Photo: John McCain and his son Jack at the 2007 Army-Navy Game
DURHAM, N.C. -- The world recognized John McCain as a fighter pilot, a decorated war hero, a U.S. Senator from Arizona and a presidential candidate, but the sports world knew the American icon that passed away Saturday at age 81 simply as a rabid fan.
He liked to tell a story of how sports helped him and fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam pass the time. While in solitary confinement, McCain tapped messages in Morse code between cells. His favorite player was Ted Williams, he tapped.
McCain was a Naval Academy man first as an Annapolis graduate, but he once grudgingly wore an Army hat in his Senate office after losing bet over an Army-Navy Game to an intern that was a West Point graduate.
That’s enough reason to give pause in memory of an American hero and sports fan over college football’s first weekend as Army kick offs its season Friday at Duke; two Saturday games follow with Navy at Hawaii and Air Force at home against Stony Brook
Daniel Jones has thought about McCain’s place in history this week. Duke’s third-year starting quarterback digested the weekend news along with resuming classes on Monday and preparing to face the Black Knights from West Point on game day.
“During the 2008 presidential campaign is when I first learned about him,” said Jones, a 21-year-old redshirt junior from Charlotte. “It’s incredible to see what he’s done and then learn about him recently. I don’t think anyone questions his effect and our respect for him in this country. He’s a tremendous example of what an American hero is.”
Jones’ job on Friday is to put such respect aside and come to the line trying to pick apart a defense with 11 future Army officers. He knows one Army player, Eddie Crutchfield; he’s a backup defensive lineman from their same hometown high school, Latin.
“He’s two years younger than me and is good friends with my younger brother,” Jones said. “He’s really a good guy. (The academies) are tremendous schools, and I have tremendous respect for what they’re doing.”
Duke recruits, with the necessary high academic standards, sometimes hear from Army, Navy or Air Force, too. The pool is shallower for athletes that remain interested in one of the academies, but Duke was the only civilian school Navy third-year starting defensive end Jarvis Polu considered along with Navy and Army.
Jones said he never heard from the academies, but two other two Blue Devils that met with the media Tuesday said they were contacted.
“I heard from Army, Navy and Air Force,” said Johnathan Lloyd, a redshirt senior wide receiver. “Personally, it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I definitely respect their programs and what they do for our country.”
Joe Gilles-Harris, a redshirt junior linebacker, grew up in Nyack, N.Y., 45 minutes from West Point.
“It’s a unique and incredible place,” he said. “We take family and friends up there when they visit to see it.”
Giles-Harris added a friend from his hometown is a Navy women’s lacrosse player, Andie O’Sullivan.
“It’s a big honor to go to one of those schools,” Giles-Harris said. “My hat’s off to them. To go there you’re doing something for more than for yourself; you’re doing it to protect us. It’s a big commitment. I don’t think I could have done it.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe has been on the recruiting trail long enough to watch the pendulum of interest in attending the academies swing negatively one way in response to the Vietnam war protests, level off with time in the 80s and 90s and swing upward following the 9/11 terrorists attacks that sparked newfound patriotism.
“It’s always a decision that not only a young man, but the family makes,” Cutcliffe said. “We are very supportive of what the academies mean and what they do.”
He added his older brother, Paige Cutcliffe, who played at Florida with 1966 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier, was recruited by every Southeastern Conference school, but he narrowed his choices to Florida and Army. That was shortly before the nation was split over continued support of the Vietnam War.
“They're always going to be looking for young men to sign that are a good student, they have great character and they can play the game,” he said.
Scroll through the head shots of Army, Navy and Air Force students and athletes and every color in the American spectrum is represented. It wasn't the pale Annapolis that McCain graduated from in 1958, but in his final words he was confident today's Americans still represents the ideals and nation promises to live up to.
Cutcliffe added he never crossed paths with McCain’s sporting life, but he has followed his career serving the country.
“I’ve watched him closely,” he said. “His courage through his illness when he walked into the Senate floor just out of surgery and tried to appeal to everybody’s better parts to work together doesn’t surprise me. He was a statesman and that’s what statesman do. He was for the good of all and he lived that well.”
John McCain was a Navy man, but his presence should be felt at the Army-Duke, Hawaii-Navy and Stony Brook-Air Force weekend games.
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