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Many athletes balancing school, sports and parents serving in the military

3/13/2009

Soccer practice started out just like any other for Melyssa
Haubenstricker. She congregated on the field with her Meade (Ft. Meade,
Md.) teammates and started to stretch.

Then all of a sudden from the corner of her eye, Haubenstricker noticed
her father walking toward the field. He was wearing sunglasses and appeared
to have a serious look on his face.

When he told his daughter to come over for a talk, her heart sank.
Haubenstricker's mother, Valerie, had been deployed to Kuwait with her
Army unit a few months earlier, and Haubenstricker was terrified her father
had come to deliver horrible news.

Thankfully, it turned out
he had simply come to
remind his daughter about
her orthodontist's appointment
that day.

Talk to anybody with a
parent at war and it's the
same story. It doesn't matter
if you're a girls' soccer player
in Maryland or a football player in Texas, a feeling of uneasiness is always at
the forefront of your mind. You can be somewhere as routine as soccer
practice and one little thing out of the ordinary can trigger anxiety.

"Your heart starts beating really fast and you don't know what to do," says
Haubenstricker, a sophomore whose mother returned to the States in
December. "It's a panic thing. It rides on your mind that she's over there and
you can't do anything about it."

At Meade, that kind of panic races through students' minds each and
every day. Located just outside Baltimore, Meade is adjacent to the Fort
Meade U.S. Army base. According to athletic director Dave Lanham, 415 of
the school's 2,180 students have a parent active in the military -- many of
whom have been at war at some point during the past five years.

Football players Nick Fish and Tyler Young are just two of Meade's many
students who have dealt with a parent away at war.

A sophomore linebacker, Fish spent his freshman year at Rogers
(Newport, R.I.) while his father was stationed in Iraq. There were times when
Fish would go days or even weeks without hearing from his father. When that
was the case, Fish couldn't help but obsess about his dad's well-being.
No matter what he was doing
-- whether it was football
practice, homework or
watching TV -- Fish couldn't
take his mind off what was
going on thousands of miles
away. Those thoughts led to
plenty of sleepless nights.

One time when Fish was
on the phone with his father, their conversation was cut short when sirens
started blaring on the other end. His father said he had to go, and Fish didn't
hear back from him for the rest of the day.

Fear immediately set in. After an excruciating night, his father called the
next day to say he was OK. But it's an experience Fish will never forget.

"I wasn't sure what happened," he says. "A whole bunch of thoughts went
through my head. You'd feel anxiety because you had no clue what's going on
and you feel helpless. There's nothing you can do about it but just wait. The waiting was the hardest part."

For Young, now a junior wide receiver at Meade, waiting was indeed the
worst part when his dad was in Iraq three years ago. Young's father tried to
call home every day, but occasionally he wouldn't get a free moment.

Minutes felt like hours on those days. Young focused on school and sports
to forget his worries, but he started stressing about every minute detail of his
life. It got so bad he broke out in hives.
"If I'd hear something on the news about something happening over
there, that's what would really
stress me out and scare
me," Young says. "I wouldn't
watch any news after that."

Even if they wanted to
watch the news, high school
athletes with parents at war
typically don't have the time.
The portrayal in "Friday
Night Lights"of Matt Saracen
balancing school with caring for his grandmother, working a part-time job
and trying to retain the starting quarterback position while his dad is off at
war may be fiction, but it's not too far from reality.

"When their dads leave, they always step up,"says Lavetta McClam, whose
son Dewayne is a senior running back/linebacker at Meade. "It's almost like
an instinct. They just rise to the occasion to make sure things get done and
mom is OK."

For Dewayne, rising to the occasion meant looking after his younger
brother while their father, Wayne, was in Iraq in 2005. Meade senior lineman
Ranonn Johnson, meanwhile, took on extra chores around the house and
started cooking meals for his family while his father was away on tours
with the Navy.

"It makes you more independent," says Johnson, who's also on the ROTC
drill team. "It taught me to not be 100 percent reliant."

When students like McClam and Johnson are forced to grow up too
quickly, sports help slow down the momentum, giving them an outlet to act
their age. As a bonus, a team serves as a surrogate family and sports allow
athletes to forget their worries
for a few hours each day.

"When you think of
people's basic psychological
needs, a sense of belonging is
big, and sports can provide
that,"says Dr. Amy Baltzell, who
runs the graduate program in
sports psychology at Boston
University. "It doesn't matter
where you came from -- if you can catch or kick the ball, generally you're
welcome. And not just athletically; there's a social component as well."

For Texas Longhorns senior defensive tackle Roy Miller, football was his
savior when his father was serving in Iraq four years ago. Even though Miller
graduated from Shoemaker (Killeen, Texas) in 2005 and went on to play four
years of college ball, to this day most of his closest friends are from his high
school football team.

It helped that Shoemaker is located next to the Fort Hood military post,
meaning many of Miller's teammates also had parents at war and knew exactly what he was going through. If Miller felt alone, all he had to do was
look at the school's hallways, where blue and silver stars signified all the
parents deployed in Iraq and gold stars represented parents who'd lost their
lives in Iraq since the start of the war.

"Most of my friends I have now were guys who were on my team,"Miller
says. "It further bonds you, and those bonds last a long time."

Miller's dad missed every one of his senior-season games before returning
from Iraq in time to catch his son's high school finale -- which fittingly was the
U.S. Army All-American Game.

At Shoemaker, stories
like that are commonplace.
According to athletic director
and head football coach
Ken Gray, roughly 85-90 percent
of the 2,100-person student
body has a parent in
the service or involved in the military. With so many parents away, the talk
in the stands at games often centers on who's gone rather than who's there.

Such circumstances present coaches at schools like Shoemaker with unique
challenges and also make it abundantly clear that win-loss records and state
championships are secondary in the grand scheme of things.

"You're dealing with things that coaching 101 didn't teach you,"Gray says.
First off is actually fielding a team.

During the 2007 season, Gray's team lost 10 starters from the previous
season who moved when their parents were deployed. And of the 94 players
from the Class of 2008 who started in the program as freshmen, only 11
remained as seniors. Gray says some just stopped playing, but most players
had to move when their parents were either deployed or transferred to
another base.

Then there's coaching athletes who have a lot more on their minds than
X's and O's.

"You're going to play a game and you're trying to give them a fired-up
speech and their mind may be elsewhere," says Gray, whose father was in the
Air Force. "Our kids try their best to be focused. They're tough kids -- they
don't want anyone to feel
sorry for them by any means."

Of course, it's hard not to
at times. Gray once had to
cancel practice to help one of
his players whose family was
being evicted from their
house -- his parents couldn't
pay the rent because his dad was in Iraq and his mom was in the hospital.
Rather than get ready for that week's game, the team helped the player move
his family's belongings into storage.

"Every day is something new for all of us," Gray says.

What isn't new to high school athletes with parents at war is the
perpetual state of unease they live in. Soon after that scare at soccer practice,
Haubenstricker was called into her guidance counselor's office out of the
blue. Panic set in yet again and she feared the worst.

Thankfully, it had nothing to do with her mom. Just another day in the life
of a high school athlete with a parent at war.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.