- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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THROGGS NECK, N.Y. -- Follow Long Island Sound to the south as it narrows along the coastline of the Bronx and meets the East River, to the 55-acre campus of the State University of New York's Maritime College, which sits, almost unnoticed, on a spectacular peninsula that splays out underneath the Throggs Neck Bridge.
It is a staggeringly beautiful fall evening, with enough wind gusts to send the Lasers of the school's sailing team bouncing through the whitecaps. The lights of the bridge are already visible, and to the southwest, you can see the graceful suspension cables of the Whitestone Bridge, planes gliding in and out of LaGuardia Airport, and the gold-tinged skyline of Manhattan, backlit by the sinking sun.
A few weeks ago at Reinhart Field, these aesthetics were an afterthought. The Privateers were going through the last full-contact practice before their ninth game of the season, led by coach Clayton Kendrick-Holmes, a study in kinetic energy and khaki cargo shorts. His two boys, Bo and Wills, 12 and 9, respectively, wrestled over a football in a vacant corner, and his wife, Johanna, watched the drills from behind a fence.
The team was undefeated, an unprecedented event for a program that in 23 previous seasons had managed only one winning record, but a vague sense of disquiet hung over the field that night -- a gnawing anxiety that the magnificent chemistry that Kendrick-Holmes has worked so hard to create here was about to change forever.
For the coach, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, soon will be deployed to Afghanistan for about a year. He's 40 now, and he'll be eligible for retirement in two years. As a volunteer, he easily could have taken himself out of harm's way a few years ago. But he didn't.
"When you make a commitment, when you decide to do something, you stick with it," Kendrick-Holmes said. "No matter what happens, whether something is considered easy or hard, you still have to live with that commitment."
This isn't just about disrupting a family of four. This past Saturday, the Privateers -- 87 players, eight assistant coaches and a team manager -- finished the regular season 10-0. When the NCAA announces the Division III playoff field Sunday (and no undefeated team has been excluded since expansion 11 years ago), Maritime College should be in line for a first-round game Nov. 20.
Kendrick-Holmes said he expects to be on the sideline for the most important game in school history, but going forward, all bets are off. If the Privateers win their first-round game, it's probable that after six seasons of sweat and sacrifice, the coach's pre-deployment training will take him away from his team.
Sitting in the conference room across the lobby from his football office, Kendrick-Holmes shrugged.
"It's much like we tell our players when somebody gets hurt: 'We haven't designed the program around one person,'" he said. "So it's kind of like, 'Next man up,' for the head coach."
Article of faith
New York is a notoriously cynical place, often obsessed with its own sense of irony, but a dozen miles away at Maritime College, a deep and abiding faith in God and country is palpable.
Three-quarters of the students wear khaki uniforms and muster at dawn. About two-thirds of the football players are also members of the Regiment of Cadets and are expected to fulfill a range of military-like tasks. The freshmen can be seen running to and from class, and stepping off crisp 90-degree turns.
Kendrick-Holmes was a linebacker for the Midshipmen in the early 1990s, and following a three-year hitch as an assistant navigator on the USS Robert G. Bradley, he decided that coaching was what he really wanted to do. After stops at The Citadel and the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., he arrived in Throggs Neck in 2005 to revive a program that had been dormant for 16 years.
"There were no coaches, no players, no uniforms, no goalposts," Kendrick-Holmes said. "I had a desk and a telephone and just got up early in the morning and went to work all day. It was a blur for awhile, but it was very rewarding to see something develop from nothing."
The program was born in 1892, when the men from Fort Schuyler were shut out in both games against the Willets Point Engineers of Fort Totten. The pattern continued in 1971, when the school's first team of the 20th century lost to Brooklyn College 20-0. In 1988, after starting 0-5 (with a cumulative score of 20-153), Maritime College canceled its season finale with Ramapo College and football again disappeared.
In club football, particularly at the Division III level, continuity is difficult to achieve. At a military-affiliated institution, although subsequent service is not mandatory, it is even harder. Kendrick-Holmes' Privateers lost four of five games at the club level in 2005, including a brutal 69-7 loss to the Wagner JV squad. A year later, with 15 club carry-overs and 80 recruits, the record was 1-6. By 2009, that mark was a credible 6-4, the first winning record in school history.
You can find the building blocks to Kendrick-Holmes' successful program in a model of core values he developed called the War Face: W stands for work ethic, A is for accountability and R stands for respect. F is for family, C represents character and E is for enthusiasm. It is not a coincidence that Kendrick-Holmes' model is shaped like a cross. The Privateers wear a replica of the War Face on their jerseys, in addition to one of the words across their backs in block letters, where the last name usually goes.
