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Little Big Horn was only slightly more one-sided than a typical Saturday afternoon for the Walter Reed Warriors. That’s the football team representing the uptown U.S. Army medical facility.
“Got one down! Got one down!” goes the call-out from the Warriors players in the second quarter of last weekend’s game with Gallaudet. The Warriors are only down by two touchdowns, but things are clearly not going to go Walter Reed’s way today. A linebacker has just suffered some sort of lower-leg injury, becoming the latest of several Warriors to hit the turf in agony.
To the untrained eye, he’s hurt bad.
But Eric Whitman, the senior medic on the fallen soldier’s squad, doesn’t run to the injured comrade’s side. He looks on from across the field as a Gallaudet trainer comes off the home team’s sideline to treat the wounded Warrior.
Medicine isn’t Whitman’s job today. For Walter Reed, the hospital, he’s a surgeon in the third year of his residency. Yet for Walter Reed, the football team, he’s a defensive end and resident wiseacre. He’s a captain at work and on the field, known as “Doc” in both places.
But he likes to keep the two worlds apart.
“Players know I’m a [doctor], and sometimes they want me to tell them what’s wrong,” Whitman says with a big laugh. “But I can’t help them here. I’m not a magic doctor. So I just look at ’em and say: ‘Hmm, you’re good! You’re good! Put some ice on it! Let’s go!’”
To play for Walter Reed is to be used to the sort of football carnage on display this afternoon. In Whitman’s three seasons with the team, the Warriors have won one game and have been whupped by Gallaudet by a combined score of 148–14.
“We’re the sacrificial lambs for a lot of folks,” says Richard Tatem, who, as athletic director for the military hospital, oversees the football team. “Usually, we’re the homecoming game for Gallaudet—for a lot of teams, really.”
Tatem has been involved with the team for 18 years. Its roots were as an eight-man football squad playing against other local military outposts in an all-D.C.-area league. At the end of each season, the league would pick an all-star team to play against Gallaudet in the one and only 11-man game of the year, and the only game against civilians.
But in the mid-1990s, the services league folded, and enough former players wanted to keep playing that Tatem made Walter Reed the home base for an 11-man football squad that plays a schedule mainly against NCAA Division III programs, community colleges, and junior varsity teams.
Outside of the military academies, the Walter Reed team is the only service football squad playing a college schedule. Players don’t use up NCAA eligibility while they’re in the military, however, so some Warriors have used the team as a springboard to a college scholarship: Maurice Sydnor played for the Warriors while he was enlisted in the Army and stationed at Fort Belvoir, then went on to a fine college career as a kick returner at Towson University after being discharged.
For most Warriors, however, this is the last football they’ll ever play: Whitman was a defensive back at Springfield College before going to Albany Medical College; lineman Labron Rudisill, a 1996 All-Met from Spingarn Senior High, was in the trenches for James Madison University before entering the Army.
“I’m just lucky to still be playing,” says Rudisill.
Even when our nation is at peace, the Warriors are at a competitive disadvantage. There is no age limit for the Walter Reed team—Whitman, at 32, is among the oldest players on this year’s squad—but roster spots are entirely devoted to active-duty military and reservists.
So most folks that are eligible have jobs that are not only demanding but also transient.
“Getting guys to find time to practice is always hard, and we’ve never known who we’re going to have not only from year to year but practice to practice,” says Coach Richard Lyles, a retired Army officer who played for the Warriors for four seasons before taking over as head coach in 2002.
In recent years, reality has gotten in the way more than usual for all of Walter Reed athletics.
“There’s so many young people there walking around with one leg or one arm,” says Tatem. “In my field alone, as a programmer, I had to start programming for guys in wheelchairs. I went from programming regular sports, like they’d have anywhere, to programming for amputees. So now it’s wheelchair basketball and sit-down volleyball. [The war] has changed our whole area.”
There are several Iraq veterans on the team—Rudisill got back from Baghdad when his tour ended in January. But the football team has no seriously wounded veterans on the squad this season. Tatem says last year they used a trainer who wrapped ankles to help himself mentally recuperate from injuries suffered in Iraq. (He’s since been discharged from the military, Tatem says, leaving Walter Reed trainerless this year.)
But the gridiron Warriors have had real trouble keeping players in uniform for the last few seasons.
“We’d always dress 30 to 40 guys each week and always had 10 or 15 Marines come up from Quantico every season,” says Tatem. “But it’s gotten hard with the war. There’s no Marines this year. They’re fighting.”
Lyle says that he lost five players in the days before the Gallaudet game when they were redeployed to Iraq.
The manpower situation has translated to the scoreboard. The Warriors have won four games in Lyles’ five seasons, none since 2005. And most of the contests, like the latest Gallaudet tilt, have been blowouts.
The beatings can lead to breakdowns in the chain of command. Against Gallaudet, Lyles, a guy who drops “Roger that!”s and “Negative!”s even in civilian conversations, hears constant shouts from the bench that he substitute so-and-so at quarterback and so-and-so at D-tackle and call such-and-such running or pass play. But he ignores them all. It helps that he’s kept busy just trying to find 11 healthy and willing bodies for each play.
Whitman, who performed two kidney transplants last week and once fell asleep on the sidelines after arriving at a game straight from an all-night cutting session in the Walter Reed operating room, seems at peace with what’s taking place. In the second half, as the flow of injured players carried to the sidelines reaches ridiculous levels and Gallaudet continues to run up the score, Whitman never stops smiling. He carries himself like Hawkeye Pierce, the impossibly enviable M.D. in Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. It’s as if he can’t believe somebody’s still letting a guy of his age and in his professional position—he’s an officer and a surgeon, for chrissakes!—play football.
“I play because I can,” he says. “I don’t tell people [at the hospital] about this. But those who know don’t want to know.”
Whitman says that his surgical duties are scheduled to change radically in 2008, so he doesn’t expect he’ll ever play again beyond this season. And if this is his last fling, by God, he’s going to enjoy it. When he gets an interception with a few minutes left in the game, he says with still another giggle that he only got the catch because he was in the wrong place, like it’s another sign that he’s the luckiest guy on the planet.
“I don’t know if I’ll miss days like today,” he says. “But I’ll miss the first quarters.”