Going back to Colorado is a weird feeling. I remember back to being a freshman at the Air Force Academy after my first Thanksgiving and feeling a sinking nausea wash over me as I looked out of the airplane window on final descent to see the brown, hilly landscape of Denver, Colorado. I had traveled from my home in Washington D.C. back to school to willingly return to the trudging grind of a USAFA cadet like some sort of masochist.
After the flight, I would have an hour and fifteen minute drive from Denver International Airport to the Academy, and much like some sort of twisted symphony, the crescendo of the drive came when I would see the glistening spire of the cadet chapel. The nausea would reach its peak and turn into a sort of manic excitement. I was leaving the comforts of a week long break at home and being thrown back into the fire of classes that seemed impossible to pass, constant criticism from upperclassmen, and the never-ending list of tasks required of a cadet. As my time went on at the Academy, I always had the same feeling, but for different reasons as responsibilities and duties changed with seniority.
When I arrived into Denver last Thursday as a graduate, I couldn’t help but laugh at how my perspective has changed.
As I came over the hill revealing the cadet area in the distance, I felt like I was seeing my alma mater’s beauty for the first time. I realized that within my view was a special place where cadets are being molded into resilient leaders for their country whether they realize it or not. I would always roll my eyes when I would hear phrases like that, but it’s hard to comprehend how a service academy experience affects you until you can take a step back and look at the big picture.
On Thursday and Friday, I met up with old friends and met graduates, both recent and from classes spanning the last fifty years. We went to the same bars we used to frequent, and despite fresh coats of paint on the wall and updated beer advertisements, it was like nothing had changed. The bond was unmistakable and immediate between the other graduates. It was as if the age gaps between myself and these graduates were non-existent. As for the classmates I hadn’t seen in around three years, it was like we were never apart. We shared stories about our experiences, both the good times and the tough ones.
I recounted how I had borrowed a senior’s car as a freshman without knowing how to drive a manual, and screeched down the road before having to call someone to ride their bike two miles from the cadet area to drive the car back.
I heard a story about cadet who left the Academy one night to go on a date despite being restricted, but avoided disciplinary action by showing his commander that girl he was with was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for him.
On Saturday morning, as I arrived at the stadium, the excitement in the thin Colorado air was definitely palpable. Or maybe it was the 40 degree weather with 20 knot winds I was feeling. Although the Falcons had a rocky previous three games, with losses to Florida Atlantic, Utah State, and the University of Nevada, the Falcon faithful were hopeful.
“Navy is overrated and now that Abey is out, I don’t think they can beat us,” was a sentiment I heard over and over leading up to kickoff. I wanted to believe it, but there was so much uncertainty surrounding the Air Force quarterback and offensive play-calling, I just couldn’t buy in to the confidence of my fellow Falcon fans.
Following the pregame festivities of a B-1 flyover, an F-35 four-ship, a CV-22, two C-130’s, and a black hawk, the game was set to start. The winds swirled around the stadium preventing the Wings of Blue Parachute Team from its usual jump on to the field, but this largely went unnoticed by the bundled up fans who just wanted to get the contest started.
Although Navy put the first points on the scoreboard, Air Force’s new starting quarterback, Donald Hammond III put on a show for the Falcons, dominating the day with a patient triple option and accurate long passes, leading the Falcons to a 35-7 victory.
Walking around Falcon stadium during the game is when I had the realization that service academy football is more than a game. The silly traditions like celebrating Air Force touchdowns by throwing slices of American cheese procured at cadet tailgates is a tradition that is alive and well. As is the cadet in the stands who ties his boot string around a half eaten bag of kettle corn to swing around his head as bait for the live falcon during the halftime show. The reunions of old classmates, the parents proudly wearing their class parkas with their current cadets, and midshipmen and cadets respectfully standing at attention for each other’s alma maters to be played is what the game is all about.
As a cadet, when I would leave the Academy for vacation, I would have a different feeling than the nausea I felt when returning. It used to be a combination of relief and excitement. Not this time. Leaving the Academy this weekend felt strangely bittersweet. As I saw the mountains grow more distant in my airplane window, I realized that the school I once dreaded returning to is now a place of fond memories. I’m proud to be an Air Force Academy graduate and no matter what fate lies ahead for our football team, at least we can say we sank Navy.