U.S. Naval Academy, Associated Press
WEST POINT, N.Y. — Not long after the second World Trade Center tower came down, Nolan Gordon's history professor at the U.S. Military Academy switched off the television and went back to his lesson.
The message: continue the mission.
"It wasn't like 'OK, classes are canceled today. Go home,'" said Gordon, now a captain, who played center for the Army football team. "It was, 'Your mission just got that much more important.'"
Sept. 11, 2001, changed the lives of all Americans, some dramatically and personally.
For most of the men and women at the service academies, it was both. They entered those prestigious universities knowing a multiyear commitment to the armed forces came along with a top-tier education and, for some, the chance to play major college football.
But they also enrolled during peace time.
Then, in a matter of a few hours, it became clear that the United States was headed to war. Landmarks in Manhattan were destroyed and the Pentagon had been hit.
Instead of questioning their decisions to commit to military service, 9-11 affirmed those choices for men such as Gordon and Marine Capt. Bryce McDonald, who was a junior running back at Navy that day.
"What it did to a lot of people is hone their mindset," McDonald said. "Or it gave somebody a purpose to go on in that general direction. A person gets more powerful when he has a purpose.
"I knew I wanted to be a Marine coming into this place. Yet that event, that horrific event, just put more purpose in that direction."
Like most of the men who played in the 2001 Army-Navy game, Gordon and McDonald went on to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan — or both — during the 10 years that followed the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
The passing of a decade has clouded some memories of Sept. 11 and the anxious days that followed for Gordon, McDonald and their teammates.
We practiced that day? Maybe it was the day after? Maybe it was a few days later?
Former Army quarterback Chad Jenkins said the first practice after the attacks was especially feisty.
"I do remember that was probably one of the most intense, hostile practices," said Jenkins, who is now in the FBI. "You had your skirmishes and stuff like that. Offense is fighting defense. Defense is fighting offense.
"Probably due to the stress level of the situation that transpired that day."
Clint Dodson, who played tight end for Army and now works in finance in Hawaii, said: "I know there were a few fights. I think I might have started one of them."
That's not how Brent Dial remembers it.
"I think it was a little bit more somber," said the former Army linebacker, who is now studying at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "There was still a lot of confusion."
Some memories, however, are as clear as if they happened yesterday.
For Gordon, it was his history professor, an Army officer, taking the opportunity to teach one of the most important lessons he learned at the West Point.
"Of course we were all awe-struck and we're going 'What the heck is going on?' and maybe a lot of us couldn't think while we were sitting in history class and don't remember what we learned that day, but the meaning of it was there's a mentor standing in front of me, a senior officer, and it's like 'Hey, continue mission,'" he said.
"I take you to Iraq or Afghanistan now in my combat tours and it's the same idea. IED goes off, you don't stop and look at the guy who's on the ground, and he may be bleeding out, somebody is performing medical procedures on him, and we're continuing the fight."
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