THE MIGHTY AIR FORCE
Passionate, compelling reasons for the winning traditions at the Air Force Academy
By Kim Goss
Published: Winter 2002
As this issue goes to press, the Air Force Academy's football season is writing itself into one of the great stories of recent memory. Before the 2002 season began, the Falcons had faced overwhelming obstacles and were predicted to come in fifth in the Mountain West Conference. College newswriters were laying odds Air Force would win only two games overall. With only ten Falcon starters returning and an untested quarterback to run Coach DeBerry's triple option attack, perhaps the forecast made sense. But how wrong the “experts” were in their predictions! They forgot what a unique passion for excellence can do, what a team with a compelling reason will do to come up with the extra push needed to win. What they underestimated was heart, tradition and Chance.
Chance Harridge was the untested quarterback, and mere weeks later he has become a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Last August he said, “[What counts] will be determination when we line up, not what's on paper or in the stats.”
Bryan Blew, one of the captains, also said, “The conference prediction is a deal we're pretty much used to, and it is our basic motivation. But the no wins (in conference) and only two wins over the whole season, that's definitely motivation for us. We think we have something so special there's absolutely no way we can just sit back and let that slide.” As it is turning out, not even Bryan and Chance, perhaps, knew just how special.
For the real beginning of this story you have to go back to the end of last season. After losing to the University of Hawaii and dropping to a 5-6 record, the Air Force Academy Falcons were faced with having to defeat the University of Utah to avert a losing season. This would not be an easy task. Utah was a team that was enjoying a great year and was headed for a bowl. The odds were definitely against the Falcons, but they were about to get even worse.
As his team was preparing for their final chance to salvage the season, head coach Fisher DeBerry was informed that twelve players including five starters had missed curfew the night after the Hawaii game (according to a later AP story, alcohol figured in several cases). DeBerry desperately needed these players against Utah, and for most of the seniors this would be their final game of their athletic careers. Despite these pressures, DeBerry decided that the most appropriate punishment was not to allow any of the twelve to play. There really was no other choice: discipline and honor are taken very seriously at the Air Force Academy.
With their pride on the line, the remaining Falcons rose to the challenge and edged Utah, 38-37. They finished the year with a .500 record, but more importantly, they did not have to compromise what the Academy stood for. This is why America loves the Falcons, and why Fisher DeBerry has managed to inspire his future Air Force officers to achieve 15 winning seasons, two WAC titles, 11 bowl bids (6-5 record), and three victories over Notre Dame.
The suspension left a deep impression on this year's squad. Strong leadership was required, but who would step up? It would be the Air Force captains. Before the season, they voted to bar players from drinking alcohol during the season as a sign of cohesiveness and dedication to coming back from last year's 6-6 season.
“It is something we needed to do as a team,” says Chance. “It's like an unwritten rule. There's no set punishment. It's all about accountability to one another. It's being able to look at another guy and when he says he didn't drink this weekend, you can believe him. You've got to be a better person and a better player for the team. I wouldn't be surprised if we asked for a player's dismissal, because that's how strongly we feel.”
Bryan Blew echoes this deep feeling, “We work too hard, we are too dedicated, we put too much into this program to give up our season to alcohol. I think it is one of the things that will make a difference for us.”
Unique leadership began evolving as early as last May. Chance and freshman linebacker Anthony Schlegel organized 15 other players to walk in the “Relay for Life.” This effort raised over $1,100 for the American Cancer Society. Talk about Being an Eleven!
Bryan Blew was moved to back-up quarterback in mid-August. He had been a wide receiver last spring and in fall drills. Coach DeBerry felt his Falcons needed more depth and that Chance might need help in his new role as starting quarterback. DeBerry praises Bryan: “His unselfishness and leadership are tremendous. He is a great example for our team of doing whatever makes the team better.”
The Falcon's first test came against Northwestern. Chance rushed for two touchdowns and passed for another as Air Force routed the Wildcats 52-3. The Falcons had 476 yards rushing and led 38-0 at halftime. This game established Air Force as the number-one rushing team in the nation, a position they still hold at this writing. Chance raised some eyebrows, and some were calling his performance a fluke.
Unfortunately, during the Northwestern game, junior fullback Dan Shaffer injured his right knee and would be out for the season. Said DeBerry at the time, “This is a huge loss for our football team. My heart bleeds for him. I don't know if we've ever had a player work as hard to have a great season as Dan did.” The fullback is critical to the success of the triple option offense, so other players had to step up. Some of you readers may recall our BFS Power Axiom #3 for Success. It is to stay focused. There are no problems, only challenges. Problems are what you see if you take your eyes off the goal. The Falcons' eyes stayed clearly focused on their goals.
Their resolve was to be severely tested in game two against New Mexico. Mr. Intensity Leotis Palmer stepped up. He ran for a career high of 125 yards and a touchdown as the Air Force won in overtime. DeBerry said, “I told them all, if you can't get off the field when the game's over, don't worry, we'll have carts to get you off the field. But we're going to leave it on the field.”
Game three was against Cal, which was ranked 23rd at the time. This time Chance again showed his mettle. He rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns. Jeff Overstreet tipped away a two-point conversion pass with 31 seconds left as Air Force beat the Bears 23-21.
“The feeling I get in the locker room after a win . . . ,” said Chance, his voice trailing off with emotion. “I just look in everybody's eyes and know that everybody's spent. To think of all the things we've gone through together, and everybody around us is part of something bigger than ourselves. To know that feeling and to know it's there, it'll almost make you tear up. And it does tear me up.”
Coach DeBerry said after the game, “Chance believes he can do it and he radiates that confidence to the rest of our team. And I certainly think our team now believes that he can do it, because by goodness, he has proven that he can do it.”
The University of Utah was next. The favored Utes had just played Michigan down to the wire and were hungry to get back on the winning trail. Utah blitzed to a 26-6 halftime lead. The second half was all Falcons. They scored 24 straight points. Chance threw a 20-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds left, to pull out a 30-26 victory. “We just believed,” said Chance. “We believed in what we were doing.” That win vaulted the Air Force to a national ranking of 25th. Who would have thought?
Navy was the next to be defeated. This time Chance had 161 yards rushing and four touchdowns as the Air Force crushed the Midshipmen 48-7. “I'm happy with that,” said Chance after the game, “but I'm not satisfied. We're trying to be perfect here. We're down there trying to score and we have to settle for a field goal. If I had made the right read and the throw, we would have had a touchdown rather than a field goal.” To me, that speaks volumes about the intensity of Chance Harridge.