Books: Soldiers First

(Photo / Times Books)

In his 2010 story, Our Boys, New York Times writer Joe Drape made his first book-length venture into the world of football to chronicle the efforts of a small town high school team in Smith Center, Kansas. For his second football book, Drape traveled just 45 minutes up the road from his New York City home to chronicle a team far removed from the norm of college football.

Soldiers First is the story of the 2011 Army football team and the formidable challenges of being a student and athlete at one of the country’s top academic institutions.  Drape focuses on a core of players on the squad, including current standout quarterback Trent Steelman, to illustrate the difference between a football player at a typical Division I school and those who play at West Point. Ironically the demands that Army football players face away from the field make practices and Saturday afternoons a welcome respite from their academics.

Drape’s argument that the players are more hard-working, and perhaps more virtuous, than those celebrated (and often coddled) athletes at other institutions will be met with some skepticism in places outside of the military world. Yet, it rings true, as he combines unblinking factual and anecdotal story lines together to illustrate just how their lives are indisputably harder, and the standards of conduct at West Point unquestionably higher, than at most other colleges.

As importantly he details the why: for the Black Knights, their early careers after West Point will be realized near a battlefield, and not of the proverbial variety alluded to on NFL Sundays.