to West Point as the major selling point in him deciding to go there.
"There's a misconception of our school out there, especially among talented athletes, and I'm sure (Tadazak) had to deal with it from his junior hockey teammates. A lot of people say 'Why the heck would you want to go to West Point?'" Riley said. "People don't necessarily realize what West Point has to offer until they experience it first hand. Having kids come out for a visit, where they meet the officers and see the facilities and programs we have, I think that goes a long way towards helping them understand... As a coach here, the great thing is we end up with a lot high-character individuals to work with. Rob's an example of that."
Tadazak's character has allowed him to survive at West Point, but his talent on the ice is what may ultimately determine his future. He's currently splitting time as the starting goalie for the Black Knights and has already built a strong hockey resume for himself with what he did with the Warriors in the NAHL. A professional hockey career is a possibility and could also fall under a new military program that allows athletes to defer their service commitment if a professional playing opportunity arises.
For now, that's in the back of Tadazak's mind.
"Yeah I want to pursue the possibility of going pro someday, but serving your country is definitely more honorable than just playing sports," Tadazak said. "That's why I chose to come here."
It's a decision he's no longer questioning.
E-mail Ross Maghielse at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @Maghielse.