There’s nothing more majestic than a crisp, fall, Saturday afternoon at West Point, nestled off the Hudson River, among the rocks, deciduous trees and the fall colored leaves welcoming the changing of the seasons. The sights and sounds of a collegiate football game fill the air as I sit with my longtime friends and enjoy the pageantry that comes with a gridiron contest, a tradition nearly as old as West Point itself.
Jason Stewart, the Captain of the 1993 sixth place finishing NCAA national college men’s cross country team, is the reason I find myself reminiscing with some of my closest and dearest friends this afternoon. We descend upon the Academy, 24 years after our journey began, to celebrate Jason for being inducted into the Army Collegiate Sports Hall-of-Fame, with five other well deserved former Army athletes that make up the Hall’s class of 2017.
It’s an emotional and inspiring weekend filled with hugs, smiles, and old stories that bring a flood of memories back to the surface, allowing me and my teammates to reconnect and rediscover our forgotten youth.
I find myself sitting with my longtime friend and teammate, Jack Swift, during the football game. We share a bucket of popcorn and a bottle of water. We cheer on the Army football team and catch up on our families, careers and lives. As always, when I gather with this group of men and women, I reflect and take account of my life since I graduated from the Academy. Jack and I engage in a genuine conversation about life and compare our thoughts on the world, our accomplishments, and our dreams.
I turn to Jack, during a pause in the action on the football field, “Jack, let me ask you something.”
He turns and smiles, “What is it?”
“If you could do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you?” I scan his face and wait for his response.
“Definitely.” Jack states with confidence and without hesitation.
“Why?” I ask, probing his answer.
“Because this is real.” Jack gestures to our friends and teammates talking and laughing with one another in the stands. “What we have is real.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“So much of our world is fake and only surface deep. A kid goes to Harvard, because of his dad’s money. Some rich guy buys a nice place on the beach in Malibu, but there is no true value in it. Not the kind of value we developed as a team, as brothers.” He pauses and looks over at me. “I’ll take what we have, our relationships and our experiences. You can ask anyone of these guys for anything, and they’ll give it to you, because we love and support one another in any situation. Yup, I would do it all over again, no doubt.”
Our group rented a house overlooking the beautiful Hudson River. We gather each night in the living room around a roaring fire and share memories, discuss current events, and debate politics and social issues. I cherish every moment of it and feel honored to be a part of such a great group of people.
Eventually, like all good things, the weekend comes to end and we hug one another and say our goodbyes. I head home inspired to know that I’m a part of something special, and yes, something real.
I ponder my conversation with Jack on my flight home. He’s right, our group has a deep and meaningful connection that time nor controversy can destroy, but why? What makes our connections real, what makes anything real? I believe it’s because of four simple, but powerful elements that true friendship provides:
- Grace – Our group extends grace to one another. We come from all walks of life and have varying backgrounds and beliefs. We respect each other’s opinions, although we may not agree, and we accept each other unconditionally, despite our flaws and past mistakes.
- Respect – We respect each other for who we are as people. We laugh and joke with one another, but there’s always an underlying respect for every person in the group.
- Unconditional Love – There’s a basic, simple, and foundational love we’ve built over the years that’s undeniable. We cheer for each other’s successes and we feel each other’s pain. We don’t keep score nor do we manipulate each other. We simply love one another and truly enjoy every interaction, every moment, and every memory we share. We embrace each other as brothers and sisters, as a family.
- Servanthood – Above all, we serve each other. We approach our interactions with humility and search for ways to help others in our group. Whether it’s tickets to a game, sharing reward miles for cheaper flights, lending money for business ventures, offering advice on life, or simply showing up and supporting each other in times of joy and sorrow, we continually serve one another without expecting anything in return.
I’m blessed to call my former Army teammates and classmates my friends. I’m honored that they accept me for who I am and love me, despite my flaws. Most important, I’m blessed to have something real in my life. In the end, I’ve come to my own conclusion that if given the choice, I too, would do it all over again. How about you? Would you make the same decisions, or choose the same path if you could do it all over again? If your answer is, no, then what do you need to change in your life to make it more real and worth choosing again at the end of it?