Not many people are giving the Air Force football team a chance of beating defending national champion University of Oklahoma in the Falcons' season opener Saturday at Falcon Stadium. The Falcons are 20-point underdogs against the Sooners, returning only seven starters from last year's team, and are picked to finish fifth out of eight teams in the Mountain West Conference.
But that's OK. The players and coaches at the Air Force Academy are used to being underestimated. And it doesn't faze them.
"Other people look at things like [the number of] returning starters ... they look at lot of things like that," says Falcons senior defensive lineman Justin Pendry. "But the things that they don't measure [are] your work ethic and your heart and desire. They don't measure the brotherhood we have ... . It's something that they really can't measure."
Regardless of what it is that spurs the Falcons, they tend to exceed expectations, and the numbers bear it out, Pendry says. "I don't think any of the big games that we've won since I've been here were games we were predicted to win."
In 1998 the Falcons went 12-1 winning the Western Athletic Conference (of which it was then a member). In 1999 it was picked to win the MWC and ended up finishing 6-5, and in the middle of the pack in the conference. Then in 2000, after being picked to finish fourth in the conference, the Falcons finished second at 9-3.
In the context of the Air Force Academy, this makes perfect sense. The pageantry and spectacle of an Air Force football game gives you a clear understanding that the Academy's an unusual place. The cadets are clean-cut, hopeful and polite, addressing their seniors as Sir or Ma'am. Tailgating is sober yet festive. And before the game, spectators are treated to the thunderous flyover, in which a variety of fighter jets sweep over the churning stadium, seemingly close enough to touch.
At halftime, real falcons skim even closer over the crowd at speeds hovering near 200 miles per hour. The Air Force football media guide explains that "the falcon exemplifies the qualities sought in Air Force Academy cadets ... ferocity in attack, yet gentle in repose -- disciplined." Marvels of deadly efficiency, falcons are amazing creatures, "known to unhesitatingly attack and kill prey more than twice their size."
The raptor-as-warrior analogy easily extends to the football field. The Falcons may only have seven returning starters from last year, but their talent and promise is unquestioned. One proven talent is All-American candidate and wide receiver Ryan Fleming, who led the MWC in receiving last year. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Fleming battles defenders for the ball like a power-forward on the low post. The defensive line, consisting of Pendry, Zach Johnson and Dan Probert, also boasts considerable experience.
In other areas, the Falcons' talent is less tested but is still promising and determined. Senior Keith Boyea, who has shown considerable skill both running and passing, beat out Oklahoma native Bryan Blew for the starting quarterback job. In the backfield Dan Shaffer and James Burns will take turns at fullback, while Leotis Palmer and Tom Heier will start halfback. On the defensive side, Monty Coleman and Marchello Graddy have shown considerable grittiness as linebackers.
Beyond the self-discipline for which Air Force athletes are known, a variety of factors makes them regularly confound the experts and critics who continually underestimate them. For starters Air Force athletes are, for the most part, among the best and the brightest. Almost every player's biography reveals that he was recruited for his intelligence and civic-mindedness as much as his athletic talent. Most were honor students in high school. Many were Eagles Scouts. Many are on the dean's list.
During the summer months, while others loaf about, many cadets take courses such as Combat Survival, Soaring and Global Engagement training, spending several hours each night on homework. And in their spare time, they pursue interests that are close to their hearts: tight end Kevin Runyon has been a missionary in Russia; strong safety Sam Meinrod does magic tricks; wide receiver Brian "Sauce" LaBasco is a star second baseman on the baseball team and plays three musical instruments, although not at the same time.
The cadets are on the path toward attaining what Tom Wolfe called "the right stuff." The education and experience they gain at the Academy exemplifies the old adage that the difference between diamonds and coal is the pressure applied. And when cadets are pushed to their limits in football and everything else they do, there's little room for self-doubt, and no room for others who say "can't" and believe soaring is for the birds.
Air Force football season opener against defending national champion University of Oklahoma.
Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium
Saturday, Sept. 1, 1:30 p.m.
The event has been sold out since tickets went on sale in the spring, but some may still be available at online auction sites such as E-bay.