“I get to work daily with heroes that joined the military AFTER we were attacked on 9/11, AFTER the war started in Afghanistan and AFTER the war started in Iraq. I would like to think I’m that brave, but I’m not so sure.”
— Phil McConkey, 1979 Navy grad and New York Giants Super Bowl champion
By TOM SHANAHAN
Kelvin Hopkins Jr. traversed Fort Bragg’s rugged fields and wooded sandhills under a hot North Carolina sun in his early summer days. He shadowed a lieutenant and his paratroopers, combat-ready solders trained to deploy anywhere in the world within 18 hours from the Army base in Fayetteville.
Army West Point football’s star quarterback was about as far away as you can get from the luxurious summertime life that elite college quarterbacks enjoy.
They bask in celebrity, free from their nine-month grind – the fall season, supervised winter workouts and spring football. Consider, for example, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Arizona’s Khalil Tate among others.
They worked camp counselors at QB guru Steve Clarkson’s annual “Dreammaker Quarterback Retreat.” They were pampered at a swanky hotel on Santa Monica Beach. Photos of them adorned banners. They dressed in athletic apparel that was theirs to take home.
Meanwhile, that same Memorial Day weekend, Hopkins was bivouacked with the 82nd Airborne Division. Army’s season opener against Rice on Aug. 31 at Michie Stadium was still three months away.
No banners called attention to Hopkins’ presence. A No. 8 wasn’t stitched anywhere to identify him. His attire was a camouflage uniform – real “cammies,” not the ones sports teams don on military appreciation days. He wore a basic cap, standing out only because he wasn’t wearing one of the coveted red berets that base paratroopers earn and don with pride upon their first jump.
Forget the Life of Riley. His midsummer dream wasn’t even the Life of Audie Murphy. He was addressed as “Cadet Hopkins.”
“I’m definitely Cadet Hopkins here,” he said, seated under canopy while bowing his head with a humbling chortle.
“I’m here to take notes and learn from Lt. (William) Bowers and the sergeant majors; they’re the leaders with experience. Everybody is giving me advice and telling me about their careers, things that can happen. I like to hear their side of things to help me shape my leadership style.”
Most Americans — and certainly star high school recruits — stay clear of the all-volunteer military. But Hopkins and Ahmad Bradshaw, Hopkins’ mentor preceding him as Army’s star quarterback, selflessly signed up for this commitment.
They exchanged 12-month responsibilities and a five-year military obligation upon graduation for a chance to play quarterback at a storied Division I football program. Together, the two African-American quarterbacks have led the Black Knights on a three-year run unlike any in West Point football’s 126 years.
That sounds heretical for a program that won three straight national titles under coach Red Blaik from 1944 to 1946 — with back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners, Mr. Inside Doc Blanchard (1945) and Mr. Outside Glenn Davis (1946) – but understand those were World War II-era teams. Athletes volunteered or they faced the draft – the military version.
Hopkins and Bradshaw have positioned themselves as leaders beyond their football days, benefitting from the generational change a West Point education offers and the meritocracy that is the modern Army.
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Hopkins is undersized as a 5-foot-10, 205-pounder – which curbed his scholarship offers received out of high school – and the triple-option offense limits his pass attempts. He thus doesn’t rank on national quarterback charts with Tagovailoa (6-1, 218), Lawrence (6-5, 216) and others atop the list, but Army head coach Jeff Monken didn’t sell him short on the recruiting trail.
“He can throw with anybody in the country,” Monken said. “He has the velocity, arm strength and accuracy, but he knows who we are. We want to control the ball and keep the opponent’s offense off the field to be successful. He has embraced that for our team to win games.”
Army led the nation in time of possession, averaging 38.33 per game. In the near-upset of Oklahoma, the Black Knights held the ball for a staggering 44:11 of 60 minutes regulation before falling 28-21 in overtime. It was the beginning of the end for Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops; head coach Lincoln Riley fired him two weeks later.
Hopkins finished his junior year as the first Army quarterback with 1,000 yards rushing (1,017) and passing (1,026) in a season; his play also led the first 11-win season in program history against two losses.
The trophy case additions included beating Navy for the third year in a row, capturing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the second consecutive season in its service academy rivalry with Navy and Air Force, routing Houston 70-14 for their third straight bowl victory and finishing in the Top 25 national polls for the first time since 1996. The Associated Press ranked Army No. 19 and USA Today No. 20.
The only quarterbacks to beat Hopkins were two on their way as NFL first-round draft picks — Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, the first overall choice, and Duke’s Daniel Jones, the sixth selection overall with the New York Giants.
