Back to the basics: Following Air Force freshmen football players through the summer
By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 11, 2013
The low point in basic training for Jake Riley came in the bathroom.
He was sick and tired, literally, suffering from the flu, and had seen his weight drop from 232 pounds to 216 in six weeks. On this night the linebacker's time was limited and he needed that toilet. So he quietly pleaded with the basic cadet accompanying him, "Hey man, hurry up."
That's all it took. The upperclassman outside heard Riley talk, which is forbidden for basics, and let him have it. Riley tried to explain his reasoning, which only deepened his troubles.
Finally back in his room, Riley couldn't help but contemplate the unknown. Schools in the Mid-American Conference were after him. What if he had considered Akron, Kent State or Miami of Ohio a bit more seriously?
Ryan Watson had similar thoughts. The defensive end often wondered how his daily routine may have differed had he opted to attend Maryland.
But Riley and Watson chose Air Force, and with it all the complications that come when an athlete or anyone attends the military academy.
It is a refrain from coaches that the Falcons miss out on many recruits and don't bother pursuing others because the rigors of the academy are too great. The military lifestyle, the academic requirements and the postgraduation commitment are daily realities not subject to change.
At no time in academy life do the military demands come under such intense focus as they do in basic training. The academy granted The Gazette unfettered access to a pair of incoming recruits to gain a better understanding of not only basic training, but basic training for a cadet-athlete. So we were there with Riley and Watson at key points from in-processing in late June through the Acceptance Parade roughly six weeks later.
June 27: In-processing
The first four minutes on the bus were filled with silent anticipation, waiting for a coiled snake to strike.
In the fifth minute, the cadre struck.
"Everyone on this bus, all eyes on me," shouted the voice from the back, growing louder with each crisply enunciated word. "Sit up straight and put your heels together. Cup your hands, put your hands on your knees, look at me and DO NOT MOVE."
Thus began basic training.
The first stop for recruits, before the eye-opening ride, was in-processing. It was there recruits and their families heard an introductory speech from retired members of the Air Force and then went their separate ways into Doolittle Hall, parents staying on the main level where informational desks were set up and recruits headed upstairs.
Upstairs were primarily stations set up for paperwork, the kind of things you'd find at any job. Separating it were a tattoo check - anything beyond the rules would end a recruit's time in the Air Force before it began - and an amnesty box. Any fake IDs, anything illegal, really anything, could be put into that box, no questions asked.
Beyond Doolittle Hall, cadets walked on a scenic path to the Class of '59 Challenge Bridge. The symbolic bridge over a small brook contained an inscription from the academy's first graduating class. Members of that class invited a recruit to read the words, which dealt largely with themes of sacrifice and integrity. Just behind the recruits stood a small replica memorial wall with names of all graduates who had been killed in combat or as a result of enemy action.
It was the first moment of unvarnished reality. If recruits were to go beyond the bridge and board the bus to become basic cadets, they needed to be reminded of potentially dire consequences.
For Riley and Watson, the realities of the academy were well known.
Riley's sister, Addie, was a 2013 graduate who is in flight school in Georgia. She left her brother with many hints as to what to expect. Not that a bit of advice would take away all of the guesswork for a kid a month removed from his senior year in high school at Minerva, Ohio.
"The unknown is what I guess I'm most nervous about," Riley said. "It's hard to be away from home for sure. My family has always been really close and there for me, and we're from a small town, so coming out here is going to be a culture shock."
Riley tried to do all he could to prepare for the unknown. He worked with a personal trainer early in the summer, he put in some time on distance running, pushups and situps and he memorized some basic information such as how to address the cadre.
But there's no way to fully prepare for what was to come, not for a kid who had never been away from home for more than a week. To make matters worse, he nearly didn't arrive in time. His flight the night before was stuck in Akron and he didn't arrive until nearly 10 p.m.
Basic training is not something you want to start on little sleep.
