Balancing demands beyond football

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Let us stipulate that any cadet who takes on the academic and military rigor of the United States Military Academy is an individual brimming with talent from the shine of his black dress shoes to the peak of her military cap.

And let us agree that the cadet who through his or her first three years at West Point displays the leadership, acumen and intellect to be named first captain of the Corps of Cadets is one of the most accomplished young people in this or any ZIP code.

By any measure, First Capt. Brandon Whittington is the epitome of why the United States Military Academy is in business. The first captain has been described as the equivalent of a student body president, which is like calling J.K. Rowling a typist. It is accurate without capturing any of the complexity of the life that Whittington lives.

The demands on Whittington are such that his room in the West Point barracks comes with an office attached. He has a staff of fellow first-years, as seniors are referred to here, who assist him. He meets regularly with the academy brass. He is on call and on display as America's Military Cadet.

The gold star affixed to the high collar of his dress gray uniform indicates he is in the top 5 percent of his class academically, and Whittington has earned that achievement while majoring in one of the nation's most highly regarded mechanical engineering departments.

So why in the name of John J. Pershing or Douglas MacArthur (to name two former first captains) does Whittington play football? There he is, No. 1 in your class and No. 10 in your program, a 5-foot-10, 191-pound defensive back from El Paso who is just your typical, everyday, average leader of 4,400 cadets.

"Honestly, it is challenging, don't get me wrong," Whittington said. "Time has always been a challenge being with the corps and now, being first captain, it only adds to it. I will say that I've always looked at it as, it's not a burden. There are other things in life that are more challenging, that are more difficult. Many of those things I'm going to face once I commission and once I'm in the Army. There are things out there waiting for me that I can't even imagine."

Maj. Tony Wrice, a West Point graduate and former football player who is the brigade tactical officer, said that Whittington earned the rank of first captain because, "He's got the confidence that you expect of a leader. He's got great ideas. He's a hard worker. He's well-respected. He's got good grades. He does well militarily. Across the spectrum, he does all those things well. That made it easier to select him."

There is no bigger time drain on a West Point cadet than playing football. What Army players endure to be able the play the game they love is somewhere between heroic and desperate. Army is one of the few FBS schools where the NCAA 20-hour limit on team activities is a goal instead of an obstacle. Just as an example, the bus for the practice field leaves the barracks at 6 a.m.

That may explain why football players who rise to first captain are a rarity. Pete Dawkins, the 1958 Heisman winner, did so. Whittington is the first football player to become first captain since a scout team defensive lineman named Hans Pung did so in 1994. Pung may know something about leadership. At age 40, he is the president of Rand Europe, the research institute based in the United Kingdom.

"Of my time at West Point," Pung said Wednesday, "the two things that I remember the best are my times as an Army football player, and my time as the first captain of the Corps of Cadets. Clearly, the lessons that I learned around hard work, around commitment, around delegation, around working as a team, I think those have all served me well in the Army and they are the sorts of lessons and leadership philosophy that I try to apply even now in my professional life."

In four years, Whittington has played mostly special teams, when he has played at all. This season, he hurt his ankle early in the season and his shoulder in the fourth game, against Stony Brook, and hasn't played since. Yet he has continued to get on that bus. The only time he doesn't is when the business of the corps demands his presence.

"When he has been well, he has consistently found a way to contribute," Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. "He's a great mentor for the young players, which we have a lot of in the secondary."

Saturday served as a microcosm of Whittington's overstuffed life. When the corps marched in a parade at 9 a.m., Whittington led it. When Army and Air Force conducted their "prisoner-of-war" exchange shortly before kickoff -- Air Force cadets studying at West Point this semester are "exchanged" at midfield for the West Point cadets who are studying in Colorado Springs -- Whittington, in football uniform, represented the corps.

Once the game began, Whittington grabbed a clipboard. Ellerson and his staff value Whittington to the point that after he banged up his shoulder, they asked him to chart defensive formations. Whittington, clipboard in hand and wearing a headset to listen to the coaches, couldn't have been happier.

"I mean, there are other ways to contribute to the team," Whittington said. "It doesn't have to be on the field. Whatever the coaches need me to do. … There are only so many coaches, and they are trying to talk to all the players, if I can step in, and just try to be an emotional edge on the sideline, try to keep everybody up if something bad happens. Anything I can do to help, because I still want to be a part of the team, as much as I can."

During the week, Whittington's life is a mix of the academic, military and ceremonial. When VIPs come through the academy, which they do on a regular basis, Whittington is served up as West Point to them.

Whittington ate lunch with Bronislaw Komorowski, the president of Poland, in late September. That would have been on the Tuesday between the Wake Forest and Stony Brook games. He has dined with Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

"He's got a presence and a strength," Goodell said of Whittington. "So many of those cadets are being trained to be great leaders. But to stand out in a crowd amongst great leaders is quite impressive. He did it, and it was obvious from the first moment I was with him."

After class concludes at 4 p.m., cadets either participate in military drill or company sports. If Whittington isn't drilling, he attends one or the other. He wants the corps to understand he thinks it's important enough to be there. Last week, he served as a judge in the traditional Halloween decorating competition in the barracks basement.

Not until 8 p.m. does Whittington sit down to begin his homework. He works until after midnight, gets his 5½ hours of sleep and starts it over again.

"I think a lot of people in the corps know that I'm a football player," Whittington said. "They know that I'm an engineer. They know the demands of being the first captain. For me, being president shows them that it is possible to do all this stuff. … I want to inspire other people in the corps, not to do the same things I have, but to [think], 'I've got a lot going on right now, but I can still go support this and still have time, if I'm a yearling [sophomore], I can go check on my plebe [freshman].'"

Given all that he does and all that for which he is responsible, there's one other thing about football that appeals to Whittington. When that ball is kicked off, Whittington is no longer on ceremony. He is no longer the boss. He is a walk-on, an injured backup player. And he loves it.

"The spotlight is not on me," Whittington said, "and honestly, I have no problem with that. I'm not a starter. I'm a special teams guy before I got hurt. I understand my role. … I don't need to be the star player on the team. I'm perfectly happy with, if there's a guy who's better than me, then get him out on the field, because I'm more concerned about Army football winning, not me in the spotlight."

You get the feeling that Whittington will be dealing with a spotlight well into his future.