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Monday, January 12, 2009
Updated: March 13, 6:16 PM ET
Many athletes balancing school, sports and parents serving in the military

By Jon Mahoney

Soccer practice started out just like any other for Melyssa Haubenstricker. She congregated on the field with her Meade (Ft. Meade, Md.) teammates and started to stretch.

Students at Meade High School are balancing school with sports and having parents serving in Iraq.

Then all of a sudden from the corner of her eye, Haubenstricker noticed her father walking toward the field. He was wearing sunglasses and appeared to have a serious look on his face.

When he told his daughter to come over for a talk, her heart sank. Haubenstricker's mother, Valerie, had been deployed to Kuwait with her Army unit a few months earlier, and Haubenstricker was terrified her father had come to deliver horrible news.

Thankfully, it turned out he had simply come to remind his daughter about her orthodontist's appointment that day.

Talk to anybody with a parent at war and it's the same story. It doesn't matter if you're a girls' soccer player in Maryland or a football player in Texas, a feeling of uneasiness is always at the forefront of your mind. You can be somewhere as routine as soccer practice and one little thing out of the ordinary can trigger anxiety.

"Your heart starts beating really fast and you don't know what to do," says Haubenstricker, a sophomore whose mother returned to the States in December. "It's a panic thing. It rides on your mind that she's over there and you can't do anything about it."

At Meade, that kind of panic races through students' minds each and every day. Located just outside Baltimore, Meade is adjacent to the Fort Meade U.S. Army base. According to athletic director Dave Lanham, 415 of the school's 2,180 students have a parent active in the military -- many of whom have been at war at some point during the past five years.

Football players Nick Fish and Tyler Young are just two of Meade's many students who have dealt with a parent away at war.

A sophomore linebacker, Fish spent his freshman year at Rogers (Newport, R.I.) while his father was stationed in Iraq. There were times when Fish would go days or even weeks without hearing from his father. When that was the case, Fish couldn't help but obsess about his dad's well-being. No matter what he was doing -- whether it was football practice, homework or watching TV -- Fish couldn't take his mind off what was going on thousands of miles away. Those thoughts led to plenty of sleepless nights.

One time when Fish was on the phone with his father, their conversation was cut short when sirens started blaring on the other end. His father said he had to go, and Fish didn't hear back from him for the rest of the day.

Fear immediately set in. After an excruciating night, his father called the next day to say he was OK. But it's an experience Fish will never forget.

"I wasn't sure what happened," he says. "A whole bunch of thoughts went through my head. You'd feel anxiety because you had no clue what's going on and you feel helpless. There's nothing you can do about it but just wait. The waiting was the hardest part."

For Young, now a junior wide receiver at Meade, waiting was indeed the worst part when his dad was in Iraq three years ago. Young's father tried to call home every day, but occasionally he wouldn't get a free moment.

Minutes felt like hours on those days. Young focused on school and sports to forget his worries, but he started stressing about every minute detail of his life. It got so bad he broke out in hives. "If I'd hear something on the news about something happening over there, that's what would really stress me out and scare me," Young says. "I wouldn't watch any news after that."

Even if they wanted to watch the news, high school athletes with parents at war typically don't have the time. The portrayal in "Friday Night Lights"of Matt Saracen balancing school with caring for his grandmother, working a part-time job and trying to retain the starting quarterback position while his dad is off at war may be fiction, but it's not too far from reality.

"When their dads leave, they always step up,"says Lavetta McClam, whose son Dewayne is a senior running back/linebacker at Meade. "It's almost like an instinct. They just rise to the occasion to make sure things get done and mom is OK."

For Dewayne, rising to the occasion meant looking after his younger brother while their father, Wayne, was in Iraq in 2005. Meade senior lineman Ranonn Johnson, meanwhile, took on extra chores around the house and started cooking meals for his family while his father was away on tours with the Navy.

"It makes you more independent," says Johnson, who's also on the ROTC drill team. "It taught me to not be 100 percent reliant."

When students like McClam and Johnson are forced to grow up too quickly, sports help slow down the momentum, giving them an outlet to act their age. As a bonus, a team serves as a surrogate family and sports allow athletes to forget their worries for a few hours each day.

"When you think of people's basic psychological needs, a sense of belonging is big, and sports can provide that,"says Dr. Amy Baltzell, who runs the graduate program in sports psychology at Boston University. "It doesn't matter where you came from -- if you can catch or kick the ball, generally you're welcome. And not just athletically; there's a social component as well."

For Texas Longhorns senior defensive tackle Roy Miller, football was his savior when his father was serving in Iraq four years ago. Even though Miller graduated from Shoemaker (Killeen, Texas) in 2005 and went on to play four years of college ball, to this day most of his closest friends are from his high school football team.

It helped that Shoemaker is located next to the Fort Hood military post, meaning many of Miller's teammates also had parents at war and knew exactly what he was going through. If Miller felt alone, all he had to do was look at the school's hallways, where blue and silver stars signified all the parents deployed in Iraq and gold stars represented parents who'd lost their lives in Iraq since the start of the war.

"Most of my friends I have now were guys who were on my team,"Miller says. "It further bonds you, and those bonds last a long time."

Miller's dad missed every one of his senior-season games before returning from Iraq in time to catch his son's high school finale -- which fittingly was the U.S. Army All-American Game.

At Shoemaker, stories like that are commonplace. According to athletic director and head football coach Ken Gray, roughly 85-90 percent of the 2,100-person student body has a parent in the service or involved in the military. With so many parents away, the talk in the stands at games often centers on who's gone rather than who's there.

Such circumstances present coaches at schools like Shoemaker with unique challenges and also make it abundantly clear that win-loss records and state championships are secondary in the grand scheme of things.

"You're dealing with things that coaching 101 didn't teach you,"Gray says. First off is actually fielding a team.

During the 2007 season, Gray's team lost 10 starters from the previous season who moved when their parents were deployed. And of the 94 players from the Class of 2008 who started in the program as freshmen, only 11 remained as seniors. Gray says some just stopped playing, but most players had to move when their parents were either deployed or transferred to another base.

Then there's coaching athletes who have a lot more on their minds than X's and O's.

"You're going to play a game and you're trying to give them a fired-up speech and their mind may be elsewhere," says Gray, whose father was in the Air Force. "Our kids try their best to be focused. They're tough kids -- they don't want anyone to feel sorry for them by any means."

Of course, it's hard not to at times. Gray once had to cancel practice to help one of his players whose family was being evicted from their house -- his parents couldn't pay the rent because his dad was in Iraq and his mom was in the hospital. Rather than get ready for that week's game, the team helped the player move his family's belongings into storage.

"Every day is something new for all of us," Gray says.

What isn't new to high school athletes with parents at war is the perpetual state of unease they live in. Soon after that scare at soccer practice, Haubenstricker was called into her guidance counselor's office out of the blue. Panic set in yet again and she feared the worst.

Thankfully, it had nothing to do with her mom. Just another day in the life of a high school athlete with a parent at war.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.