Sleep, or the lack thereof, was what had Watson the most nervous. He had been through a year at the Air Force Prep School, so he had a year's worth of practice at a scaled-down version of the academy. The veil of mystery wasn't quite as thick.
The Atlanta native was excited to finally have the shot to be known as a freshman instead of a preppie, but he knew that would mean many early mornings.
"I guess the waking up is my biggest thing," he said. "The lack of sleep. That and the food. They make sure you have enough, but it's not good quality food, I'll tell you that."
Upon boarding the bus, the cadre - upperclassmen who essentially serve as in-your-face instructors through the process - launch into the basic instructions for basic cadets. Among those are the seven basic responses ("Yes sir" "No sir" "No excuse sir" "Sir I do not know" "Sir I do not understand" "Sir may I ask a question" "Sir may I make a statement") which comprise the entirety of what a basic cadet is allowed to say.
"I was not expecting to get yelled at that quickly," Watson said. "But it was funny, coming from the prep school you knew all that stuff so it was like, 'OK, I'm good for the next hour.'''
The bus ride was barely more than 10 minutes and the basic cadets were unloaded at a place known as the footprints. It was there that they first line up and receive a complete dress down from the cadre. Everyone is berated for something, be it shoelaces, an incorrectly tucked shirt, a look. They're going to find something.
From there, the basics are taken through an orientation of sorts. They are issued uniforms, have blood drawn and are taught the absolute basics of how to wear and remove a hat.
The hair comes off at this point, as stylists - all female, all looking like they work in a salon - are set up in a makeshift barber shop in a biology classroom in Fairchild Hall. The women in the adjacent room were taught how to quickly put their hair up into buns.
From there, a life of routine begins.
July 12: Field Day
The most daunting part of the routine - and it's all routine - for Watson through the first phase of basic training involved one of the most elemental personal functions: dressing himself.
"My biggest concern right now is just what are we wearing in the morning, because you have to be ready to go in like a minute in the morning," Watson said. "To put on the uniform in a minute is pretty difficult. When I say difficult, I mean impossible."
Everything is timed and measured. Beds must be folded to exact specifications. Shirts have their proper place in a drawer. Bathroom breaks must be completed in two minutes.
Conduct is evaluated with equal rigidity. Cadets are to be at attention at all times unless being briefed or in their rooms. That means their eyes must be fixed in the proper direction and posture must be perfect.
"The first couple weeks my back was just killing me all the time," Riley said. "The whole day you can't sit down until personal time, which is just 30 minutes at the end of the day. My feet hurt, my back, pretty much everything."
Watson said seconds crept by like hours in those early days.
That's why the track-meet atmosphere of Field Day (which is exactly as it sounds) was nice, but to the basic cadets, the opportunity to ease up a bit was welcomed with equal enthusiasm - even if the brief respite was finished by midmorning.
At this point, contact with everyday news from the outside world had shut off completely.
"We were joking the other day that the president could be dead and we wouldn't know," Watson said.
Some of the cadre started a rumor that Justin Bieber had died, which Watson said caused some girls in his flight to be truly upset.
"At this point I still don't know if he's dead or alive," he said.
Watson opted not to utilize his half-hour of personal time to write letters, but Riley cherished the opportunity. He wrote to his parents, talking a lot about football and how it was a driving force keeping him going, and he sent letters to the girl he left behind in Ohio.
"For her it has been tough," he said. "But for me, I've been so busy that I haven't had time to think about girls. It's a tough thing. It really tests a relationship."
Riley's homesickness also impacted his mother. It may have helped that she had a daughter go through the same process, but the two had distinctly different personalities.
"It was harder for me this time," said Shawn Riley, Jake's mother. "Addie was just driven and wanted to go away, she's just got an adventurous spirit. Jake is much more of a homebody. So for me I knew he was homesick, and it was harder for me because I knew that."
