Commentary

No time to rest for service academies' best

Originally Published: August 13, 2008
By Chris Preston | Special to ESPN.com

Just days after completing his junior year of college, Ryan Harrison boarded a plane for China, where for a month he learned Chinese culture and Mandarin Chinese through a language immersion training program at Nanjing University. A foreign area studies major and Chinese minor, Harrison was able to earn course credits for his Far Eastern expedition. Harrison also found time during his stay to fit in the obligatory sightseeing tour, visiting the Great Wall of China and feasting his eyes on the glistening new Olympic facilities in Beijing.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrison
DenMar ServicesRyan Harrison practiced his kicking -- and gave a few pointers -- while he studied in China.

A fascinating and glamorous way to spend a summer, to be sure, but nothing too out of the ordinary for an American college student thanks to the magic of the study abroad programs gracing our many institutions of higher learning. What made Harrison's trip particularly remarkable, however, is that two weeks after returning to the States, on July 12, he was back at the Air Force Academy lending a hand at prep school training. Soon thereafter he was sucking wind at football two-a-days in the thin Rocky Mountain air. A rising senior, the 21-year-old Harrison is the starting kicker on Air Force's football team. He was one of 50 cadets who traveled to China on the Academy's dime this summer, but the only one who also plays a Division I college sport.

There are other military academy athletes like Harrison who, despite already balancing nearly full year-round schedules, decided to bypass a rare opportunity for some much-needed beachside R&R this summer. Will Ryan, a rising senior forward on the West Point ice hockey team, worked in a deployed warrior medical management center in Landstuhl, Germany, for two weeks. Meanwhile, two of his Army hockey teammates -- Matt Hickey and Bill Leahy -- traveled to Tanzania for a cultural immersion experience similar to Harrison's in China.

Rashawn King didn't have to leave the Naval Academy campus to make his summer contribution. The starting cornerback on Navy's 8-5 football team a year ago, King spent his summer working 18-hour days as a plebe detailer indoctrinating a squad full of incoming freshmen (known as plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy) into everyday military life. Though Annapolis, Md., may not be as exotic as China, Germany or Tanzania, King says his plebe-training summer was every bit as rewarding.

[+] EnlargeBill Leahy
Army Athletic CommunicationsBill Leahy traveled to Tanzania, and made a few friends along the way.

"It's basically teaching incoming freshmen how to be midshipmen," says King, who like all Naval Academy students was once a plebe himself. "We teach them how to march, how to salute, how to eat a square meal [like a midshipman]. Hopefully I was able to impress on them some of the things I learned as a plebe."

For nearly a full month beginning in early July, King would wake up at 5 a.m. seven days a week and guide his squad of 11 plebes (two of which happened to be Navy football recruits) through a full day of training. His days would usually end in meetings with the three other squad leaders in his platoon, often concluding around 11 p.m. King's alarm would sound no less than six hours after his head hit the pillow, signaling it was time to do it all again.

"I just wanted to motivate people to do things even when [I was] exhausted as a leader," says King, who will be a senior this fall. "Motivation and teamwork are things I learned from football."

The teamwork skills Ryan learned in the hockey rink likely came in handy as well this summer. As part of his four-week Academic Individual Advanced Development (AIAD) -- a program in which many West Point students partake -- Ryan worked with doctors and nurses at the medical management center in Landstuhl, observing their day-to-day activities and making suggestions to ensure that the facility runs as efficiently as possible. The purpose of Landstuhl's medical center is not to treat wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, which is where most of the patients were transported from, but to diagnose them and deploy them to various treatment centers. Ryan, an engineering management major, was there to help fine-tune that process.

[+] EnlargeWill Ryan
Army Athletic CommunicationsWill Ryan, like many other student-athletes at service academies, finds time to give back.

"We were improving the processes by decreasing the time and increasing the quality," says the Army ice hockey forward. "We went through a 10-step process when patients checked in. We looked at things and [asked], 'Do we really need to do this?' It was about minimizing movement."

While he was able to offer some advice for a facility that had been seeing an inadequate throughput of wounded warriors, Ryan admired the swift response by the Landstuhl medical staff when the soldiers arrived at the facility. "Every day we'd watch the buses being unloaded. The nurses and doctors would just snap into action and get them into the ICU. It took them about five minutes. At most places it would take about 10."

Many of the wounded soldiers Ryan saw coming off those buses were "ambulatory" patients, meaning they suffered non-life-threatening injuries like a broken arm or leg. But others were in critical condition. "Some of these guys were in real bad shape," says Ryan, who admits that seeing some of the more critically wounded soldiers was tough to watch at times. "I'm 23, and a lot of the guys coming off that bus were 19, 20 years old. Just the sacrifice that some of these 18- to 25-year-old guys and gals were making … in some ways forgoing normal adult life. It's pretty inspiring."

Ryan will return to the West Point campus later this month, where he will be able to swap overseas stories with his Tanzanian-bound teammates Hickey (who, incredibly, also hiked Mount Kilimanjaro this summer) and Leahy. But hockey season won't start for a few months. For Harrison and Air Force, football season has already begun. Realizing he had but a few precious months left before the start of preseason camp, Harrison got some practice in at the Nanjing University soccer field while in China. Not surprisingly, kicking a football around in China drew some attention.

[+] EnlargeRashawn King
Army Athletic CommunicationsRashawn King didn't have to go far from the Naval Academy to make a big impact.

"There were all these Chinese students there playing soccer, and I bring out this oblong ball," Harrison recalls, laughing at the thought. "They all came over. They had never really seen something like that."

Harrison, who set Air Force's single-season field goals record last season with 19, said the local fascination with his football training extended to the weight room, where he had to ad-lib a tutorial on how to perform a power clean when several interested onlookers inquired about his peculiar leg exercise. "They needed a little help on their form, but for the most part they had it down," he says.

This season the Keller, Texas, native aims to top his own field goal record, and hopes his Air Force squad can return to a bowl game. By the end of the year Harrison plans on obtaining his foreign area studies degree and then pursuing his dream of becoming a pilot like his father. Pilot training for Air Force Academy graduates requires a 10-year commitment. Balancing his various commitments will be quite the juggling act. And, as his nonstop summer schedule suggests, he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm busy," Harrison concedes, "but in a good way."

Chris Preston is an editor for the Northeast Sports Network and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at cpreston@northeastsportsnetwork.com.