How Benghazi and the Army-Navy Cup helped two South Jersey brothers find their destinies | Marcus Hayes
Navy soccer player J.D. Wagner was inspired to serve in the military after seeing the movie "13 Hours." His brother will join him next school year.
The soccer tournament had just finished in Virginia, a rare chance for John Drew Wagner Jr. to spend time with his dad, Drew.
J.D. had played well, but suddenly soccer didn’t seem important. He couldn’t stop thinking about the movie they’d watched the night before.
They’d seen 13 Hours, a chilling reconstruction of the 9/11 anniversary attack by Islamic militants on the U.S. Consulate at Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012. When they left the theater, Drew worried that the terror and violence might have been too much for J.D. Sure enough, J.D. hadn’t spoken much since.
Now, as they headed home on I-95 to their home in New Jersey, J.D. turned and said, “Dad, I wonder what I was doing when all that was going on. You know, in the movie. Was I sleeping? Was I playing video games? Was I enjoying my cushy life while these poor guys were going through that?”
Drew was stunned. J.D., a rising sophomore at the YSC Academy and part of the Philadelphia Union’s developmental program, didn’t feel scared, and he didn’t feel unsafe.
He felt guilty.
“I feel bad," J.D. continued. “I mean, I might have been laying around. I feel like I should have been doing something.”
J.D. Wagner started doing something the very next day. He still is.
J.D. asked his father to contact the coaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. A few weeks later, they traveled from their home in Medford Lakes to Annapolis, Md., one of the prettiest places on the planet in autumn. Zach, J.D.'s brother and fellow soccer prodigy, tagged along. Then J.D. asked to go to the fifth edition of the Army-Navy Cup, played at Talen Energy Stadium and hosted by the Union. They went again last year. They’ll all be there Friday night at 7.
This time, J.D. Wagner will start at right outside back for the best Navy team in generations.
The Midshipmen are 11-0, their best start since their 1964 championship year. They’re ranked 19th by the United Soccer Coaches, their highest ranking in the 23-year history of the poll. They’ve allowed two goals. J.D. plays defense.
There’s more good news for the Middies: Next year, Zach Wagner, a midfielder, will play for them in the Army-Navy Cup, too.
To be clear: The Wagner boys were top recruits. Ivy League schools, party schools, schools in big cities or schools at the beach — they had their choice of places to play.
They chose to play for their country.
A moving scene
Even as a sophomore, J.D. Wagner knew he’d play college soccer. His dad had played at East Carolina. But his dad wasn’t his only role model. His grandfather, Blair Wagner, enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school during the Korean War. His four-year hitch persuaded the Wagner brothers to serve, too. But when? And how?
The pageantry and the solemnity of the Army-Navy Cup convinced J.D. that he wanted to be a part of this spectacle, a spectacle unlike any other in soccer.
“It definitely had a huge impact on my decision,” J.D. said. “There were about 10,000 people there, a huge crowd for college soccer, and in Talen Stadium, which is my back yard. There were a bunch of Midshipmen there. Every time they would score, a cannon would go off. It’s something I knew I wanted to play in in the future.”
Soccer seems coincidental when they play for the Cup.
“It’s really cool to know that every player in that game is willing to give their lives for everybody that’s watching,” he said. “That’s something that’s stuck with me. Something I really wanted to be a part of.”
Consider the gravity of those words: Willing to give their lives. Twenty years ago, enlisting in the military didn’t carry the weight it carries today. J.D. is 18 and Zach is 17, so the United States of America has been engaged in at least one war for as long as either can remember.
All their lives they’ve been watching sailors and soldiers come home in caskets; the cost of service, for them, is quite real. But those images, that cost, only heightened their desire. They are fearless and they are eager. In a country divided by politics and soured by cynicism, theirs is a patriotic flame that burns clean, white-hot, and pure. It utterly defines them.
“I want to be a Navy lifer,” J.D. Wagner said.