Hopkins’ breakout as a starter followed two seasons as an understudy to Bradshaw (5-11, 205), another undersized quarterback.
Bradshaw led Army to an 8-5 record in 2016, the Black Knights’ first winning season in six years and only the second in 20. In 2017, Bradshaw ran for an Army season rushing record of 1,746 yards on the way to a 10-3 mark.
The program’s upward trajectory was established under Bradshaw, who handed the baton to Hopkins. Army outside linebacker Amadeo West is senior that has played with both QBs.
“Ahmad was older, so I wasn’t around him as much, but he always led by example,” West said. “He was very humble with the amount of success he brought to the program.
“Kelvin is one of the best people I know. He can be a goof ball, but he’s a leader – the same person with everybody. It’s incredible how he can relate to so many different people on the team. He’ll get this team through everything this year.”
Both quarterbacks overcame inner-city neighborhood obstacles. That’s true for other cadets at West Point, midshipmen at Annapolis (Navy) and cadets at Colorado Springs (Air Force), but sports fans cast a halo of stars around quarterbacks and their stories.
“Ahmad has been a big factor in my life,” Hopkins said. “I learned a lot from him while I was around him at West Point. He’s a great leader.”
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Sports in America stories celebrating generational change is largely limited to the “can’t-miss” gifted athlete – the overnight multi-millionaire. The attention surrounding Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Duke’s Zion Willamson, the overall No. 1 picks this year in their respective NFL and NBA drafts, was deserved.
But they represent a very small slice of athletes.
What about an overachiever – talented and determined but not gifted — chasing generational change through narrower college paths? The jackpot is less lucrative, but it is nonetheless an upward trajectory.
Hopkins, from Charlotte, N.C., and Bradshaw, from Chicago’s South Side, changed their future when they agreed to sit for a recruiting pitch from Monken and his assistants. They knew little about West Point, but they listened.
Later they bought into having their youthful clay shaped on the picturesque campus — a stone fortress backed by wooded highlands and fronted by the mighty Hudson River. George Washington picked out the grounds for its strategic location.
West Point is an academically elite institution; its degree carries weight throughout and beyond the Army. The education is free (no small point in an era of students graduating with six-figure loan debt). And there is a guaranteed job as a second lieutenant, although with a five-year commitment.
But for Bradshaw there also was a “land-of-the-free” paradox. In exchange for escaping the danger of Chicago’s South Side streets – dubbed “Chiraq” in Spike Lee’s 2015 movie title –the Army was his “safe haven” despite a seemingly endless war on global terrorism.
Bradshaw considered the irony as he progressed through his early West Point years. Cadets typically turn to an upperclassman for advice, and Bradshaw sought out an African-American from a similar inner-city background.
“He told me he decided, ‘If I’m going to die, I’d rather do it defending my country instead of for something stupid back home.’ I still feel that way.
“I look back to where I grew up and to the people that didn’t make it out. I’ve got friends that died when they were 18 — kids killed for no reason. I’ve made it out to the age that I am. Being an officer, I can influence enlisted soldiers. I tell them the military can have a positive influence on their lives.”
Bradshaw experienced brushes as a Gwendolyn Brooks Academy high school student. He returned home from practice in the Roseland neighborhood when he saw a man held up at gunpoint at 44th St. and Prairie near the Green Line Station.
He was a Brooks senior when his friend Jamiere Brown was killed at age 18 at a party. He had planned to join Brown until it rained and he stayed home.
His junior year at West Point he learned his cousin Dequan Barnett was killed at a South Side house party; five others were wounded.
Although Bradshaw’s military path is unique, his background is too common. Michigan State All-Big Ten defensive tackle Raequan Williams is from Chicago’s South Side, but a “richer” pocket of the recruiting street with 13 scholarship offers from Power 5 schools.
Two of Williams’ brothers have been murdered during his college years. He discussed his football escape during the Big Ten media days from the comfort of the downtown Hilton Chicago.
“I’ve got to make the right moral decision every day to make it from a place like where I came from,” he said in a taped roundtable interview session. “You can say ‘yes’ to a situation and end up dead. The more I think about it the more I realized I don’t know how I made it out. I’m very blessed.”
Bradshaw heard from Michigan State, but he was projected as a walk-on defensive back candidate. Other smaller colleges, also without full scholarships, would let Bradshaw play quarterback, but only West Point offered a chance to play quarterback at the FBS level, a free education and a guaranteed job.
West Point’s first contact caught Bradshaw unaware, but his high school coach, James Brown, encouraged him and his mother, Kizzy Collins, to take in the big picture. Collins was initially worried about her only child committing to a service academy.
