Chris Aiken: Spent five years in the Army and served two tours of duty in Iraq before joining the Appalachian State football team. Aiken served as a military policeman before becoming a defensive tackle. Read more
P.J. Byers: Penn State fullback is also a second-class petty officer (E-5) in the U.S. Navy. As a dive specialist, Byers did underwater submarine repairs and demolition of explosives at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station, and trained dolphins to find mines in San Diego. Read more
Laurie Coffey: The 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy played forward on the basketball team and rowed for the varsity eight. As a lieutenant commander in the Navy, Coffey is a fighter pilot based at Naval Air Station Oceania in Virginia Beach. Read more
Brooke Cultra: Played guard for the U.S. Air Force Academy before graduating in 2009. A First Lieutenant, Cultra is based in Kaiserslautern, Germany as a contract manager. Read more
Alex McGuire: Played guard for the U.S. Military Academy before graduating in 2009. She is now a First Lieutenant stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany and currently deployed to Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan. Read more
Very few collegiate sports were held in 1918, when America and the world was gripped by a flu pandemic and World War I. As Michigan and Pitt were on the way to sharing the NCAA football crown, the nation turned its attention to the armistice ending hostilities between Germany and the Allied forces on the Western Front. The armistice itself took effect on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. A year later on Nov. 11, 1919, the first Armistice Day was celebrated to commemorate the sacrifices of veterans in World War I. Veterans Day, which now honors all veterans, replaced Armistice Day in 1954.
As Veterans Day 2011 approaches nearly a century later, the intersection of collegiate sports and the military is more pronounced.
Student-athletes at military academies leave as commissioned officers, many serving in combat around the world. Meanwhile, veterans, many in peak physical condition, return to traditional campuses as student-athletes in peak physical condition, and as seasoned leaders with a balanced perspective on life.
By Michelle Hiskey
P.J. Byers matured by joining the U.S. Navy and becoming a dive specialist. He developed the confidence to walk on as fullback for Penn State. Now he’s on his way to becoming a Navy officer, with possibly at stop in the NFL.
Penn State fullback P. J. Byers is also a second-class petty officer (E-5) in the U.S. Navy. As a dive specialist, Byers did underwater submarine repairs and demolition of explosives at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station, and trained dolphins to find mines in San Diego. Photo courtesy of Mark Selders/Penn State Athletic Communications.
The Navy instilled in him that survival depended on teamwork, and that habit carries over today to the gridiron.
“Everyone is relying on me to do my job,” he said. “There’s no one else who can do it. A diver is a job that a lot of people don’t want to do, and that’s where I want to step up. I want to do the job no one wants to do.”
That gung-ho attitude and loyalty earned him a spot on the storied Penn State football team, where he plays fullback – the go-to guy for the 2-yard gain.
“I don’t think of myself as a veteran, because I’m still in the military,” said Byers, 26, an officer candidate who is in the Navy ROTC program on his campus.
“But last year, a good number of players shook my hand on Veterans Day and said ‘thank you.’ That hit me hard, because I didn’t even think players think about that.”
Byers enlisted to become a Navy SEAL, but his eyesight was not sharp enough for that elite group. He bounced back as a dive specialist, doing underwater submarine repairs and demolition of explosives at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station.
While training dolphins to find mines in San Diego, he played football in military leagues, and started hearing from college coaches.
A ROTC scholarship gave him his pick of colleges, and as a Pennsylvania native, Byers chose the Nittany Lions.
“The military was definitely an opportunity to mature,” Byers said. “People had told me that I had the talent to play football, but had a lack of confidence in myself. Coaches will tell you that you’re not good enough, and that gets engrained in your head if you aren’t mature enough to take it. In the Navy, it hit me that those coaches are just wrong.”
Photo courtesy of the Byers family
Close calls while underwater taught him to think calmly under pressure.
“It’s not exactly safe to be working on ships underwater,” he said. “We always have a surface supply of air for breathing. I remember one time going down 20 or 30 feet, and someone forgot to turn my air on. I was down there breathing nothing. Nothing crazy or serious happened, but I yelled at them.”
Though State College is a landlocked campus, and Byers has yet to work out in the Penn State pool, he stays close to the Navy and other troops online.
“Being a diver, I know people who are stationed all across the world,” Byers said. “People I don’t even know are rooting for me in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “I get friend requests on Facebook that say, ‘I’m in the Army. Good job!’ It’s great.”
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and a former golf student-athlete at Duke.