The 21st-century Army football recruit is attracted to West Point by more than the opportunity to play Division I football. There is the value of an Ivy League-caliber education without accumulating college loan debt and a desire to serve his country.
The 9/11 terrorists attacks and 2008 economic crash have had a profound impact on today’s generation.
Justin Byers, a Rivals 2-star outside linebacker from Cary (N.C.) Panther Creek, fits the profile. In fact, he fit it long before he was on Army’s radar and committed to the Black Knights the same day he received word of the offer on Dec. 3.
“I was speechless,” Byers said. “I was shocked. Right then and there, I said, ‘I commit.’ ”
Byers’ dream to attend West Point began as a sixth-grader on a family education to view American history on a trip to Washington, D.C. And with his brother Aaron having enlisted in the Army and about to report for basic training, a trip to West Point was included on the itinerary.
“It really got me interested and I started researching,” Byers said. “My Dad (Bert) was a policeman and a fireman, but he told me if he could do it over again he’d serve in the military.”
Then, as Byers’ interest in sports grew – he plays lacrosse as well as football at Panther Creek – he watched an ESPN documentary on Pat Tillman. He also read a book, “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,” on the former NFL player who gave up millions playing for the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the 9/11 terrorists attacks. He was an Army Ranger serving in Afghanistan who was killed in 2004.
“My life started to revolve around doing what I needed to do to get into West Point,” Byers said. “That included academics, leadership, community service, sports – all of those things. Year by year I tried to build up my resume so I could get in. I wanted to get in regardless of football.”
Among his 300 hours of community service projects, he raised $1,305 for the Wounded Warrior Project.
By his junior year, Byers began to believe it was realistic he could be a Cadet and a Black Knight. Army put out its first recruiting feelers to Byers in the spring of his junior year.
That summer he attended the West Point football camp in addition to earning an invitation limited to 500 rising high school seniors to attend the Summer Leaders Seminar.
“You live like a small-scale version of what the Cadets experience,” Byers said. “It was amazing.”
Byers returned home focused on a big senior year on the football field, where he earned all-conference honors for Panther Creek.
“My junior year I thought Army football might be out of reach,” Byers said. “But then I sent my film around and I got some interest. I knew I had to perform my senior year.”
Panther Creek coach Sean Crocker said Byers’ dedication for West Point opened the eyes to a couple of his teammates to the value of a service academy education and football career. Ironically, when outside linebacker Terence Laster and defensive tackle J.T. Wise were recruited by Navy, they ultimately received offers and committed to Navy before Byers had his Army offer.
“I told coach (Buddy) Green, the Navy coach recruiting Terrence and J.T., if it wasn’t for Justin, I don’t know if they would have considered the academy,” Crocker said. “Justin has been focused on doing what he needed to do to get into West Point since sixth grade. They saw Justin’s passion, and then the next thing you knew Navy started recruiting them.”
But Byers eventually received his offer, too.
“I think it’s amazing that three guys from the same high school defense will play against each other in the Army-Navy Game,” Byers said. “We’ve never played against each other before. We’ll want each other to do well in the game, but we’ll want our team to win. I think it will add to our lasting friendship.”
There were few anxious days after former head coach Rich Ellerson was fired, but Byers said he received phone calls from a West Point admissions officer and from assistant coach Tucker Waugh, one of two assistant coaches that new head coach Jeff Monken retained, reassuring him that his offer was still valid.
For many kids, that might have been a time to exhale and relax. But Byers has remained doubled-down with the same fascination he first felt as a sixth-grader. He’s maintained his grade-point average at 4.7, he took a math class at nearby North Carolina State and he has two recommendations from U.S. Congressmen.
“I’m still doing the typical academic route to be admitted to West Point,” Byers said. “I did the application process. It’s been my goal, and it’s important to me to prove I can get in without ride on football.”