The challenge is met at the snap of the ball. Simmons -- all 6-foot-3, 237-pounds of his athletic frame – rushes through the B-gap, leaving the slow moving guard in his wake. The tailback is slow to react to picking up the threat, and the quarterback’s eyes widen as he braces for impact. Like an avalanche gaining momentum, Simmons swallows up the quarterback, engulfing him violently with a crushing blow. The Navy linebacker is all business after the play. He rises, gathers the defense, and looks for the next challenge.
Simmons’ football future is bright, but his future in life is brighter. With only four more months left if his football career, the senior linebacker from Goldsby, Oklahoma is already plotting out his next course, determined to embrace an even greater challenge than sacking quarterbacks and forcing fumbles.
“I’m set on Marine Corps ground,” said Simmons, who is currently listed as a starter at one of two inside linebacker spots on Navy’s depth chart. “It’s definitely my first choice. I honestly don’t even know what I’d put after that. It’s kind of what I’ve always wanted to do since I got here.”
Simmons isn’t alone when it comes to his interest in becoming a United States Marine. Each year the Navy football team provides officers to both the Navy and Marine Corps -- a stirring reminder that when it comes to their ultimate mission in college, these young men aren’t just looking for the quick path to the NFL.
Trading in helmets and pads for M-16s and hand grenades was an especially popular choice for last year’s graduating football class, which sent half of its 32 members to the Marine Corps. Among the many Navy players who were selected for duty in the Marine Corps was Ross Pospisil, the 2009 defensive team captain.
Pospisil, now a second lieutenant, isn’t unique among Navy players – or recently graduated midshipmen for that matter. He’s well aware of the risks in joining the Marine Corps, which is currently engaged in combat operations throughout the world, including Afghanistan. The volatile climate of places like Afghanistan didn’t faze Pospisil when making his decision. If anything, it only solidified his desire to contribute to the Global War on Terrorism.
“I think any person who goes into the Marine Corps wants to contribute,” said Pospisil, who is currently serving as a graduate assistant at Navy. “I’m in no means trying to rush the process, but I do desire to contribute some.”
“The Marine Corps is a fighting organization,” he continued, saying: “in order to practice their trade – as they’ve been trained – it’s kind of like gameday for a football player. You practice practice practice: and then it’s game day. It is something that every marine aspires to.
Pospisil’s first taste of the Marine Corps came before his senior season. Like many rising seniors at the Academy who are interested in becoming marines, Pospisil chose to go on the Marine Corps summer cruise. The program exposes potential officer candidates from both the Academy and ROTC units across the country to daily life as an officer, and helps them determine if applying for the Marine Corps is right for them.
“Basically you go and attach with a marine unit or squadron and kind of just shadow a second lieutenant around and see what he does and experience life as a marine for a couple weeks,” Pospisil explained.
Pospisil didn’t need any convincing after his summer cruise, and selected the Marine Corps aviation option as his first choice for his service selection. In late November he learned that his desire to become a Marine would be fulfilled. This coming March he’ll report to Quantico for further training at The Basic School, and eventually he’ll be assigned to Pensacola, Florida for aviation training.
For now though, Pospisil is serving as a defensive assistant for Navy, working alongside other 2010 graduates like slotback Bobby Doyle and offensive lineman Andy Lark in preparing this year’s team for the season. For Lark, whose father and brother were enlisted in the Marine Corps, the choice to become a “ground pounder” was a no-brainer.
“They had a lot of drive and were definitely a huge influence on my choice,” Lark said of his father and brother. “You come into (the Naval Academy) and you know you’re going to serve in some facet of the military during wartime. This is just my version. I want to be on the ground doing things.”
Getting things done on the ground – both on the football field and on the battlefield -- is a familiar task for Captain Bryce McDonald, Navy’s Executive Administrator and Military Liaison officer. Currently in his second season in his role at the Academy, McDonald is no stranger to the Navy football team. He graduated in 2003 after lettering three times as a fullback, and following his graduation was commissioned as an infantry officer.
He said that the lessons of Navy football – from the ideas of brotherhood and leadership to the aggressive nature of the game itself – have proven invaluable during his career as a Marine.
“I believe the planning and the practical application of what we learned everyday helped out,” said McDonald, who played one season under current Navy assistant Ivin Jasper. “The leadership that ensues, the teaching styles, the coaching styles -- they are just a perfect fit for the Marine Corps.”
Second lieutenant Lark hasn’t been in the Marine Corps long, but already he has seen a correlation between his training as a Navy football player and his duties as a young Marine officer.
“There’s definitely a huge correlation between the Marines and Navy football,” Lark said. “Both teach you a lot about leadership, and another big thing I’ve noticed is like split-second decisions. When you’re on the football field everything is based off reaction. It’s similar in the Marine Corps. You get put in a bad situation and you have split seconds to make decisions, and hopefully your decisions turn out right.”
“I definitely think playing football prepares you to enter the Marine Corps,” Lark added.
According to the Naval Academy website, roughly a sixth of Midshipmen go on to become Marine officers following their time at the Academy. So why the disproportionately high number of Navy football players who choose to go the Marine Corps route? McDonald said part of the reason is the aggressive mindset that both the Corps and the Navy football team foster.
“I think the mindset (of Navy football) definitely conveys a Marine Corps style,” said McDonald, who added that he has seen a trend of player’s from certain positions – most notably linemen, linebackers and fullbacks – gravitate towards the Corps.
“Those positions promote an aggressive style of playing that’s relevant to the Marine Corps,” he said. Of the 15 current Navy seniors who went on the Marine Corps cruise this past summer, 11 play positions on the offensive or defensive lines or the linebacker corps.
Pospisil agreed with McDonald’s assessment, and also pointed to the shared teamwork component of the Marine Corps as a reason so many Navy football players look to become Marine officers.
“I think one of the major appeals just is that physical environment,” Pospisil said. “It kind of emulates the team environment a lot with the experience of football. I think there is some carryover there. The other services are a team as well but you throw in that physical environment that the Marine Corps provides and it just makes it jump out at guys a little bit.”
Pospisil went on to say that the challenge of becoming a member of the “few and proud” – as well as the challenge of leading other Marines in a combat scenario -- is an appealing aspect for the kinds of people who sign up to play Navy football.
“You’ve been playing football for 10 or 12 years of your life and you want a challenge. It’s just the challenge and the excitement that it provides as well.”
The challenge is one Simmons is willing to accept after the end of this season. After spending part of the summer following a Marine infantry unit at Camp Lejeune, he’s set in his desire to apply the lessons learned as a Navy football player to the experiences of the Marine Corps.
“They know everything they’re doing to a ‘T’, and they are constantly looking out for each other,” Simmons said. It reminds me so much of being out on the football field. It’s the same kind of brotherhood, and it’s amazing.”