PHOTO: Javhari Bourdeau (center) with his teammates.
By TOM SHANAHAN
The Auto Zone Liberty Bowl Thursday afternoon in Memphis offers an contrast between independent Army with its 9-2 record facing Big 12 member West Virginia as a 5-4 team.
Aside from their records and conference affiliations, does that refer to the Black Knights’ four backs in a triple-option offense facing the Mountaineers’ one-back passing attack?
Yes and no.
The real difference is what the athletes at Power 5 schools like West Virginia sign up for to play college football compared to Army’s future officers.
Many West Virginia players were recruited as high school seniors believing they’re on their way to the NFL, but reality filters genuine prospects down to a handful. And for some of those lucky few, a bowl game outside of the four-team College Football Playoff is a risk. Playing in it interferes with preparations for the upcoming NFL draft.
They opt out.
Tony Fields is West Virginia’s example. The linebacker graduate transfer from Arizona spent one year with his new teammates, taking someone’s spot, and now it’s adios.
I asked Army’s Javhari Bourdeau, a senior cornerback, if his teammates would be OK with him opting out.
“Not a chance,” he said, laughing.
Then he quickly added none of the Black Knights would desert their teammates.
“I wouldn’t miss this game. That’s for any senior. Everybody on the team is ready to go.”
College football bowl games, beginning the Rose Bowl, The Granddaddy of Them All founded in 1902, were originally considered a reward for a team’s successful season. That attitude was reflected in in the Associated Press (writers) and United Press International (coaches, now USA Today) naming their national champion after the regular-season finales.
But eventually, aided by television exposure and money, the stakes grew. The AP writers pressed in the 1960s to begin waiting until after bowl games to vote a national champion. The UPI coaches resisted until finally joining the trend.
Now, with the CFP interest limited to two teams in two bowl games utilized as semifinals, athletes increasingly view bowl games as exhibition contests. The trend was firmly established after the 2016 season when Stanford running back Christian McCaffery opted not to play for the No. 16-ranked Cardinal against unranked North Carolina in the Sun Bowl. He wanted to prepare for the NFL draft.
It’s not that Army is without athletes with pro potential. Senior linebacker Jon Rhattigan was a second-team All-American pick by USA Today and a third-team All-American choice by Pro Football Focus. In Army’s win over Navy on Dec. 12, CBS veteran color commentator Gary Danielson, a former NFL quarterback, said fullback Sandon McCoy can play in the NFL.
The difference, though, is Army’s players signed up for a five-year military commitment upon graduation in exchange for a chance to play Division I football and a guaranteed job. Their time at West Point begins with Beast Barracks, boot camp for incoming freshman. Their teamwork is 24 hours a day, not meeting for practice and a three-hour game on Saturday all the while looking ahead to an NFL contract.
Bourdeau, a 5-foot-9, 188-pounder from Miramar, Florida, is a second-year starter that took on a bigger role this season as the only starting senior in the secondary. Army is making its third bowl trip in four years, and with its wins over Navy Dec. 12 and Air Force Dec. 19, captured for the third time in that same time span the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
“I had to work on communicating more and being more of a leader on the field,” he said. “I didn’t do as much of that last season. We were a young defense as a whole, and it’s been great to come out here and play with these guys.”
For Army’s players, earning a bowl trip was their next mission. They weren’t sure they’d have an opportunity, despite their record, when the Independence Bowl officials canceled their game. They weren’t able to find a Pac-12 opponent to accept an invitation.
Army’s bowl opportunity was in limbo for three days until Tennessee, for COVID-19 reasons, had to back out of the Liberty Bowl. Army jumped at the opportunity.
Army coach Jeff Monken explained the wave of emotions.
“Originally, obviously having secured an opportunity to play in the Independence Bowl and unfortunately that game wasn’t able to be played but to be able to find our way into a major event like the Liberty Bowl is really a privilege for us,” he said. “We got our team back and reconvened on the practice field yesterday. We obviously won’t have a lot of time to prepare for this game – just again this afternoon and tomorrow before we travel to Memphis to play the game.
“Our guys are excited to be back and I think having had the opportunity to recharge the batteries a little bit after a really long semester and a long stretch from June 1st when we started our workouts and had guys back on campus.”
There is no justified criticism of college players at schools that voted not to play in a bowl game during a pandemic, but their reasons — mental exhaustion from testing protocols and the isolation – don’t go over as well at West Point. The Cadets’ eyes are always on their next mission.
“This is a great opportunity,” Bourdeau said. “We were supposed to play Oklahoma this season, but the schedule was changed (due to COVID-19). Everybody has been ready to come out, do their work and get locked in to play an athletic Big 12 team with a great offense that moves the ball. This is a great opportunity for our team. That’s how we look at it.”
The difference in resolve is another example of what separates civilians benefiting from the life provided by those serving their country.
President Barack Obama, in his new book “A Promised Land,” touches on the theme when writes about his sobering visits with wounded soldiers at military hospitals. He felt an obligation as their Commander-in-Chief to make regular trips.
But he also said the experiences reminded him that since the all-volunteer military of the 1970s, fewer Americans know someone in their family or living in their neighborhood serving their country. They are removed from understanding the sacrifices.
With Army’s bowl game secured, the Black Knights are also seeking a third double-digit victory season in four years. Army bounced back from 5-8 record last year after a 10-3 mark in 2017 and 11-2 in 2018.
The senior class, a mixture direct admits and players like Bourdeau that spent a year at the Army prep school to gain admission, can finish their careers at 36-15.
“When our class came here, it was about changing the culture,” he said. “Coach Monken harped on changing the culture. We have another opportunity to continue adding to that legacy.”
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