“Once my mom got to know how special West Point is, she convinced me to make the decision to go there,” Bradshaw said. “There are 12,000 applicants; they accept 1,200 and only about 900 to a 1,000 end up graduating. It’s a special experience to be a part of 1,000 people. It’s not easy. I’m happy I made my mom proud.”
Bradshaw graduated from West Point in 2018 as a second lieutenant and is on track for a promotion to first lieutenant. He recently finished six months at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, completing the Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC). He now serves as a Field Artillery Officer at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
“I can’t imagine what Ahmad has been through,” Hopkins said. “He’s one of the sharpest persons I’ve ever met. He’s a strong guy the way he carries himself.”
* * *
Charlotte’s streets may not be as gritty as Chicago’s South Side, but Hopkins says the West Point opportunity translated to him.
“I don’t think Ahmad and I are too different,” he said. “I think that’s why I related to him so well.”
Hopkins was raised by his single-mother, Cynthia, but he adds his father, Kelvin Hopkins Sr., always has been in his life. His father had served in the Army and helped him gain comfort with the long-term commitment to a military lifestyle.
“I had no idea what West Point was until football knocked on my door,” he said. “This has been a great opportunity for me – not just now but 30 years down the road.”
“A lot of people want to be an NFL draft pick and a celebrity. This is a different path to success; there is nothing wrong with that. When I committed, nobody knew what West Point was. Now when I come home, I have friends’ little brothers ask me questions about West Point. ‘What’s it like? How do I get in?’ ”
Joe Evans was Hopkins’ high school coach at Charlotte Independence, although he is now the head coach across town at South Mecklenburg. Evans was confident Hopkins had the makeup to excel at West Point, but he also hammered home a final point that dreamy high school kids are too young to appreciate – the NFL is a long shot.
“I said, ‘You’re 5-10, 178 pounds. That’s not a good percentage to think you’re going to play on Sundays. This is an opportunity to set yourself up for the rest of your life. You’re going to graduate with West Point on your resume. You’re going to get the job 99 percent of the time. This is bigger than football. This is a big boy moment.”
That doesn’t mean Hopkins doesn’t still dream about the NFL.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t or that I don’t think life would be easier if I went to another school,” he said. “But I think I took this path for a reason. I keep my head down and keep pushing.”
* * *
Hopkins’ Fort Bragg’s stay overlapped with “All-American Week” readiness demonstrations that included the 82nd dropping 500 paratroopers from C-17 planes. The theme was “Jumping into History,” honoring the 75th anniversary of the famed 82nd dropping behind German lines ahead of the World War II D-Day invasion on Normandy’s French coast.
Veterans, family members and community members watched from grandstands at the parade grounds. There was a football “homecoming” feel to the events.
Hopkins hasn’t yet trained to jump, but he said he’s eager to earn a paratrooper’s red beret. What’s a jump from a plane compared to the pressure of the Army-Navy Game?
“Being with the 82nd has been awesome,” he said. “I’ve been drinking the kool-aid. At West Point you learn about the nation fighting its wars. Here, you see what your day will be like. You can see this is an elite machine.”
One observation that stood out to him was the initial man out of the lead C-17 – Maj. Gen. James G. Mingus, the 82nd Airborne’s commander.
“The top guy did exactly what everybody else does,” Hopkins said. “You don’t see that in a lot of other businesses and organizations.”
In media and entertainment portrayals of Army brass, it’s popular to parody them celebrating West Point football success – particularly beating Navy. In the all-time hit TV series M*A*S*H, “The Army-Navy Game” was an episode in the first season.
“Once they find out you’re on the football team, they want to talk about the Army-Navy Game,” said Hopkins, referring to officers and enlisted soldiers. “They talked about us beating Navy three straight years. Being here, you see how much the game means to the rest of the Army.”
But rest of the day, Hopkins was just another soldier, particularly when Mingus was specifically asked about Hopkins’ leadership training experience with “Regular Army.”
“We’re lucky to have some football players here,” Mingus responded, “but the Cadet Troop Leader Training is for all West Point and ROTC cadets across the Army.”
That was it — not even a Cadet Hopkins mention. In this setting, the MVP award of the Army-Navy Game didn’t outshine another cadet.
Another eye-opener was Fort Bragg soldiers competing in “All-American Week” readiness drills. The companies competed down to the smallest events to win the Gavin Cup.
One night Hopkins and two of his West Point teammates, wide receiver Christian Hayes and linebacker Jarrod Jones, met along with their company (80 to 150 soldiers) under battalion commander of Lt. Col. Aaron Cox.
“One of the first things he says is he heard we have some football players with us,” Hopkins said.
