I play football at Army. I am part of a brotherhood. A family.
I am brothers not only with my teammates, but also with every Army player who came before me. We are playing for them at the same time we are playing for each other. We bleed together on the football field before we bleed together on the battlefield. That’s not just talk. That’s very real. A West Point graduate, Maj. Andrew D. Byers, was killed in action last month in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Everybody who goes to a service academy knows the stakes.
But I never thought I would lose one of my brothers while we were still at school together — while we were still teammates. West Point prepares you for many things, but not for something like that.
It was Sunday morning, September 11. It was sunny and warm and I was feeling good. No, scratch that. We were feeling good. We had just beaten Rice 31–14 the day before in our home-opener. Army was 2–0 for the first time in 20 years. And as I walked up the hill to Michie Stadium for practice that morning, my mind was already turning to UTEP, our next opponent.
Practices the day after a game are normally pretty intense. Our day off is Monday, so we try to go hard on Sunday. We’re only in helmets, but we get after it. Something was different this time, though. Instead of going straight to lift before our team meeting, our coaches told us to go to the auditorium — Coach Monken wanted to talk to us. I took my seat in the meeting room along with the rest of the guys. Something was up, but we had no idea what.
And then Coach stood up and broke the news that our teammate Brandon Jackson was dead. He had been killed in a car accident early that morning. He was apparently driving alone on a road in Westchester County shortly before 2 a.m. and had hit a guardrail and flipped over. No other cars were involved.
There weren’t any more details, but I didn’t need any more, to be honest. I already felt like I knew too much.
Coach canceled practice that day. He had brought us all together to tell us about Brandon so that we would be there to comfort each other. That day was emotional — like a blur. The next day, we went to classes and it was so tough.
We had to do something. I am one of the captains of the team this season. Together with my friend and fellow linebacker Jeremy Timpf, who is also a captain, I met with our team’s leadership council — 11 other players from every class — and we made a unanimous decision that, even though it wasn’t on the schedule, we needed to practice. Jeremy and I then went to Coach Monken, who agreed immediately. So on Monday afternoon, there we were on the field in our helmets and shoulder pads. And we got after it, just like we do every Sunday. It was therapeutic.
Brandon would have appreciated it. He was such a hard worker — always trying to get better. Our strength coach told me that one Saturday last summer, Brandon had been in the weight room all alone working out. Everybody else was taking advantage of the down time. It was Saturday. It was summer. But he had gone up there and just started lifting.
He wasn’t just all about football, though. He always had a positive attitude about everything. I had instructors — active duty officers in the Army who have served multiple combat tours — come up to me after Brandon’s accident telling me that they would always remember him for his smile. Not his leadership. Not his military bearing. His smile.
It was huge. It could light up a room. He’d be walking down the hallway and you could see it from the other end. I can picture it now. That was Brandon.
I remember picking Brandon up on my way back to school at the end of the holiday break last year. It was snowing pretty hard, and as he ran toward my car after having said goodbye to friends and family, all I could make out was that smile. We drove together to the airport to pick up another teammate, whose flight wound up being delayed. While we were waiting for him, Brandon and I just sat there in my car and talked about the upcoming off-season. We knew it was going to be tough, but we were excited to get after it. I miss his excitement.
After the news of Brandon’s death came out, we got great support from the whole West Point community — which is spread all over the world. People overseas were sending us messages. Other teams. Guys from Navy. We even heard that people were reaching out to Brandon’s mom. It gave us a real sense of pride and sort of helped put everything into perspective. When we play, we’re impacting people we’ve never even seen. We’re part of something much greater than ourselves.
And then we went to El Paso on Saturday and beat the Miners 66–14. For Brandon.
Before that game, we ran out onto the field behind linebacker James Gibson, who wears number 2, and slotback Christian Drake, who wears number 8. Twenty-eight. That was Brandon’s number. We do that before every game now.
That game was also the first time that our training staff set up a locker for Brandon as if he was going to play. All his stuff was in there: helmet, shoulder pads, jersey, cleats. Everything. They’ve done it every week since. It’s a great reminder of who we are playing for.
And who are we playing for? We’re playing for a cornerback who was one of the truest competitors on the team. Brandon was a sophomore — a yearling in cadet lingo. I am a senior, a firstie. I’m also a captain, but there was no doubt that Brandon was one of the leaders of our defense, and of our entire team. He would go up against anybody and expect to win. He didn’t know any other way. And he was always trying to hype guys up, on defense and offense, trying to get them to be better. He would do things that competitors do, even talk trash.
And there was one thing he liked to say in particular: “Scared money don’t make no money.”
He said it all the time. And it had nothing to do with money. It meant that if he was going up against another team’s best receiver, he wasn’t going to back down. That’s why he led the team in interceptions last year. That’s why he was one of our best tacklers. There’s no point in being afraid of failure. Just go out and go for it. You never know what’ll happen. We need that mentality on this team.
Brandon made that part of our culture. James Gibson says it maybe every day now. So just because a member of our family is missing, it doesn’t mean he’s not with us all the time.
I didn’t know the first thing about anything when I started playing football. I was seven years old when I signed up for a Pop Warner league near my home on Long Island. Seriously, I was clueless. They asked me what number I wanted and I had no idea what they were talking about. They were like, What year were you born? I told them 1994, and they were like, All right, your number is 19.
