A Conversation between Jim Dent and Joe Drape about Soldiers First
Joe Drape, the author of the best-selling book Our Boys, is an award-winning sports reporter for The New York Times and the author of Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country, and Football at West Point, just published by Times Books. Jim Dent is the author of several best-selling books, including The Junction Boys and Courage Beyond the Game. His new project is The Kids Got It Right, about the integration of high school football in Texas.
Dent: You have a remarkable gift for seizing a story and then living it. This was especially true with Our Boys. Now you have brought the Army football program into focus by jumping on the train and writing Soldiers First. How much fun did you have traveling to West Point and spending that much time with the team?
Drape: You know better than most that when there is no fun it is just work. I really didn't have much knowledge on the history, football or otherwise, of West Point and to even know what the story was I felt like I had to walk the grounds, be in the locker rooms and classrooms and on the military training grounds and get to know these guys. It's the discovery part that is the most important part. We're never too old to learn, and the more you know the better the story.
Dent: You also included your son, Jack, in the story. Has he read it and how much fun did he have?
Drape: Without Jack, there's no book. He gave me the idea one night while we were watching the Notre Dame-Army game. I'm an Irish fan from the Parseghian or Resurrection era of your book. I had an uncle who taught there and my oldest brother graduated from Notre Dame. We made a football game every year. But as soon as Jack saw the pregame show about Army with the marching and parachuting he was sold. His favorite toys were those little green Army men and he said, "Let's go see the good guys, Dad." You and I are Southern Methodist University graduates and we've both seen what the best football team money could buy looks like. College football has been scandal-ridden for a long time. I went looking for the good guys, too. Jack and I had a ball, and we will for a long time now as season ticket holders.
Dent: Long ago, it was said that only baseball could provide the vehicle to intriguing sports stories. I think you will now agree with me that football is the king of great sports books. How did you develop your feel for the sport?
Drape: I'd argue football is really our national pastime because it's truly a team game. It can be brutal and you must rely on the guy next to you to do his job or it can be bone-crunching if he doesn't. It revolves around trust and camaraderie and usually there's a coach who uses charisma and fear to make you execute his vision. You wrote about Bear Bryant in The Junction Boys. I've written now about Coach Roger Barta in Smith Center and Rich Ellerson at Army and their philosophies and methods are all different, but all three of them taught life lessons and tried to develop character in their players. At heart, they are great educators and they have to be. I still don't fully understand the triple option-–it might as well be calculus. But I do understand human nature and I'm fascinated about how you get 120 guys juggling an Ivy League workload with state-of-the-art military training to prepare for literally a life-or-death career, to come together on a football field and compete well and with pure joy.
Dent: We both began our writing careers in the newspaper business. There are a lot of "ink-stained wretches" out there, like Michael Connell, making it big in the book business. I believe that deadline writing sharpened my skills. I just bet you feel the same way.
Drape: You've made it big, too. Hell, I still am in the newspaper business and I absolutely love it. I like the variety of subjects and the immediate gratification you get of breaking a big story or writing one pretty well. It’s like a golf swing-–the more you practice, the better you are. You learn to trust your instincts and you know immediately what is poetry and what's cliche. We both have sat in stadiums with a 100,000 people roaring and we have twenty minutes to write a thousand words that capture the magic we have all just witnessed--to tell an epic tale in miniature. I think you'll agree with this: I can look back at deadline stories done in minutes and know that some of them were the best writing I will ever do. I led with my heart, found a zone, and didn't over think it. It's good training for books or any other storytelling.
As a college head football coach for fifty-seven years, and as an avid fan of military history and the men and women who serve our country, I've always had a ton of respect and admiration for the United States Military Academy and its football program. In Soldiers First, Joe Drape does a great job of documenting the stories of the men who play football at West Point and then go on to protect all of us, becoming America's heroes. (Bobby Bowden, former head football coach, Florida State University)
Joe Drape, the master of living the story, then writing it with style and vision, has provided the leaders of college football a blueprint for change. Soldiers First is the story of how football was once played, and should be today. Most of the elite players in college football would not last two weeks at West Point - marching before dawn, competing academically on an Ivy League level, and sleepwalking to football practice. A tremendous story. (Jim Dent, author of The Junction Boys and Courage Beyond the Game)
West Point is a special place, one that tests cadets in all aspects of life and teaches character and leadership around the clock. Soldiers First captures its rigors as well as its rewards for a group of Army football players whose hearts are bigger than their talents but together find sheer joy in competition. (Mike Krzyzewski, head basketball coach, Duke University, West Point class of 1969)