JEFF BATTIPAGLIA sat there quietly on the edge of his living-room sofa that fateful day, a scared seventh-grader wondering if he'd ever see his father again. Those iconic images in American history unfolded before his eyes, the dust plumes mushrooming from the Twin Towers collapsing, people running through the streets of Manhattan covered in soot and ash.
The pain of not knowing for 5 hours whether his father survived still resonates with Battipaglia, as do the video clips from other countries showing people dancing in the streets that day.
It's why tomorrow's Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field holds deep personal meaning for Battipaglia, Navy's 6-4, 260-pound, 2-year starting left offensive tackle, who starred at St. Joseph's Prep.
Battipaglia, a junior from Newtown, directly felt the sting of 9/11. His father, Joseph, a nationally known marketing strategist on Wall Street and frequent guest on CNBC and Fox News, witnessed everything. Joseph was working for a firm headquartered across the street from the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
Knowing what his father went through that day inspired Jeff to turn down other significant college offers from Arizona State, Akron, Cincinnati, Boston College, Harvard and Princeton to attend the Naval Academy.
"I think that day will stay with everyone who lived through it," Jeff said. "Maybe a little more with me, because I never want to see my father and his co-workers leaving their building covered in ash and running for their lives again. Even without football, I was thinking about going to one of the military academies anyway.
"I know I can speak for the other 4,400 students here at Navy, none of us here want our fathers or families to go through that day again. It's everyone here who has that purpose."
It's a purpose that has Battipaglia thinking very strongly about committing to the Marine Corps next September, instead of surface warfare (being stationed on a ship). That thought comes despite President Obama's announcement that he'll be sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
A decision to choose the Marine Corps with the possibility of being sent halfway across the world doesn't jostle the thoughts of many football players at Penn State, Oklahoma, Florida, or anywhere else in the country. But when you play for and are committed to Navy, national decisions impact the way you think about the future.
It's a stark reality.
"A lot of the graduates this year and next year I know will be sent to either Iraq or Afghanistan, and it's something you think about, you know it's there," Battipaglia said. "But it's also something you know when you sign up for the Naval Academy."
Joseph and Mary Ann Battipaglia couldn't be more proud of their youngest child. But at the same time, they carry a bit of wariness about the future. When Obama made his speech about sending 30,000 more troops, Jeff's parents had their eyes suddenly drift to the family portrait hanging on the wall.
"My wife and I had as many private conversations about this as we have with Jeff," Joseph said. "This isn't just about patriotism, it's about putting your life on the line. I'll be honest, there were a lot of misgivings about this. This is my son. It's why my heart goes out to all of the families involved in this, because it's very real. There is a human element there. Oh, yeah, you get nervous on a couple of levels."
But no one gets more nervous than a mother.
"The reality is we have to protect ourselves, and my son is committed to doing that," Mary Ann said. "My biggest concern is will this country's political class be as committed to this mission as my son, and all of the sons and daughters at Army and Navy, are to this mission?"
So Jeff Battipaglia will come out of the chute tomorrow afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field with the rest of the Navy team running behind two American flags - one from Iraq, the other from Afghanistan. He'll think briefly about the kid who waited eagerly for his father to come home one Tuesday afternoon.
"That day is something I keep with me; it's something that will always be there for the rest of my life," Battipaglia said. "It's a reason why this game means so much. It's about brotherhood and country. It's why I can't let the guy next to me down, and I know they won't let me down. There are a lot of people all over this world doing very significant things for this country. I want my chance." *
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