For many Americans, joining the military represents a second chance, free of the social obligations, economic pressures, and uncertainty of our civilian lives. For me, however, it represented a bit more: a second chance at playing a sport I thought I'd left behind.
Football in the Marine Corps was unlike anything I'd ever seen before — a league full of men that had spent their entire adult lives training for war, intrinsically tied to the Corps' own culture of honor, courage, and commitment.
The football field was where we fought our skirmishes, and if there's one thing Marines take seriously, it's a fight.
Marine Corps football exists somewhere between where customs and courtesies stop, but duty remains.
Marine Corps football goes on at a number of levels. Players start by trying out for battalion-level teams that compete against one another until a champion emerges. Base champs then compete regionally for a chance to move on and compete against other regional champions, and (at least sometimes) those regional champions compete for the honor of becoming the All-Marine squad.
In order to field the most capable team, there's little room for the customs and courtesies Marines use when interacting with their seniors. Something about trying to head butt a captain into submission to secure your place on the starting roster makes it tough to find the time for the appropriate greeting of the day. Most of us tend to forgo the pleasantries and just engage with one another as peers.
Football is, above all else, an exercise in the pursuit of victory. Your rank and MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) mean exactly sh*t between whistles. All that matters is your ability to perform when the team is counting on you. You may stand at parade rest when you bump into your wide receiver at the PX, but come gametime, he's just another dude with the right colored jersey on.
Playing ball in the Marine Corps is as close as some of us will get to being professional athletes.
While a battalion-level football program is truly a command function, being on the team often isn't enough to get you out of your normal training requirements. That doesn't mean football doesn't become another full time job anyway, however.
Playing football for the Corps is an honor that isn't bestowed lightly: you're expected to give the team three to four hours of practice a day, to train on your own, and to meet the general training requirements of your respective command. At one point, I was participating in a brown belt MCMAP course for four hours each morning, attending unit PT, and then going to practice from 1600 to 2000 each night.
Once the base season was over and my team had earned its place in the regional leagues, my requirements to the team only grew. At that point, the command tends to grant you a reprieve from many of your usual duties. It's only then that football becomes more than a side gig: it becomes your profession.
The competition can be downright brutal.
Playing ball for the Marines is just like playing anywhere else, except everyone on the field has trained to some extent in ways to kill you. Marines don't take failure lightly, they don't like to lose, and in many cases, they're eager and willing to sacrifice their own well being to accomplish the mission.
Many players in the Marine Corps leagues played college football and everyone on the field is already in the sort of shape active duty Marines just generally need to be in. Over my years of playing both football and rugby, I've never run into a more physically capable group, but to be frank, it's not the physicality of Marines that makes the competition so daunting… it's really all about mindset.
My tenure playing football for the Marine Corps resulted in multiple broken bones and torn ligaments (along with the corresponding surgeries to patch me back together). I like to think that's because I'm mentally tougher than I am physically, but the truth is, I could say the same about most good Marines.
Out there on the field, the stakes may not be as high as they are in combat, but the drive to succeed for your brothers, to push through the pain and the hardship to accomplish something great, is as alive between the goal posts as it is on any battlefield. Today, the only football trophies I have in my office were earned during my two seasons starting for the Marine Corps' Best of the West champions — and for good reason.
I still walk with a slight limp and all I had to do was play against Marines. Let that be a lesson for any foreign militaries that might fancy themselves a match for America's crayon-eating, jar-headed, ego-driven war-fighters, because when the pads come off, the kevlar goes on.