- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The families of Christian Hill and Jon Gruber embrace a proud tradition of uniforms.

First, there are the Army green and Navy blue of military service — a family tradition that dates to the American Revolution. Then, there are the jerseys and pads of a football tradition that reaches back to the 1920s.

Hill plays linebacker for the University of Maryland’s Terrapins. He also is an Army reservist who served one year in Iraq and Kuwait with the 352nd Airborne.

Gruber is a fullback for Maryland. He is a former Marine sergeant who spent four years building portable runways in the Arizona desert.

Football and military uniforms. God and country. Fields of glory and gore.

For Hill, it is a calling.

“I try to follow in the footsteps of my forefathers,” Hill said. “That’s always been my dream since I was little and hearing the different stories.”

Those were stories of his great-grandfather, Col. Neil Harding, who played quarterback at West Point against the famed Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and later commanded the “Bloody Hundredth” Bombardment Group in World War II.

Grandfather Donald Wynne graduated from the Naval Academy and later worked on Polaris submarines and the Apollo lunar missions. The family traces its military history to an Army surgeon in the late 1800s, to an officer in the Civil War and to, family lore says, an ancestor who served in the Revolutionary War.

Gruber heard some of the same kinds of war tales from a grandfather and an uncle who served in the Navy during World War II.

Gruber, 26, and Hill, 21, know that football is not a life-and-death matter. They compete with teammates and against opponents who are younger — by as much as eight years, in Gruber’s case — and less experienced and who buy into a coach’s locker-room speech that football is war.

Hill knows what war looks like. Bullets flying about him in Baghdad was war. Iraqi children happy to take food thrown from a military convoy was war. Riding home in the rear of a plane with three dead comrades killed en route to the airport was war.

Perhaps a game seems all-important to players and coaches when they hear the roar of 50,000 fans in Byrd Stadium. But when the national anthem is played, Hill and Gruber find themselves at attention, thankful not just for the chance to play this game but for the good fortune of being an American.

“Being in Iraq made me think about how grateful and thankful I am to be here in the United States,” Hill said. “A lot of Americans take this for granted. I went from Kuwait to Iraq on Easter Sunday in 2003. There was a small village of mud huts and gardens. We had a 52-vehicle convoy and threw out [meals] to eat, and they were giving us their dinars.

“They were the happiest kids I’ve ever seen.”

A year in Iraq

Most kids spend the summer before their senior year of high school enjoying one last period of childhood freedom. At 17, Hill spent his in boot camp.

It was 2000, a year before the September 11 attacks.

Hill never had traveled much beyond the East Coast. Going to Philadelphia for Army-Navy football games was a big deal.

Two years later, in December 2002, he left for Kuwait. He crossed into Iraq four months later during the final week of major combat.

Hill mostly worked with Iraqi civilians to rebuild infrastructure. He accompanied a military chaplain through neighborhoods. His unit donated 1,200 soccer balls to youth programs. The people were grateful.

“It was nice helping people out,” he said. “I’m pro-Bush, pro-war. We needed to do that. Saddam needed to be taken out.”

Hill returned home on Nov.21 and had a difficult transition. He broke up with his girlfriend because of her anti-war views. Debates among fellow students about the merits of the war sometimes were unsettling. Hill left a family reunion after 30 minutes because of sensory overload.

“It was culture shock,” Hill said. “I had to get out of there. People were talking to me.”

Another desert away

Gruber spent most of his hitch in Yuma, Ariz., and was discharged in January 2002. The tough work of building portable runways in a place where the average summer temperature is 106 degrees hardened him and taught him how to tackle a challenge.

“It gave me a lot of focus to do what I do now,” he said. “I took what I learned from mental toughness, just being able to buckle down and get things done. You have to use the same type of intensity [with football]. You have to find it inside.”

Gruber is merely taking a sabbatical from the military. He is a junior attending school on the GI Bill. He is taking pre-med classes at Maryland and plans to enter the Uniformed Services Academy in Bethesda. He hopes to one day join his stepsister as a Navy doctor.

Family ties

Hill likens himself to Johnny Rico of “Starship Troopers,” who rises from recruit to sergeant in a patriotic whirlwind assault on intergalatic evil.

“Come on, maggots — you want to live forever?” Rico yells at the end of the 1997 cult film.

In another time, Rico might have been his great-grandfather, Harding, whose 100th Bombardment Group was the inspiration for “Twelve O’Clock High,” a 1949 film classic that starred Gregory Peck.

Harding won the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross in action over Germany. He suffered gallstones that became dangerously impacted, but he refused to leave his unit. He was forced stateside after one year.

Harding’s daughter, Helen, did the unthinkable: She married a Navy man who played on the brigade football team. Donald Wynne graduated from Annapolis in 1947, the class that included future president Jimmy Carter.

Wynne and Harding loved the annual football encounters between the academies, making a standard wager of $1 and a year’s worth of heckling rights. Sometimes, they sat at midfield on the Army side. Sometimes, they were with the midshipmen.

Wynne became a big Maryland fan when he returned to the Washington area in 1969 after working on the Apollo missions in Houston. He died in 2002.

“I can’t tell you how he would have loved to have seen one grandson on the team he had taken to be his own after Navy,” Helen Wynne said.

Back in pads

There are times on the practice field when Gruber feels as if he is back in the military. The physical challenges, rigid schedule, dorm life and mental discipline aren’t much different from serving on active duty.

“It’s like the military, because all of your teammates are relying on you,” he said. “I won’t say it’s equal to the military, but it has its hard points.”

Hill had wanted to play football since he was 11, but his mother didn’t want him to suffer any of the sort of football injuries that her father had. Elaine Hill relented after her son made the honor role throughout sixth grade.

“I said, ‘I’ll never let my boys play football,’ ” she said. “Christian needled me for two, three years.”

Hill played linebacker for three games in his sophomore year at Seneca Valley High School before redistricting sent him to newly built Northwest High in Germantown. He moved to defensive end in his final season, when Northwest went 12-1.

It was another three years before Hill wore pads again — at Maryland’s spring drills.

Gruber enlisted in the Marines soon after graduating from high school. He spent seven years away from football before joining the Terps last fall.

“I thought if I ever went back to college, I knew I wanted to try out and fulfill a dream,” Gruber said. “I had to relearn a lot.”

More uniforms

There are times when Hill takes a pause. One wonders whether he’s thinking about the Iraqi store where he bought a CD one day before a Marine was killed by insurgents. Or the time he went inside one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces to avoid nearby shelling. Or maybe the endless guard and kitchen duty as one of five noncoms in his unit who bore the grunt work in the 130-degree heat where water evaporated when poured on Humvees.

They are his private moments of silence but not his overriding thoughts. Hill is awaiting word on an Air Force scholarship at Maryland that could lead to an engineering degree.

Gruber will wear a white doctor’s coat over his Navy blues one day. Injuries during practices in the past year nearly caused him to leave the Terps to avoid jeopardizing his future military career. It wasn’t an easy choice to stay.

The uniform is hard to put away forever. After all, it becomes the fabric of a man’s soul.

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