Army West Point two-time 1,000-yard rusher Raymond Maples – now identified as Second Lieutenant Maples — watched his first Army-Navy Game as an alumnus last weekend.
“It hurts a lot,” said Maples of Army’s 21-17 near-upset of No. 21-ranked Navy Saturday in Philadelphia. “I know that feeling in the locker room after the Army-Navy Game.”
Maples and I planned to talk before the 116th Army-Navy Game for a “one-year-later” story from a recent graduate. But he had some training responsibilities that kept him away from the phone. This was one time I accepted a former athlete’s excuse without doubts.
I also wanted to know about life one year removed from West Point, the first of a five-year commitment for academy graduates. He is commanding a platoon at Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert, two hours east of Los Angeles. In January, they will be training in tank tactics. Maples just signed for $10 million worth of inventory.
It’s not for everyone, of course, but Maples’ West Point story includes his relief to be employed without college debt. That, he now understands, separates him from so many recent college graduates. They are struggling to find jobs while strapped with college loan debt. The average 2015 graduate has $35,000 in loans to pay off, according to a Wall Street Journal story last spring. It’s the class with the most debt in American history.
“I have buddies out there and I hear about people who are having a tough time with jobs and debt,” Maples said. “It’s tough watching them struggle.”
Army, Navy and Air Force have all seen their recruiting talent pool grow in the 21st century. The 9/11 terrorists attacks of 2001 were one reason of inspiration. The collapse of the economy in 2008 became another motivation, with the carrot of a free education and guaranteed job upon graduation.
Maples might have passed on the security he values if not for a sit-down talk forced upon him in high school by his West Philadelphia Catholic coach, Brian Fluck. Maples was lightly recruited and Fluck was concerned his star running back failed to understand what a West Point education and chance to play Division I football could mean to him – especially in the uncertain times of that 2008-09 school year.
“I’m so proud to have had a mentor like him,” Maples said. “He explained to me that West Point was the better option.”
Maples watched all of Army’s games this year – anguishing over so many close losses he says could have resulted in a winning season instead of the eventual 2-10 record. He noted with irony in this age of college graduates hunting for jobs, one recurring commercial for Enterprise Rent-A-Car featured former college athletes. The premise is admirable, but Maples questioned the future of such a job.
“I was talking with one of my commanders, and he asked me what I would tell a recruit about West Point versus another university,” Maples said. “I said, ‘Look at the Enterprise commercials. Would you rather work for Enterprise or have a solid job in the U.S. Army?’ ”
That’s not to say Maples didn’t make it through West Point without doubts.
His first year out of high school in the 2009-10 school year, he was at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School to prepare himself academically for admission to West Point. He was a backup with one start as a freshman in 2010, Army’s most recent bowl trip season with a 7-6 record. As a sophomore in 2011, he ran for 1,066 yards; as a junior in 2012, 1,215.
He was positioned to become only Army’s second three-time 1,000-yard rusher in 2013 until his season was sidetracked by a severe groin injury. That injury also prevented him from completing portions of his West Point training, delaying his graduation to December 2014.
But his 2014 football season was also plagued by injuries, as well as new coach Jeff Monken installing a different version of the triple-option offense.
But aside from the football, Maples almost didn’t return to West Point for his junior year.
The turning point was coming to believe he could command as an officer after the summer he spent at Camp Buckner as a Brigade Tactical Officer. A West Point colonel in the superintendent’s office and then-Army coach Rich Ellerson felt the internship-like experience would help him develop into a leader.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Maples said. “I’m able to take a platoon now. I was always confident, but I lacked the ability to show it in front of other people. After that junior year I gained that confidence. I forced myself to talk in front of people and have learned a lot.”
He’s due for a promotion to first Lieutenant in the spring. In January, he will be training a platoon in tank tactics. These are the guys that will have their “boots on the ground” if President Obama is forced to change his policy or the next president establishes a new direction in the war on terrorism.
“I like the camaraderie with the soldiers,” Maples said. “When we’re in the field, we have a lot of down time. I try to give them some wisdom. Some of them are older than me, but they look to me for wisdom. It was a strange for me at first.”
Something else Army personnel discuss no matter where they find themselves around the world is the Army-Navy Game.
“I was proud of the way Army played,” Maples said. “I wasn’t too fond of the CBS crew. I felt they were always praising Navy and downplaying any bad play by Navy that was caused by Army. But it was a great game. The defense did an amazing job.
That was the best Army defense I’ve seen since my freshman year. We had freshmen at quarterback (Chris Carter) and as slot backs (four freshmen slot backs carried the ball), and I thought they did an amazing job. I was proud of them watching how they played.”