The trio identified themselves, and Cox promptly sent them to play as ringers in a base intramural-like touch football game scheduled that night.
“He wanted his team to win,” said Hopkins matter-of-factly.
Imagine the rant from Alabama coach Nick Saban if his QB and two other players risked injury in a touch football game against aggressive soldiers. But for Monken, it’s recognizing the military commitment supersedes football.
“I just watched,” said Hopkins, taking the sportsmanship road of not stacking his team. “But there were some good players out there.”
During football season, the media often notes, correctly, that the academy athletes at Army, Navy and Air Force have more on their plate than civilian college players. And it’s a given that a quarterback has a bigger plate than any other position.
Hopkins’ summer, though, illustrates the big plate he carries is filled 12 months compared to civilian QBs.
Consider another quarterback guru, George Whitfield, and his “Commander Camp” that put 15 quarterbacks from around the country through military and leadership drills at Camp Pendleton near San Diego. Academy athletes have lived that life since reporting for boot camp a month after their high school graduation.
“It’s a routine by this point,” Hopkins said. “The first summer at West Point, you think, ‘Man, I’ve got no summer break. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that.’ There is training, summer school and then you’re right back into football practice. But you get used to it. You get ahead academically. It’s routine at this point.”
* * *
This summer, though, wasn’t routine.
Shortly after Hopkins departed Fort Bragg to resume academic classes and Corps of Cadets training at West Point, cadet Christopher J. Morgan, a standout wrestler for the Black Knights, died on June 6 from injuries in a military vehicle rollover while training on West Point’s grounds. He was a Law and Legal studies major.
Hopkins, on his Twitter page, re-tweeted the West Point-issued news release. Then he followed with personal tweet, sharing his respect for the popular African-American classmate: “Forever changed by a ride … and by you. Rest easy my brother.”
Committing to a volunteer Army is the risk all cadets learn to accept – even f they don’t understand it the first day they arrive.
Army Hall of Fame quarterback Rollie Stichweh, the rival of Navy Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach in two epic 1963 and 1964 Army Navy Games, knows this as well as anyone.
When his class reported to West Point in 1961, Vietnam was a French colonial war. By the time he was an officer it was a United States quagmire that ultimate resulted in 58,200 American deaths. Stichweh, who served in the Vietnam Highlands, lost 26 classmates, including five that were close friends. One had been in his wedding party.
“All these cadets today accepted admission at a time when we’re in a long war,” Stichweh said. “The connection to my West Point experiences relates directly to junior officer that might be in a combat situation. It’s not if adversity is going to hit in the Army-Navy Game or in combat, it’s when. As a leader, how are you going to handle adversity and provide the strongest leadership for your teammates and troopers?
“We’re still dealing with Afghanistan, and who knows if or when our troops will fully withdraw. But it’s the job of officers in the military to get the job done.”
* * *
A year ago, West Point appointed Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams as its first African-American superintendent. His military path, which began as an Army football player, rose to commander of the NATO Allied Land Command in Turkey.
His 1980 West Point enrollment was only 14 years removed from the academy’s first African-American football letterman, Gary Steele. Six years after Steele’s 1968 senior season, Herman Bulls arrived at West Point as a quarterback recruit.
Bulls had grown up in segregated Florence, Ala., until the state’s public schools gave into federal pressure in the fall of 1969. By his senior year, he was desegregated Coffee High’s first starting black quarterback.
He retired a colonel to enter the business world after a 30-year military career (active and reserve) and earning a Harvard Business School degree. He is Vice-Chairman and International Director of Jones Lang LaSalle, an international real estate firm, and founder of the firm’s Public Institutions unit.
“I’m a strong believer in diversity,” Bulls said. “The Army, in particular, has been successful in general officer-ship numbers compared to executive promotions in the corporate world. I know some sergeants were prejudiced early in my Army career, but when it came to the mission they were all committed.
“We all have some sense of prejudice in us, but in the military the mission is the bulwark. There is something about organizing and training that brings out the best in people.”
Savoy Magazine twice has ranked Bulls among the Top 100 Blacks in Corporate America. The Washington Business Journal presented him the 2009 Minority Business Leader Award. He was recently on the West Point campus in his role serving on the Board of Directors for the Association of Graduates.
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In 1948, President Harry S. Truman used an Executive Order to desegregate the military. The rest of the country, though, took more time to slowly catch up to the Civil Rights movement.
In 1962, the 82nd Airborne was deployed from Fort Bragg along with the 101st from Fort Campbell, Ky., to quell a University of Mississippi campus riot in segregated Oxford, Ms. Students and outsiders, encouraged by Gov. Ross Barnett, protested the admission of the school’s first black student, James Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran.