Though Riley very much looked forward to receiving letters delivered every four or five days, he appreciated the insulated lifestyle and how it helped him remain focused.
And there was much to focus on, particularly the cadre.
"The first couple of days it wasn't so bad," Riley said. "I was thinking, 'OK, they're actually nice guys but they're yelling at me because they have to.' But about a week later it started to sink in that these people really are mean. Mentally they really do a good job of breaking you down.
"Some of them are really all about the power. Others know their job and treat you with respect and dignity. Those are the ones you really want to work for."
Watson was managing to get by, but he had seen the fair majority around him struggle.
"There haven't been times where I've wondered what am I doing here," he said. "But there have been days where I've wondered what I could do better.
"As weird as it sounds, the friendships I've made just in these two or three weeks are already some of my best friends. The things they put you through out here, like they like to say, make you wingmen."
July 30: Jacks Valley
The green tents and hanging military clothes give Jacks Valley a look straight off the set of a Vietnam movie.
It's a camp, and in many respects it is fun.
"Being in a tent with 15 guys and just bonding," Riley said. "I mean, we have to go through all this crap together but we're really starting to have a lot of fun together."
The valley, named for the family from which Air Force acquired the land, is home to the second phase of basic training. The basics marched here July 22 for an 11-day campout in a deployment setting. The time here is two days shorter than typical years because of sequestration cuts.
At this point some rules have relaxed a bit, as the basics have a firm understanding of what is expected of them. The cadre even help give a catchy name for each tent.
But this is also where physical demands are increased significantly.
It is at Jacks Valley where the basics attack the dreaded assault course, which is a series of stations that takes about an hour and 15 minutes of nonstop exertion to complete. It's a bit like an obstacle course, except the obstacles are the cadre manning each station.
Basic cadets complete the course, which includes crawling through mud, take a brief break, then do it again.
"If you were to go just straight through it would be a really fun thing, but the cadre - the whole time you just want to punch them in the face," Watson said. "They'll find like a random stranger and he'll do something stupid. They'll take his rifle and throw it. You don't even know the guy but you've got to crawl with him like 100 yards to get his rifle back. You're just like, 'This is the dumbest thing in the world.' They'll ask you questions like, what is your favorite food. If it's a food they don't like they'll send you back three stations."
Riley, for no fault of his own, was sent back to the start as he neared the end.
"We thought we were going to die, but we made it through together," he said.
For football players like Riley who are used to quick bursts of exercise but not prolonged aerobic activity, the second phase of basic training was particularly grueling.
"Truthfully, I think in this day and age they physically work out harder than it was 20 years ago," said football coach Troy Calhoun, an Air Force graduate. "They get up earlier. The fitness part begins a little bit earlier. It's ramped up even at a different level. It's a high pitch in terms of what they do and what they achieve."
The activity took its toll. Riley and Watson were each drinking 1,500 calories a day in protein shakes yet still saw weight falling off. Riley was down about 16 pounds at one point. Watson dropped about 10 pounds, taking him to the low 230s.
It's not that they weren't eating, either. A typical breakfast might consist of a bacon-and-cheese burrito, hash browns, a Nature Valley bar, yogurt, cereal and eggs.
Jacks Valley features many athletic competitions. Watson was pulled unexpectedly into a jousting battle with pugil sticks. He was given a brief tutorial and sent into battle. He lost.
There were many elements to this phase of basic that were enjoyable, but there was still plenty that did not sit well.
"They give you four-minute showers," Watson said. "But it's like eight shower heads for a group of 20 guys. So you really get like two-minute showers. On top of that you've got to go into the bathroom, strip, get your stuff out, then go, then come back out, be dry and have your clothes back on. So really you shower for like a minute, the showers are dirty and it's just, eh, it's not a good time.
"The worst thing is actually late at night when you wake up to use the restroom," he added. "You have to have a buddy with you because you can't go by yourself, so you've got to wake somebody else up, and that's a big hassle because nobody wants to get woken up in the middle of the night. So you're just there about to pee yourself, trying to kick somebody awake and they're just like, 'screw off.' Tough nights."
