Photo: Cadet Kenneth Brinson
Army’s trip to face No. 5-ranked Oklahoma Saturday represents an interesting throwback game. The reasons are beyond simply that the schools last played in 1961, with the Sooners winning 14-8 in a marquee event at the old Yankee Stadium.
In those days, the Black Knights routinely took on what are now called Power 5 schools.
Army’s 1961 schedule also included Michigan, Penn State and West Virginia. The 1962 slate again featured Michigan and Penn State along with Wake Forest, Syracuse, Oklahoma State and Pitt.
In 1963, the winner of the 1963 Army-Navy Game earned a bid to the Cotton Bowl to face No. 1-ranked Texas; Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach beat Army and the Black Knights' nationally prominent QB, Rollie Stichweh.
In those days, Staubach and Stichweh were far from the only Army and Navy players on their respective rosters that turned down major football programs. They had pro potential, too.
Staubach was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, fulfilled his military commitment serving in Vietnam and played 11 NFL seasons. Stichweh, who avenged Army’s loss with a 1964 win over Navy and Staubach, returned from Vietnam with free agent offers from the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders, although he turned them down.
Such history is what makes Army senior linebacker Kenneth Brinson, who recorded two sacks in last week’s 28-21 win over Hawaii, a throwback player. The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder turned down Stanford, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Indiana to play at West Point.
Brinson’s ambitions beyond football are similar to what attracted academy athletes a half-century ago.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to develop myself in a lot of unique ways that I wouldn’t otherwise,” he said. “I think there are some experiences learned that are unique to West Point. That attracted me here.”
He’s referring to academic influences to become a doctor. He’s a 3.9 student with a chemical engineering major, at the top of his class among a student body of high achievers, and a candidate for the Campbell Award that is presented by the National Football Foundation as the nation’s top-student athlete.
“My mom and dad instilled in me a drive to push myself and do what’s best to develop myself,” Brinson.
His parents, Kenneth and Lucretia, should probably write a book on motivating children. Kamyrn Brinson, Kenneth’s younger sister, is a junior on West Point’s women’s track and field team. She competes in the weight events, including the hammer throw.
“She made her own choice, but I’m definitely glad she ended up here,” Kenneth said. “She’s a blessing for me. She keeps me straight if I’m messing up.”
Huh? A guy with his resume needs redirection from a younger sister?
“She doesn’t act like a little sister,” Brinson said with a chuckle.
A little history is needed to understand the two primary reasons Brinson represents a throwback academy athlete. Both evolved off the field in the 1960s.
First, the Vietnam quagmire lessened the appeal of West Point to the nation’s top football players. In the 1950s and early '60s, academy athletes grew up under a generation that won World War II and watched TV shows that celebrated the academies. “The West Point Story” aired on CBS and “The Men of Annapolis” was a syndicated TV program.
Then, pro football salaries escalated in the 1960s due to a bidding war between the upstart American Football League and the established National Football League. In 1965, Joe Namath signed a record $427,000 contract with the AFL's New York Jets. That led to players previously earning middle-class salaries rising to figures that made them millionaires overnight.
The 1-2 punch of Vietnam and lottery money was starkly revealed in Army’s 1973 season.
The Black Knights finished 0-10 with losses to Tennessee, Cal, Georgia Tech, Penn State, Notre Dame, Miami and Pitt – not to mention rivalry games against Air Force and Navy. Army lost to Navy 51-0 and was outscored for the season 382-67.
It became clear then Army had to scale back its schedule to match its drained talent pool.
Modern-era Army athletes are largely lightly recruited players that are high-achievers. But 2-star and no-star athletes – the bulk of Army’s recruiting classes -- can play up to 3-star talent if the right coaching staff is in place to mold offensive and defensive cohesion in a developmental program.
Army now has such a coach with Jeff Monken. He is in his fifth season and coming off back-to-back winning seasons of 10-3 in 2017 and 8-5 in 2016.
In Army’s first 10-win season since 1996, the Black Knights beat Duke, a Power 5 school; Buffalo, UTEP, Rice, Eastern Michigan, Temple, Air Force and San Diego State among Group of 5 schools; and Fordham, a Football Championship Subdivision member. The losses were to Power 5 Ohio State and two Group of 5 schools, Tulane and North Texas.
Against Oklahoma this week, Brinson is making his 30th straight start and 33rd overall since he started six games his freshman year. He is one of four Army starters that committed as 3-star rated recruits, although none matching Brinson’s list of offers.
Fifth-year starting center Bryce Holland was the only 3-star commit in the Class of 2014 (a season-ending injury in 2015 allowed him to return for the 2018 fall semester to finish his degree).
In 2015, the 3-stars were Brinson and starting senior safety James Gibson.
In 2016, starting junior wide receiver Kjetiel Cline and linebacker Christian Gomez were 3-stars, although Gomez is no longer with the team.
In 2017, there were no 3-star commits when the Black Knights were coming of a disappointing 2-10 season.
But in 2018 and 2019, with the Black Knights beating Navy two straight years and winning the 2017 Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, Monken landed five 3-stars in 2018 and has verbal commitments from four 3-stars in the still forming Class of 2019.
Among the 2018 freshman recruits, Cameron Jones has made the depth chart as a backup safety to Gibson.
It’s an upward trend that reflects renewed patriotism since the 9/11 terrorists attacks of 2001 and the financial security in an economy with a growing income inequality. Academy graduates have a guaranteed job free of college loans. But Army recruiting in no way matches the talent Oklahoma lands each year with national Top 10 recruiting classes.
In fact, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray is the antithesis of a throwback academy athlete. In the modern pro sports economy, he signed $4.66 million contract with the Oakland A’s as the ninth pick of the Major League Baseball draft. The deal allows him to finish his college football career with more money than Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley earns this year -- $3.8 million.
“He’s a great player,” Brinson said. “He makes a lot of plays.”
Nevertheless, Brinson says the Black Knights (2-1), with wins over Liberty and Hawaii after opening with a loss to Duke, are eager to test themselves against Oklahoma (3-0), with wins over Florida Atlantic, UCLA and Iowa State.
“Obviously, it’s a big honor to play such a great team and we’re excited about the opportunity,” he said. “We just want to go out and execute to the best of our ability.”
The Black Knights are nonplussed that last year’s best intentions resulted in a 48-7 loss at Ohio State.
“To be honest with you, this a new year so we’ve never played a big school like Ohio State,” Brinson said. “What we’re worried about is going out and doing the best job that we can.”
Oklahoma’s players will wear labels of athletes that viewed themselves as future pros upon committing to the Sooners, although only a handful will see it through to fruition.
Army’s players will wear helmet stickers representing the 1st Cavalry, a weekly custom that rotates among Army divisions as they prepare for their five-year military commit as officers upon graduation.
That’s not to infer anything negative about either group. It’s just far different world than 1961, the last time Army played Oklahoma.
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