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
On Fridays in the fall, Chris Aiken and his Appalachian State football teammates relax before game time Saturday by watching heroic movies. Aiken’s favorite is “The Kingdom,” a drama in which Jamie Foxx and American government agents investigate a bombing in the Middle East.
Aiken’s own path to the Apps is dramatic and involves desert combat, too.
He joined the U.S. Army out of high school, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound “little chubby kid,” as he says, who had only played football as a high school senior.
In two tours of Iraq with the 978th Military Police Company, Aiken quickly grew out of his uniforms. He hit a growth spurt, aided by daily physical training.
“I grew to 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds before I got out,” said Aiken. “In my spare time, all I could do was lift weights. I was a big guy, but I didn’t know if football would happen for me.”
Aiken’s basic training in football came via Blinn College (Tex.), where he helped win a National Junior College Athletic Association title with future Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton.
Then Aiken headed north, to an Apps team that five years before had welcomed Marine Corps vets Wayne Norman and Brian Stokes.
Military service molded Aiken’s fearless football mentality. At 27, he’s already survived lethal situation, so little about a mere sport intimidates him. Plus he’s now 315 pounds.
“My toughness for football has always been high, because I feel like no matter how big the guy is across the line from me, if he isn’t going to kill me, there isn’t any reason for me to be scared,” Aiken said.
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. Photo courtesy of Keith Cline.
The bonding and adrenalin rush of NCAA Division I/FCS football helps fill the void left in Aiken after being honorably discharged.
“I miss the bonds with different friends in Iraq. I miss shooting weapons all the time. I miss sleeping in the woods [during basic training], believe it or not,” Aiken said. “But in the end, I wouldn’t trade playing football for anything.”
Aiken plays in honor of an Army buddy, James Hale, who was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) and left behind a wife and young daughter. Aiken had a similar experience with an IED going off on a road he was driving while deployed.
Another time, a rocket-propelled grenade landed near his Humvee, but was a dud. “The worst injury I’ve had was maybe a sprained ankle when I played in junior college,” he said. “I’ve never been hurt.”
This weekend, his Apps play rival Western Carolina in the “Battle for the Old Mountain Jug” trophy Saturday in their final conference game.
On Friday, he expects teammates may mention his service. Some will probably thank him. On Veterans Day 2010, Aiken found out many have family members in the military.
“It’s humbling that they don’t forget what I have done,” Aiken said. “It’s a good feeling to have brothers on a team – in the Army and here.”
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and a former golf student-athlete at Duke.