Then they put me at center and I was like, I’m not doing this. I played running back after that, and that was when I fell in love with the game.
The second play from scrimmage in my first game was a toss play to me, and I just outran everybody. My mom was on the the other side of the fence that was along the sideline, and she was running right with me, screaming and yelling. And I was running as fast as I could and looking at her … and all of a sudden I heard the whistle blow. I stopped and looked down and saw that I had run out of bounds.
I scored on the next play — I wound up scoring a lot of touchdowns that season — but my run out of bounds was the one that set the tone. I’ve always been able to look in the stands and find my mom. She came to as many of my games at West Point as she could.
I moved to Queens when I was in high school, and I played running back and linebacker at Flushing High. I actually only lived about 15 blocks from Brandon, but he went to Holy Cross High, which plays in the Catholic League. The Catholic schools never play the public schools, so even though we lived so close to each other, we never met. It was crazy because we had mutual friends, but we didn’t know that until Brandon got to West Point.
I was an all-city selection twice, but no college teams offered me a scholarship except for Army. I actually didn’t even know West Point was in New York, or that it was of historical significance at all. When I started reading about it, I was like, Wow. But I still didn’t know what a big deal it was until I called my dad at work and told him that Army had just offered me. He started freaking out and telling me what an honor it was.
My dad has been a New York City cop for 22 years. Service means a lot in his family — his brother is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. And he instilled in me early on that I needed to be a good person first — get good grades, be good in my community.
Because of my dad, I’m sort of a law-enforcement junkie. My high school had a special criminal-justice program, which I loved, and I watch cop shows pretty much all the time — like that’s all I watch. It’s pretty funny.
But I know it’s serious, too. My dad lays his life on the line every time he goes to work. I don’t know if he’s going to make it home at night. It’s an honor, and it’s really inspiring to me.
I didn’t really get that his job was a dangerous one until one morning not long after I had started playing football — another September 11, another warm, sunny day. He was working in the 81st Precinct. That’s Brooklyn North. He was on the job the morning that two jetliners crashed into both towers of the World Trade Center and they started calling policeman from all over the city to get to lower Manhattan. Knowing him, he was probably on his way before the city put out the call.
I was only in the second grade. I actually didn’t know what was going on at first. But I knew it was bad. The teachers were in the hallway, and they were all crying. When I got home is when I really found out. My mom and I just called my dad over and over. But we couldn’t get through. We didn’t hear from him until 10 that night. He let me know that everything was O.K. and that he was safe. I didn’t see him for like two days.
For the next two months he worked 12-hour shifts every day at the World Trade Center site, helping to recover whatever could be found in the debris from the collapsed buildings. He’d find I.D.’s, shoes, watches — little stuff, but it was meaningful. People were hoping their loved ones were still alive. They had put up posters all over the city. My dad was helping some of them to get closure.
The whole thing made an impression on me. That was the first time I really became aware that there were people who risked their lives to protect others — not just that day, but every day. And my dad was one of them.
Family matters. It was a lesson I learned before I ever got to West Point. My relationship with my father really cemented my decision to come here. I realized that by going to West Point, I could play college football and serve my country at the same time. I could give back to the country that had given so much to me.
The choice was easy. And so I went from one family that was dedicated to service to another that was just the same.
Scared money don’t make no money.
I say it to myself all the time now. You have to just go out and go for it. You can’t be afraid of failure.
And for the last 14 years, Army has failed against Navy every single time. Every. Single. Time. Not even a tie. If we want to beat them — and we do — we can’t be afraid of losing. Scared money don’t make no money.
Beating Navy is such a big deal here. During the season, we have to take games one at a time: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3 … but during the off-season, it’s “Beat Navy!” on every breakdown. For plebes, it’s almost always acceptable to greet upperclassmen with “Beat Navy, sir!” or “Beat Navy, ma’am!” There’s a lot of stuff going on here all the time — academics, intramurals, drill, athletics, training. Part of what West Point teaches you is how to prioritize and focus when you have a million different things going on. But beating Navy is the one constant for everybody.
When I got here, Army had lost to Navy 11 times in a row. So many classes have graduated without ever experiencing a win over Navy. We can’t control the past. We have different players every year, and different leaders, too. I feel like this year we have great guys — the right guys — who give us a chance to win every single week. This game is different from every other game we play, but it’s also the same.
It’s hardly a secret that Army has lost a lot more games than it has won since 1997. That’s why our 2–10 record last year might have seemed like more of the same. But it wasn’t. We played the most freshmen of any team in the country. And defensively, we were just six or seven stops away from our record being at least 8–4 — we lost six games by a touchdown or less. We were close.
We just needed to put it all together, to keep faith and focus on the little things — blocking, tackling, taking care of the ball, forcing turnovers — and the tide was eventually going to turn. We weren’t afraid. We were ready.
Our coaches talk to us about hopeful losing and hopeless losing. With hopeless losing, there’s no direction, there’s no buy-in from the guys. But hopeful losing is when you have the right coaching and the right attitude — and the right guys. We do.
Last year was hopeful losing. This season is proof of that. We’re 6–5. We’re going to a bowl. We’ve just got one thing left to do.
Scared money don’t make no money.