U.S. Marine Capt. Prescott Wilson, front, hands a flag to Emily Tatt, left, girlfriend of Marine 2nd Lt. James P. Blecksmith, during the funeral service for Blecksmith, Nov. 20, 2004, in San Gabriel, Calif. Two years ago, J.P. Blecksmith was a Navy football player just like any other, catching passes, trying to win games _ and aware that a greater challenge was ahead. Last month, Blecksmith was killed during a military operation in Falluja, Iraq.
AP Photo/Pasadena Star News, Kei
PHILADELPHIA Two years ago, JP Blecksmith was a Navy football player just like any other, catching passes, trying to win games and aware that a greater challenge was ahead.
Blecksmith was one of the most popular players on the team, even if his playing time was scarce. He loved to work out, would toss balls with the underclassmen and always knew so much more was at stake than a few wins or losses.
That's why news of Blecksmith's death last month during a military operation in Fallujah, Iraq, brought home the harsh reality for so many Midshipmen:
Any one of these young men could be next.
''You know you might be over there and people might be talking about you in a couple of years,'' senior co-captain Josh Smith said. ''Something could happen to you.''
When Navy plays Army for the 105th time Saturday, with President Bush in attendance, the Midshipmen will carry Blecksmith's memory and the memory of everyone who ever died in combat.
''We're playing for the whole brotherhood, but definitely we're playing for him,'' Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco said.
Blecksmith could have played for Ivy League schools or in the Pac-10 coming out of Flintridge Prep near his hometown of San Marino, Calif., but he felt a duty to serve as a Marine.
While his father, Ed, served in the Marines, he never pushed his son into the military. As a kid, though, JP would take his dad's old jungle boots and dig foxholes in vacant fields.
When JP was a leatherneck, he camped outside for days in a torrential downpour. When he finished, his dad wanted to know if he was ready for clean sheets and hot chow.
''Dad, I loved it,'' JP told him.
After watching the Sept. 11 attacks, JP was quoted in California's Glendale News-Press about his commitment to the military: ''I can't ever forget what I saw on the TV screen. I don't think anyone can. It felt like I was watching a movie. If it means going to war for those people, I'm willing to do that.''
That attitude didn't surprise those who knew him.
Navy's Paul Johnson only coached Blecksmith for one season, but he knew a player who never stopped practicing hard, even though his career never panned out as hoped. Blecksmith earned his only varsity letter in 2002 and had exactly one career catch for 13 yards. He attempted four passes and had two kickoff returns.
Blecksmith was the first player Johnson coached killed overseas.
''That's tough. That's part of the reality of it,'' Johnson said. ''The guys understand that. They're proud to serve their country. That's why they're there and that's what makes them so special.''
Blecksmith was a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps and a platoon commander. He'd been with his platoon for six months and stationed for two months in Iraq. He was supposed to come home next spring and had plans to marry his girlfriend.
JP's platoon was clearing houses of insurgents in Fallujah's notorious Jolan district when heavy fighting erupted. Blecksmith was on the roof of a building when a sniper shot him from behind in the left shoulder, just missing his flapjacket.
Ed Blecksmith said either the bullet or bone fragments pierced down to his son's heart, killing him instantly.
JP was 24 when he died on Veterans Day.
''We were very close. There wasn't much we didn't share together,'' Ed Blecksmith said in a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles, his voice cracking. ''He let me be a part of his life. He's everything you would love in a son.''
Blecksmith's death served as a reminder of the constant danger for everyone enlisted at a service academy.
''It's rough to hear about that,'' Army linebacker Greg Washington said. ''It's something we all have to face when you play at an academy.''
Ed Blecksmith will watch Saturday's game with his family and feel proud that his son had the courage to lead and make the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
''I'm amazed at how many people he touched, at what kind of legacy he's leaving,'' Ed Blecksmith said. ''The bottom line is JP was doing what he wanted to do.''
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