When the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater football team took the field clad in white and purple for their season-opening tilt against Belhaven University Saturday, they did so with a group of players that wear a different uniform when they aren’t on the field.
Whitewater routed Belhaven 62-6 as they opened their defense of the 2014 Division III national championship. The Warhawks are well-established as a perennial national powerhouse in the Division III ranks – having won back-to-back national titles the last two seasons and six since 2007. But three of their players don green uniforms for the Wisconsin Army National Guard as well.
Drew Fuller, Zakary Kurtz and Paul Foster are all Soldiers and infantrymen assigned to the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. But on fall Saturdays, you can find them on the gridiron at Perkins Stadium in Whitewater. Kurtz and Foster grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, where they played football together at Janesville Craig High School. Fulller, who met both of them in college, is a Delafield, Wisconsin, native and a graduate of Kettle Moraine High School.
Kurtz, a private first class in the Guard, and a junior defensive end for the Warhawks, was the first of the trio to enlist, but soon Fuller and Foster followed suit. Kurtz drills in Ripon, Wisconsin, while the other two drill in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
All three of them went to basic training and infantry school in the spring and rejoined the Warhawks for fall camp. The National Guard not only offered them an option for paying for school, but it also gave them the opportunity to serve their country while simultaneously pursuing their college degrees and their passion for football.
“I’ve always been interested in joining the military,” Paul Foster, a Guard private and junior Warhawk linebacker said. “I was planning to do it out of high school, and then I had the opportunity to play football here at Whitewater, so I decided to play football, and then when I figured out I could do both, it was a no-brainer for me to join the National Guard.”
The same held true for Fuller, who had always considered the military as an option, but planned to wait until completing college before joining. But Kurtz introduced him to the Guard, and before long he too had joined.
“To be a Warhawk means everything,” Fuller, who plays a hybrid tight end – fullback position said “It means you’re a champion. It means you’re part of something bigger than yourself. It means you’re part of a legacy that’s been carried on for the past hundred years.”
The parallels to serving in the military sounded very similar.
Foster’s thoughts mirrored Fuller’s.
“To be a Warhawk, it’s a legacy. I’m proud to be a Warhawk – somebody that is competitive, fights to the end in everything that they do and never gives up,” he said.
“It relates very well,” he said of his service in the military. “It’s the same thing being in the Army. We’re taught to be competitive, taught to never give up on anything, never quit, never surrender, so it goes hand-in-hand.”
“It’s a grind here,” Foster said of fall football camp. But the military has tested him the same way. “You have to get used to the schedule, waking up early, staying up later. Doing tasks every day that push your body to the limits. They’re pretty much the same thing.”
Kurtz learned to apply the lessons learned in football to the military and vice versa. It’s all about a mindset, he said, and serving in the military and playing on a football team require a similar one.
“With basic training and AIT (advanced individual training), you’re programmed to have a set schedule, have structure in your life, and there are times where it sucks,” he said. “And that’s how I tie it with football, because there are times when football sucks. You’re sore. You feel like crap, but you keep going, and that’s what the drill sergeants taught me back at Fort Benning – you’re going to hate life at some point. It’s going to suck. You’re going to be tired. You’re going to be hungry. You’re not going to want to do anything, but you just need to man up and do it.”
All three agreed that serving in the National Guard has made them better football players and teammates, but the reverse was also true. Being football players has made them better Soldiers as well.
Both basic training and football has taught them punctuality, discipline, physical conditioning, leadership and followership. They’ve also learned the value of teamwork and the art of mastering their individual roles on both their football and military teams.
“Being a member of the National Guard has helped me in football in many ways,” Fuller said. “Probably the biggest thing is it teaches you that your mind tells you that it wants to quit, but your body can always keep going.”
First-year Warhawks head coach Kevin Bullis was thrilled to have the trio of Guardsmen on his football team. He also drew parallels between military service and playing football, noting that both require cohesive units of people that rely on each other to execute their individual tasks in order to succeed as a group.
“The thing to me that is amazing about those three young men is the skillsets that they learn being a part of a football team, being a part of the National Guard are very similar in the sense of obviously being a part of a team unit, being cohesive within that unit, and being responsible for your job or your task or responsibility,” Bullis said. “I’ve never been a part of a military unit, but I understand the teamwork that comes with that or at least understand that that’s a very important piece for them.
“The other part of it is dealing with adversity,” he said. “Now obviously, playing a football game is nothing like what our young men are going through in Afghanistan and other places, but yet the concept of being under duress and then having to execute a task, a required task that you’re responsible for, not trying to do someone else’s job, but to do your job. So for us, it’s really an honor having those three young men, because most importantly they are serving their country, and the respect and admiration we have for that as a team and myself personally – you can’t teach anything better than that in a classroom.”
Bullis said that all three players were highly motivated selfless individuals even before they joined the military, but their work ethic and discipline has been on display since they returned to the team.
Whitewater’s motto is “Pound the Rock,” which to Bullis means working hard all day every day and constantly improving little by little in every facet of life.
“You knock off little pieces, and that mentality that every single day I’ve got to come to work, or I’ve got to go to practice, or I’ve got to go to class, or I’ve got to go to drill,” he said. “It’s all about busting my tail that day in that moment and focused in on that task. And that ability to be able to focus on that task and know that I need to get better not just for myself, but more importantly for the greater unit. Truly they understand that. Paul and Zak and Drew, they understand that. They’re as selfless of people that you’d ever find.”
While commitment to a football team and the military have many similarities, the reality is that they both require a tremendous amount of effort and personal sacrifice, but the three young Soldiers have found ways to balance those commitments with their school work and personal lives as well. It’s been helpful, they said, to have a unit that understands their football commitment and works with them to accommodate their game and practice schedule.
“It’s definitely nice having some guys on the team that have the same schedule as you,” Kurtz said.
Whitewater squares off Saturday with the Finlandia University Lions, a team from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for its home opener, and while Fuller, Kurtz and Foster will be camouflaged amongst the sea of other football players on the sidelines wearing the white and purple, Army green will be a part of the team’s core.