While most high school students are dragging themselves

By Tom Hardesty Record-Courier staff writer Published:

While most high school students are dragging themselves out of bed and struggling to motivate themselves for yet another school day, Mike Stephens is preparing to greet the dawn with a brisk mile-and-a-half run through the streets of Kent.

He finishes in time to come home and get ready for his classes at Kent Roosevelt High School, which start at 7:35 a.m.

Then, after school, Stephens runs another mile and a half to two miles.

Run. Run. Run.

Then run some more.

For high school seniors on their way to the United States Military Academy, running now is the key to surviving the rigors of basic training later, those grueling six weeks of running, marching, crawling and climbing in the suffocating summer heat known simply as "The Beast."

So for Stephens, running at the crack of dawn is a small price to pay to condition himself for when The Beast comes calling in July.

"You just do what you gotta do," said Stephens. "I need to get in shape, so I've got to find some time to run."

For Stephens, though, basic training will only be a small part of the physical regimen he'll endure upon arriving in West Point, N.Y.

Because when The Beast is finished, Stephens will put on the black-and-gold uniform of the Army football team and try to earn a spot on the Black Knights' roster, meaning he'll have to catch the coaches' eyes as a walk-on during two-a-day practices.

Roosevelt athletic director John Nemec, who coached Stephens as a sophomore and junior with the Rough Riders, thinks the 1999 Western Reserve Conference South Division's defensive player of the year has a strong chance of making the Army football team.

And Nemec should know a potential West Point player when he sees one: Nemec was an assistant football coach on the Army freshman team in 1969 and 1970.

"I believe Mike is an excellent recruit for a Division I football program," said Nemec. "He'll fit in tremendously well there. Number one, Mike's best years physically are ahead of him _ he hasn't filled out his frame yet. I think Mike is going to get bigger.

"He's intelligent and very intense as a football player. He's just what the academies are looking for."

Stephens set the school record for tackles in a season last fall with 142, despite missing a game and a half with a concussion. His trademark at inside linebacker was his ability to cover the field sideline-to-sideline and deliver a crunching hit at just the right time.

Roosevelt football coach Joe Vassalotti also thinks the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Stephens has the right stuff for the military and football at that level.

"I think he has the potential to do very well," said Vassalotti. "He has the frame to put on 20 to 30 pounds of muscle and even get faster. I think he's a late bloomer.

"Academically, he'll excel in a structured environment. He's an excellent student. He's very mature for his age _ he's quiet, he's got a lot of confidence, he carries himself real well in school and on the athletic field, and he's mentally strong."

And it's academics, not football ability, that the folks at West Point are most interested in.

Applicants to the academy are judged so stringently, not just on schoolwork but also on character, behavior, community contributions and the like, that those who do get accepted truly are the country's cream of the crop.

"I think West Point is the most prestigious of the service academies," said Nemec. "It's the oldest and it has the most tradition."

Stephens, like every other West Point applicant, had to go through the intense appointment process required by the academies, including a recommendation by his local congressman. He went through three interviews conducted by Ohio congressman Tom Sawyer's committees (one each for the Army, Navy and Air Force), where Stephens' academic and athletic career at Roosevelt was put under considerable scrutiny; a thorough background check was done; and three letters of recommendation outside his family had to be submitted.

Any slip-up by Stephens in his past (he's clean), any problem area on his academic record (he's a 4.0 student who scored a 29 on the ACT), any minor physical troubles (there were none), and Sawyer's panels would have been forced to bypass Stephens and recommend other candidates.

Here's how difficult it is to get accepted to West Point, based on males in the class of 2002: 10,559 applicants across the nation started files, 3,610 were nominated, 1,900 qualified academically, and 1,054 were actually admitted.

Stephens got his letter of acceptance April 17, and he accepted his appointment to the academy a couple days later.

"It wasn't that bad," said Stephens of the entire application and recommendation process. "I really didn't think it was hard."

And to think he nearly didn't even bother to apply to West Point.

"I didn't know much about it," he said. "And when they first sent me a letter (of inquiry) last summer, I thought, 'Yeah, right, why would I want to go there?' " he said. "But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was one of the best possible things I could do."

The long, drawn-out application process is enough to turn off most high school students, and the ones who aren't may change their minds when they discover what awaits them on the banks of the Hudson River.

But Stephens remained unswayed.

"It's not every day a kid gets appointed there," said his father, Dale Stephens, a Roosevelt graduate himself. "I thought the whole process was pretty rigorous. I wouldn't have done it, but he kept at it."

While getting into the academy is tough enough, staying there is almost as difficult for many incoming cadets.

"The hardest thing is the daily regimen at West Point," said Nemec. "It's shocking. Mike will actually start looking at football as a couple hours to relax. Every hour of the day is accounted for at West Point. Everything is structured. It takes a couple months to adjust to that.

"You're up early. You do a lot of marching and formations and stuff like that. That's the hardest part of the summer, because it's good and hot."

And many cadets get good and lonely. The routine becomes terribly monotonous, the academy's imposing stone buildings and wrought-iron gates seem to be closing in on them like a giant vise, they feel like a stranger in a strange land.

And start wondering what in the world they are doing there.

"We dealt with it daily, kids that were homesick and missed their girlfriends and that sort of thing," said Nemec. "The kids really miss home that first year. You're away from your family and you're doing something you're not used to doing.

"But you kind of settle in, and each year it becomes easier. After your second year it's all downhill."

Stephens has been busy gleaning information from as many sources as possible to get a leg up on understanding life at the academy.

"When I visited there, I talked to a couple cadets and they told me about basic training," he said. "They said it was tough because you're doing stuff from 5:30 in the morning 'til 10 at night. They said it's more mentally tough than physically tough; you just can't let it get to you."

Nemec put it more succinctly to his former player.

"He told me it was total hell," said Stephens.

But he remains confident that he has what it takes to succeed at the U.S. Military Academy.

"I think I'm disciplined enough to do what I have to there," said Stephens, who plans to go into computer science or engineering. "I'm not worried about the schoolwork there, and the physical part, once I'm in shape I'll be able to stay in shape.

"I know it'll be hard, but from what I've seen I think I should fit in fine."

In the end, it's the big picture that motivates cadets: they receive a commission upon graduation, serve a five-year term in the Army, then can re-enlist or return to the private sector. Should they choose the Army as a career, they can retire at an early age with a full pension.

"You're getting an Ivy League education at no cost," said Nemec, "and you're getting some of the finest training our country offers. He's securing his future with a West Point degree. West Point graduates are highly sought after in the job market.

"It's an amazing place. If you can get through there, you're setting yourself up for a lot of success in your life. But it's tough. There's nothing easy about it."

That last thought is in the forefront of Stephens' mind as he steps out of the house and into the crisp spring air for another early-morning run through Kent. Every pounding footstep serves as a stark reminder: there will be nothing easy about the academy.

"I'm nervous," he admits. "The more I think about it, the more nervous I get. And when I get nervous, I just go out and run some more. I don't like failure."

Neither does the United States Military Academy.

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