Life at military schools helps mold discipline for athletes on, off field
Anthony Battaglia faced a particularly challenging decision about his college football future this fall.
The Pine-Richland senior wide receiver held one offer from an FBS program, the highest level of competition in the NCAA. But that offer came from Army, a school with its own set of strings attached.
Students who choose Army, along with Navy and Air Force, face a set of requirements that includes a five-year commitment to active duty in the Armed Forces after graduation, along with three years in the reserves.
It added another layer to Battaglia's choice, particularly in conversations with his parents.
“Obviously, my parents at first were a little nervous and worried, especially my mom, which was understandable,” said Battaglia, who chose to make a verbal commitment to Army over an offer from Columbia. “Talking to them and talking to my coaches at Army and just learning more about it and learning more about the things I could do in the Army, it really helped my parents and my mom become more comfortable with it. Once I decided it's what I wanted to do, I told them.
“They're still a little uneasy about it, as I feel any parent would be, but they're extremely proud and honored that their son is doing something like this.”
The decision to compete athletically at a service academy over other schools is a life-changing one. Besides the active-duty requirement, which also applies to the Coast Guard Academy, students at the service academies participate in a military lifestyle.
Although he said he never considered West Point before he received an offer to play there, Battaglia chose to go partially because of the opportunity to improve his life and those of others.
“I really want to do something with my life that matters,” he said.
It's a common refrain.
“It really was the call to serve, and I just really felt this was what I need to be doing,” said Monica Sowinski, a Latrobe graduate and freshman swimmer at Army. “It was an amazing opportunity that I get to better myself with swimming and also get the opportunity to serve my country and get an amazing education. It was the best of both worlds.”
Among the benefits of attending service academies is the ability to learn about qualities like ethics, honor, leadership and morals.
“One of the best things I've gained from here is being able to grow individually as a person,” said Corey Wilding, an Upper St. Clair graduate and sophomore wrestler at Navy. “The Naval Academy mission says ‘morally, mentally and physically,' so being able to see how I've grown in those aspects just because of what this place is, what it does and the people around me. It really fosters a culture of personal growth.
“I just know I've improved a lot since I first came here.”
Wilding's older brother, Austin, is a senior wrestler at Army who began considering the military in middle school.
“I wanted to do something more in terms of giving back, but for me it was more (based) on a personal level,” said Austin Wilding, who is set for a path of becoming an infantry officer upon his May graduation. “Growing up and getting into sports early, I really enjoyed working hard and seeing the reward of working hard. I really pretty early on got into a fairly disciplined lifestyle of hard work and the benefits of it.”
That disciplined lifestyle reaches another level at service academies.
The daily schedule for athletes often includes getting into formation and marching to meals, along with normal academic and athletic schedules, including practices and games.
“It's just really regimented on a day-to-day basis,” Sowinski said. “There's a whole chain of command we need to report to, and it's all kept leadership-based.
“A few things definitely hit me by surprise. I wasn't completely prepared for it. But I like how regimented it is. There's a structure for everything, but with it being that regimented and everything scheduled in, they can also make it super jam-packed. You have a lot to do in a day, but it works out.”
Schools like The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute don't have the same post-graduation service requirement, although many students still choose to enter into the Armed Forces. Day-to-day life is similar to that at the other service academies.
The transition can be particularly jarring for first-year students at Army, Navy or Air Force, who must undergo training in the military lifestyle before fall semester begins.
The first-year experience at VMI includes the “rat line,” under which cadets must memorize similar information as well as keep their shoes shined and uniforms spotless and be meticulously groomed.
“It was kind of a shock coming in, getting screamed at a lot,” said Allan Cratsenberg, a Highlands graduate and sophomore linebacker at VMI.
Classes at military and service academies include a mix of regular and military-inspired ones.
Cratsenberg, a civil engineering major, also is taking classes that teach the history and minutiae of the Air Force. He faces a decision by the end of the school year on whether he wants to accept a post-graduation commission to the Air Force.
As life progresses at service academies, Cratsenberg said, balancing everything becomes easier.
“When I was a freshman, I remember seeing seniors and being blown away at how we were only three years apart, but those guys seemed so prepared to enter the Army, become an officer and take on a leadership role,” Austin Wilding said. “I think the development here in terms of what we do in the academic year as well as learning to manage a heavy workload and then the summer training, getting leadership experience in the military realm, has really prepared me well.”
Athletically, life isn't much different.
“I feel we're just like a normal football team whenever we all get together and joke around like in high school, but I feel it brings us a little closer together because we've all gone through the same thing here,” Cratsenberg said.
Army, Navy and Air Force compete in football for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, and the rivalry can get heated at times in that and other sports.
But Corey Wilding said there's always an undercurrent of respect.
“We want to win,” Wilding said. “But after the game's over, you definitely know (we) are going to be serving in the military in the Armed Forces. There's definitely a mutual respect there that I don't think exists in too many other competitions.
“It's definitely special.”