- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

For the 36 seniors on Navy’s football team, a war to fight and a country to defend awaits after graduation.

That already has hit home this season. Two former Navy players have died in Iraq and a third was killed when his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

“Lives are changed in a blink of an eye,” senior tackle Tyson Stahl said. “Every minute that we step on this field or in a stadium to play this game, I think we all try to honor those guys. They are the guys who came before us. They set the standard.”

One of those who perished, 2nd Lt. James P. Blecksmith, graduated only 18 months ago and was a teammate and friend to the current juniors and seniors. The players hear terms like “ultimate sacrifice” and “fulfilling a duty,” but Blecksmith’s death was different.

“It brings reality back to this place,” senior defensive captain Josh Smith said. “The last couple of years, we really haven’t had to endure things like that, but it has set in now. Shoot, next year I could be over there, or two years from now someone could be talking about me the same way we are talking about J.P. now.”

Blessed with a gifted right arm, Blecksmith starred at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada Flintridge, Calif. Despite being courted by Pac-10 schools to play quarterback, Blecksmith came to Navy to fulfill his dream of becoming a Marine.

Blecksmith didn’t mesh well with the Midshipmen’s offense, so he shifted to wide receiver to have a better chance of playing. Coach Paul Johnson, then in his first year, found a way to utilize Blecksmith’s strong arm, however, and he completed two passes on trick plays during his senior season. One of them — a 79-yarder to current senior slotback Eric Roberts against Northwestern — remains the fifth-longest pass play in Navy history.

“J.P. was such a great guy. You could put him in a room full of strangers, and he’d make friends instantly,” said Smith, who had a class with Blecksmith and got to know him well when they worked together on a big project. “During special teams practice, we’d always throw the ball around. He had a cannon. Some guys didn’t like playing catch with him.”

Blecksmith died on Veterans Day while searching houses for insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq. He was living his dream of leading Marines into battle.

“I have the utmost respect for him for even being here in the first place,” senior wide receiver Amir Jenkins said. “He could have easily been somewhere else throwing 60-yard bombs. … I still have the utmost respect for him for going to Iraq and leading his troops the way he did.”

When the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy get together for a football game, as they will Saturday in Philadelphia, it is a worldwide spectacle. For Army’s seniors, this is the last time they will play a college football game. Navy’s seniors have one more game, but their futures are linked. In a few months, the players no longer will be Black Knights and Midshipmen. They will be commissioned officers on the same team.

That future is rapidly approaching.

“When it’s over, it’s over,” Stahl said of football. His brother, Hoot, graduated with the other former football player who died in Iraq, 1st Lt. Ron Winchester, in 2001. “My mom thinks about it a lot. She’s been coming here for 10 years to watch football games. After December, all that’s left is a football banquet and graduation.

“You try not to think about it, because if you do, you get too worked up over it.”

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