But again, the conditions helped to bring cadets closer together as they solved tasks like constructing tents, working through problems (they figured out mornings were much easier if they slept in their uniforms) and just generally leaning on each other.
"The first few weeks were really rough," Riley said. "I missed my family a lot and I was really homesick. But now I'm starting to see my classmates as my family. That's honestly how I feel."
Aug. 1: Football practice
There will perhaps always be a segment of the population that doesn't agree that service academies should be involved in big-time athletics.
The counter to that is that dozens of perfectly suited future officers - Riley and Watson among them - might have ended up somewhere else.
The basic cadets were able to leave Jacks Valley on several occasions to work with the football team, including the first full-team practice Aug. 1.
The practices compounded the exhaustion factor mentally and physically. The players had plenty thrown at them in team meetings and on the field.
"You get reminded how painful football practice can be," Watson said. "There's some courses down here that I'd rather do than go through football practice. The first couple days were brutal, but it's football. That's what you love."
Riley played quarterback and in the defensive backfield in high school, but was recruited as an outside linebacker. So that's the position he had been studying. He found out on the first day that he was being switched to middle linebacker.
"It's going to be mentally challenging because I'll have a lot to learn," Riley said.
The coaching staff is high on both players and have both practicing with the varsity. Watson is on the second team and Riley is on the third team.
"I really like his athleticism," inside linebacker coach Steve Russ said of Riley. "I like his desire and his passion and his intelligence. He can run and he's got a good frame on him. I think he has a lot of tools where potentially down the road, you know, who knows how quickly he picks it up, but he's got a chance to be a pretty good football player."
Defensive coordinator Charlton Warren has raved about Watson's potential as a pass rusher at defensive end, and his position coach, Matt Weikert, says he's intrigued with what he brings as a player and a person.
"That's the one thing," he said. "When you come to the Air Force Academy, you're dealing with great kids. Character wise, attitude, work ethic, it doesn't get much better than what you find here."
Aug. 6: Acceptance Parade
What should have been the moment of such pride Tuesday morning instead looked like a paramedic drill.
As the basic cadets lined up in formations to be formally accepted into the cadet wing, many kept fainting or becoming ill.
Riley said it may have resulted from a rushed morning in which many basics had to skip breakfast, but his mother had seen it before at her daughter Addie's Acceptance Parade and so she knew not to panic.
"It was too long, if you asked me," Watson said. "It was a waste of time, I think. It was hours of standing in the sun for no reason. But I understand the tradition and all, so it made sense."
The medical issues and orchestrated pageantry underscored the fact that difficulties at the academy are far from finished for this group. For a few brief hours they celebrated the end of basic training and were allowed to mingle with family and friends and "eat, a lot," Riley said.
Watson caught a ride with an upperclassmen to Burger King, then returned for a nap - harkening back to his sleep concerns.
The complications are far from over, hut having passed one milestone clearly meant a lot to the more than 1,100 in the class of 2017. For Watson, it meant he's no longer a preppie and no longer a basic cadet. He's just a cadet.
"When the upperclassmen pin on your shoulder boards, I've never felt better, honestly," he said. "I was reflecting back to the prep school and all we had to do physically there, then back to basic and all the crap I put up with. It's been a long road and I finally made it."
Riley's mother sensed a new level of confidence and maturity in her son. He felt it too.
"It's the most satisfying feeling I've ever had," Riley said. "I've really grown personally and I've really grown as a teammate, I think. I'm really confident in my abilities and I'm really confident in my teammates' abilities. I trust them with my life because we've been through so much together."
He still hasn't forgotten about offers from the MAC schools, not to mention Harvard, Yale and this season's first foe, Colgate. But those are in his past now.
"The thought of leaving right now is sickening for me," Riley said. "I would never want to leave this place."