"It's a bunch of characteristics that we follow and live by on this team," said senior co-captain and guard Frank Adamo. "I think family is the biggest one. That's what we've really become over the last few years."
That family was fractured when the call came in July. Kendrick-Holmes was in his office, finalizing the preseason schedule.
"Wow, it just happened, I just got the call," he remembers thinking. "It's a call that you're honored to receive. It's something that you planned for, and now it's time to spring into action."
Wife Johanna's reaction to a year in Afghanistan: "Shocking. Surreal, because I guess I always knew it was a possibility. I just didn't think that it would happen. I just couldn't wrap around it."
They told Wills, the younger son, that day.
"He said, 'Well, I don't really want my dad not to come home,'" he told Johanna.
Johanna replied, "I don't think God gave you a dad for him not to come back."
That seemed to satisfy him.
They told Bo when he got home from summer camp in Alabama. Once he realized he wouldn't have to move or change schools, he seemed to relax.
The coach told them he expected to come back, but he fully understands the reality.
"It's not a guarantee," Kendrick-Holmes said. "It's my hope and prayer. Everybody's goal is to go and do the mission, fulfill the mission."
Part of the deal
Mike Stroud is the team's linebackers coach. He also is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and served three times in Afghanistan, as a major with the first U.S. forces deployed in 2002 and, later, as a lieutenant colonel with the Central Command.
"There is no front line for the past 10 years in these Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts," Stroud said. "The Russians were the last ones to try and control it, but they finally gave up on what a lot of people call their Vietnam. They were dumping land mines out of vehicles and airplanes as they left.
"So anytime you are deployed in these countries, any movement at all, Point A to Point B, is a combat patrol. Leaving your bases with rockets and everything else they have going on, you're not where you want to be."
Kendrick-Holmes won't go into specifics, but it's clear he will not be serving in a combat role, although he will be issued a rifle.
"It's a war zone over there," Kendrick-Holmes said simply, "and I'll be in that."
All the attention
This season's opener was a scrum with Massachusetts Maritime that the Privateers won 15-12. There was another close one -- a 41-34 win against Kings Point -- before blowouts over Husson, Anna Maria, Castleton and Becker. The game at Mount Ida was a 37-35 thriller, followed by a 20-2 win against Norwich, the reigning Eastern Collegiate Football Conference champion. Against Norwich, sophomore linebacker Keith Barnes was named the league's defensive player of the week for the third straight time. He is the team's leading tackler.
Maritime completed its perfect regular season this past Saturday when junior fullback Jamie Spanopoulos scored on a 4-yard run to give Maritime a 21-14 victory at Gallaudet University.
Despite playing in a new league, the Privateers have been receiving some votes in the American Football Coaches Association and ECAC Division III polls along with usual suspects like Salisbury, Williams, Cortland State and Ursinus.
The coach has been featured on NBC's "Today Show" and the CBS College Sports Network as well as ESPN's "SportsCenter." He seems almost embarrassed by all the attention.
"You don't coach football from 9 to 5 -- you live football," Kendrick-Holmes said. "It's the same thing with a Navy reservist. You don't do it one weekend a month. You live it. That's part of the deal."
With his unselfish example of commitment, he has helped prepare his team for life without him.
"You never know what's next," said co-captain and safety Steve Roman. "You never know when your number is going to be called. And Coach Holmes taught us to just take it head on."
Two weeks ago, Johanna Kendrick-Holmes, who works at the school as a special events associate, was baking pumpkin cake in the family's comfortable, on-campus house by the water's edge. She said she never asked her husband to stay home -- she knew him better than that.
"He served the college with bringing this great football program to Maritime," Johanna said, "and now it's time for him to serve his country in a way that he's never been able to. That's a huge deal."
Indeed, in a far-ranging interview, Kendrick-Holmes got most emotional -- not talking about his family or going to Afghanistan -- but about the prospect of serving his country.
"It means a great deal," he said, clearing his throat. "Every Saturday I get to listen to the national anthem and look at the flag and know it's a worthy cause. There's people that have gone before me that have given me the freedoms to be a football coach, to be involved in a profession that I really love.
"To be able to serve and give back to that, it's really an honor."
They say our children are the truest measure of our contributions to society. The Kendrick-Holmes family is off to a good start. Bo, sitting in the sunny front room of his home, was asked how proud he was of his father.
"Extremely," Bo said. "He's a big commitment guy. He really believes in staying with everything he does. That's what he teaches us.
"He's everything I want to be."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.