Army West Point linebacker Andrew King eyes an offensive backfield with laser-focus, similar to Mike Singletary’s stare with the 1980s Chicago Bears. Not much gets past the Black Knights’ leading tackler.
King’s knack for observation dates at least as far back to age 7 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorists attacks in New York. His father Rhonny King, then a New York Police Department sergeant and now a lieutenant, was a first-responder on that tragic day of chaos.
As New York and the nation recovered, Andrew watched his father leave work every morning to work 12-hour shifts for the next two months. His duty was recovering remains amongst the debris from the collapsed World Trade Center twin towers that was trucked to a Staten Island landfill.
“We’d find an ID, a shoe or a watch,” Rhonny said. “It was something to help families with closure. This was at a time when people still had posters up hoping their loved ones were still alive.”
It would be another 10-years-plus before Rhonny learned the impression he made on his son.
By then Andrew was a star running back at Flushing High in Queens. He was lightly recruited, but when an Army football coach stopped by his high school to gauge his interest to the most demanding commitment in college athletics, a path crystalized for Andrew to play Division I college football and serve his country.
“It was something I thought about since seeing my Dad going to work every day after 9/11,” Andrew told me in an earlier interview. “I think it’s an honor to be wearing an Army uniform. I feel a sense of pride to serve my country. It feels good to give back to the country that has given so much to me. I think a lot of kids my age feel that way, but they aren’t necessarily willing to do it.”
But typical of teenagers, Andrew had kept such thoughts about his father’s work as inspiration to himself. Rhonny learned of it later in a previous story I wrote.
“He slipped that one past me,” Rhonny said. “I was very proud; very proud. Wow. When he committed, I told him, ‘I know how much you love football, but going to West Point you might not have a chance at the NFL. Do you look at yourself having a career as an Army officer?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Fair enough.’ ”
Rhonny, whose brother Michael is a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, has become one of Army’s biggest fans, traveling to Michie Stadium on the West Point campus and other games. He will be in Philadelphia for the 3 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. Army (2-9) is facing an overwhelming task of breaking a 13-game losing streak to No. 21-ranked Navy (9-2).
“It’s electric – that’s how I describe the Army-Navy Game,” Rhonny said. “The Cadets and Midshipmen do their ceremonial March On. Then you see the ragging going back and forth between them. When the game starts, I’m thinking, ‘That’s my baby on the field and millions of people are watching.’ I look forward to that game every year.”
Only a father or mother would view the 6-foot, 246-pound tackle machine as a “baby.” He leads the team in tackles (89), tackles for a loss (15.5 for 66 yards) and sacks (4.5 for 21 yards). He also has two fumble recoveries.
“He is playing at that same level of commitment he has had since he was a little kid,” Rhonny said. “When he would lose games, it was utter disappointment. He would be in tears over a regular game – not a championship. You couldn’t talk to him for an hour.”
West Point recruited Andrew as a running back, but he shifted to defense upon making his mark on special teams his freshman year.
His first year out of high school, in 2012, he played at the USMA Prep School. He joined Big Army – West Point’s term for the varsity – as a freshman in 2013. He moved into a starting role as a sophomore last year and finished third in tackles with 63.
This time next year Andrew will be preparing for his final Army-Navy Game having learned the branch of service he will be assigned following graduation in the spring of 2017. Cadets put in their requests early in the fall semester and learn their assignment in December. Rhonny says Andrew told him he has plans to put in for the infantry. Although the threat of terrorism is spreading worldwide from the Middle East, Andrew’s desire to serve in the infantry is common among the West Pointers.
U.S. Army Major Graham White, a former Army punter and first-team All-Conference-USA pick in 1998, was asked to comment on what motivates the high number of West Pointers to volunteer for the danger of serving in the infantry.
White has been deployed into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan 10 times within a 39-month period.
He commented while he was honored on Tuesday at the 58th annual National Football Foundation dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. He was presented a Distinguished American Award along two other former service academy football players, Rear Admiral Bill Byrne of the Navy and Captain Jared Tew of Air Force.
“It’s a sense of brotherhood — or sisterhood, too, now that the Department of Defense ruling has opened infantry to women,” White said. “In the infantry, you have to rely on the person on your left and the person on your right. I think you find that in all branches, but in the infantry you have targets in front of you. You have to rely on each other.”
Rhonny learned of his son’s infantry plans while Andrew was home from West Point over the Thanksgiving weekend. Andrew is majoring in pre-law and plans to attend law school after the infantry tour.
“He told me, ‘It’s about seeing what I can do for the country. I don’t think there is anything better than to be in the infantry, to be one of the guys with your boots on the ground making decisions to protect people.’ I’m like, ‘Wow! It sounded like what I told my mother when I told her I wanted to be a police officer’. As a parent you worry. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I’m proud of him.”
But Rhonny King isn’t alone as a parent. Andrew’s desire to serve his country is common among his peers at West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Many say they were motivated by 9/11.
“I think he will be a great officer,” Rhonny said. “As a police officer and supervisor, I sometimes have to lead men and women into harm’s way. There’s a domestic incident over here; there’s a man with a gun over there. Sometimes you have to lead people in harm’s way and they don’t come back. That is part of the job. It’s going to hurt, but you move on.
What I’ve told him is to be a leader you have to be effective and fair. You want to always act with integrity. They say integrity is what you do when people aren’t watching. As long as he follows those rules, he’ll be a great officer.”
He will no doubt serve with those laser-focused eyes we see on the football field.