In the Vietnam War, black soldiers were drafted and sent disproportionately to the front lines. In the 1991 movie “Boyz N the Hood,” Lawrence Fishburne’s character, while speaking to his son about growing up, mentioned his days as a Vietnam veteran.
“Black man ain’t got no place in the Army,” he says in the script written and directed by the late John Singleton, an Academy Award nominee.
Bulls and Williams entered West Point during the Army’s transformation. Bradshaw and Hopkins volunteered for a much more progressive Army, although American society continues to cope with racial flare-ups.
President Trump’s recent race-inflamed rally on East Carolina University’s campus prompted David Maraniss, a Putlizer Prize-winning journalist and author, to write a “Washington Post” column.
He cited attending the Arlington National Cemetery funeral of (Ret.) Brig. Gen. Jim Shelton, whose career spanned Vietnam and the costly Battle of Ong Thanh. Shelton served long enough to retire proud of the Army’s integration progress.
“Part of Big Jim’s bigness was his buoyant embrace of people of every color, nationality and creed,” Maraniss wrote. “One of the things he loved most about the military was the fact that it was better integrated than almost any other U.S. institution.”
Of America’s uglier racial chapters, President Barack Obama has said, “Progress doesn’t move in a straight line … every two steps forward sometimes seems to produce one step back.”
Obama’s words highlight bridges to the ideal.
Bradshaw, with the Army’s bond, was comfortable walking such a bridge spanning 2017 back to the early 1960s and an all-white football roster. He turned to Stichweh, a retired elder statesman for the program, including serving on ad hoc committees that have studied why Army fell behind Navy and Air Force in the early 2000s. The recommendations helped Monken rebuild the program.
As that season’s calendar flipped toward the 118th Army-Navy Game, Bradshaw sought Stichweh’s experience. He wrote him a note, asking if they could meet for lunch. Stichweh made the short drive from his Connecticut home to West Point.
“He was in my shoes a long time ago, but leadership requirements are the same to get the job done,” Bradshaw said. “We talked about how in the military you’re part of a bigger team; it’s the same in football.
“The quarterback has a job, but you’re part of a bigger team with the backs, linemen and receivers. The game of football is hard, but you can’t let down. You have to encourage your team to get the job done to win. It’s the same in the military.”
The West Point mission was the avenue to an open bridge. A bridge between a 1960s southern school white quarterback raised under Jim Crow segregation? That might be trickier to navigate.
* * *
The withdraw rate for West Point’s freshmen class can approach 20 percent, but leaving the academy doesn’t necessarily mean failure. It might be the lifestyle – reveille at 6 a.m., making your bed, marching, training, studying for challenging math and science subjects and early lights out.
Cadets are free to leave until they return for their junior year when they are obligated to sign on for the final two years of school and five years military service.
One night in Hopkins’ freshman year, he called his high school coach, saying he didn’t know if he “could make it.” The “washout” fear raced through Evans’ mind.
He asked Hopkins if it was the military lifestyle.
“He said, ‘No, coach. I love all that. I love the military science classes. I love all the military equipment we’re playing with. What I don’t know about is running the triple-option offense. I can’t get my footwork down.’ ”
Evans replied with exasperation at the time, but now he laughs.
“I said, ‘That’s it? You’re worried about your footwork? So what do you do? Work on it! Get in the film room!’ ”
In high school, Hopkins played in a shotgun passing offense. He took a long snap and set his feet to pass or run.
In the triple-option, he had to learn to take the snap under center and make his first move a pivot to hand off to the fullback. Then he reads the defense to either leave the ball in the fullback’s gut or pull it and run down the line. If he keeps it, he reads for a hole off the tackle or he pitches the ball wider to the slot back.
It’s easier said than done.
Hopkins not only eventually picked it up, his threat of throwing the ball last season allowed him to top Bradshaw’s 2017 total offense yardage – 2,104 to 2,031.
“I love those two guys,” Monken said. “Ahmad meant so much to our program. He’s one of the most composed leaders I’ve ever been around. He’d pump his fist if we scored; that was his celebrating. If something went wrong and we chewed his butt, he was all business. He knew he had made a mistake.
“Kelvin learned from him. At first we worried about Kelvin replacing Ahmad, but he has taken this team and put it on his back.”
The initial recruiting lure for Bradshaw and Hopkins to attend West Point was the chance to play at the FBS level as undersized recruits. Now, they’re all in — for a full-sized life beyond football.
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The author with Cadet Kelvin Hopkins and Lt. William Bowers at Fort Bragg