He hopes to become a pilot and fly the F-35 or the F-18 Super Hornet, $70-100 million fighters that reach 1,200 mph and pull 7-9 Gs.
“They go super fast," he said, "and I think that’s really cool.”
He is, after all, an 18-year-old athlete.
If J.D. becomes Maverick, don’t expect Zach to be his Goose; Zach’s cockpit will be an office chair.
“I want to study computer science," Zach said. "I want to help the military develop technology and conduct cyber warfare.”
Zach and J.D. both attended YSC Academy, the Union’s developmental school, from 2016-19, when they went to school and practiced twice there a day. Zach committed to Navy last year and so he left YSC Academy, happy to spend his senior year at Shawnee High, where Drew teaches physical education and health. Last year’s Army-Navy Cup helped Zach decide to join J.D.
“I loved it. It was just, like, an insane atmosphere," said Zach Wagner, who still plays soccer in the Union system. “My brother going to Navy had a lot to do with me going there. We’ve been playing together since we were infants. He’s my best friend. Playing there with him for the next three years is going to be like a dream come true to me.”
It would have been a dream denied if J.D. had played at a typical college.
“I definitely would’ve gone to Army or Navy if my brother hadn’t,” Zach said. “Serving has always been on our bucket list. It’s such an important thing for young men to do. And I feel like it’s starting to get less popular." (He’s right.)
It couldn’t be more popular in Drew Wagner’s household. He coached both boys until J.D. turned 13 and joined the Union’s developmental team. Zach usually played a year ahead, with J.D. Now, not only will Drew soon be able to watch his sons play together for three seasons, but they’ll also be doing what he wishes he’d done.
“My only regret in life,” Drew said, "is that I didn’t serve my country, like my dad did.”
As Drew and J.D. motored north that Sunday afternoon in 2016, after J.D. had expressed his remorse for sleeping through Benghazi, J.D. told Drew what eventually came true: “I think I might want to go to Navy.”
Now, it was Drew who had little to say.
“It blew me away,” Drew Wagner said. “I guess that movie changed his life. Right then, that’s when I knew he’s special. He gets what other people don’t get.”
When J.D. hit the Union system, he was a slick center midfielder with a gift for anticipating proper passes and delivering them with perfect pace. But then, so was just about every other kid his age. His academy team needed defenders. He became a defender.
“He’s always been that way,” Drew said. “He puts others before himself like no one I’ve ever met. I can’t express how awesome a feeling it is as a dad to have your son be that kind of person.”
That attitude helped J.D. immediately win a starting spot on a Navy team stocked with accomplished returning players — the attitude, as well as flotilla of skills and a boatload of talent.
“He’s very polished on the ball. A very cerebral player. He gets down the line, runs very well, and is a very good athlete,” said Navy coach Tim O’Donohue, who will soon be running a Union offshoot team, thanks, in part, to the Army-Navy Cup.
YSC Academy products Jason Aoyama and Baba Kallie plan to join the Wagners at Navy in 2020.
“It’s helpful for me to be able to say, ‘Once a year, we play in front of 10,000 people at the Philadelphia Union stadium,' where their friends and family can come watch," O’Donohue said.
It’s even more helpful that he has a built-in recruiter like J.D. Wagner.
“I mean, let’s face it. He’s a diamond in the rough: a top-level player who probably could have gone someplace like Maryland [currently ranked 25th]," O’Donohue said. "But he has a little bit of a different calling.”
Maybe the Wagners would have answered their calling without the movie, and without the Cup. Maybe J.D. and Zach would have wound up at a prestigious school that recruited them both, such as the University of Pennsylvania — which, after all, has produced a United States president.
No. Navy and the Wagners were meant for each other.
“I think about what my goals are in life. I want to have an everlasting impact on the world in some kind of way; something people will remember me for. To have some kind of legacy in the world," J.D. said.
"Coming to the Naval Academy, and hopefully becoming a pilot, I’ll have an opportunity to do that.”