When former West Forsyth lineman Josh Davis arrived at the Air Force Academy (AFA) in Colorado Springs, Colo., last summer for Basic Cadet Training, he was doing what plenty of other freshmen at Division I football programs go through—working out, training, and adjusting to new surroundings.
That’s about where the similarities ended, though.
Training for Davis began with drill parades, rifle manual competitions and daily physical conditioning (at 7,258 feet above sea level, no less) before moving to Jacks Valley, a 3,300-acre rural area, where more strenuous activity awaited, along with firearms and tactical instruction.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Davis said. “We’d be up at 4:30 a.m. and people were just barking at you all day, but it made all of us closer.”
Not for the faint of heart or mind, right? Don’t tell that to the large contingent of football players from Forsyth County, past, present and future, who have gone on to play for service academies.
“It’s a grind every day, but it’s definitely worth it,” former North Forsyth offensive lineman Clay Barton, now a long snapper for Army, said. “I enjoy it. There are a lot of cool experiences that I feel make it worth that kind of stuff. I get to do things that I know kids at regular colleges don’t get to do.”
Service academies were barely on the radar for athletes from the county until Forsyth Central offensive lineman Jacob Nesmith chose AFA in 2012. Nesmith only lasted one semester at the academy’s prep school before transferring to Presbyterian College; he’s no longer enrolled there, either, but the idea had been planted.
College coaches, to put it mildly, are busy. They like one-stop shopping, where they can visit an area and recruit multiple prospects. It’s why so many baseball players from Forsyth have received college attention—in Clemson’s case, come for Luke Slaton, stick around for Seth Beer. It’s why SEC football coaches, at this rate, are in the market for condominiums in Gwinnett County.
Now, the same could be said for Air Force and Army football coaches. In a few years, the two schools might have compounds on the shores of Lake Lanier.
In this year’s class, South Forsyth offensive lineman Griffin Landrum plans to sign with Air Force on Wednesday morning, and Lambert’s Will Dunavant committed to play football for Army last week.
Landrum stayed with Davis for one night on his visit to Colorado Springs; the two, along with Kyle Watford (now at the AFA prep school) worked out together while Davis was a senior at West.
“We’ve all noticed that. Forsyth County is one of the best school systems not just in Georgia but probably in the country,” Landrum said. “It’s unbelievable. The coaches at the Air Force Academy and West Point, they know they need good students who also have good character.”
“I think [Army] likes that students from the county get pushed really hard by teachers and parents and are used to being challenged academically,” Dunavant added.
Barton’s school day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m.; from there, it’s off to football practice until 8, and then back to the dorm for homework and four to five hours of sleep. Davis said his days are structured in similar fashion.
“I expected it to be hard, and I would say it’s as hard as I thought but in a different way,” Barton said. “[It’s] just the day-to-day mental grind … There’s no option about going to class. Everyone goes.”
Air Force coaches didn’t sugarcoat what the experience would be like, Davis said, and the idea of mandatory military service upon graduation didn’t deter him. Landrum said he likes the idea of going in to the military for the job security and stability it will provide. The estimated value of a degree from the AFA is just shy of $450,000, and 94 percent of athletes graduate.
Dunavant will earn a salary (starting at about $900 per month and rising each year) while a cadet and will be commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army after graduation. Five years of service in the military is required for graduates of both institutions.
What compels coaches from service academies to recruit Forsyth county year-in and year-out goes beyond just football and beyond military service, though.
“Really, they’re looking at the type of person you are,” Davis said. “People from the county have good values and character, and they prize that.”
Go ahead, Army and Air Force, buy that lake house. You’re going to be here a while.