Soldier boys
June 18, 2009


HOLLIDAYSBURG - With United States troops currently involved in combat in Iraq, a career in the military might not be the first choice for the overwhelming majority of this country's most recent high school graduates.

But J.C. Smolke is embracing it.

The 6-foot-1, 224-pound Smolke, who starred at defensive end and offensive tackle for Class A Halifax High School near Harrisburg the past three years, will be participating as a member of the East squad in Friday's Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association All-Star Game at Mansion Park. Three days later, next Monday, Smolke will report to boot camp with the United States Marine Corps in Paris Island, S.C.

"Ever since I was little, I've always wanted to go into the Marines,'' Smolke was saying Wednesday afternoon at the Hollidaysburg Area Junior High School, where the East squad was taking a mid-day lunch break from its two-a-day practice regimen at Tiger Stadium. "It's not just like another branch of the military to me. I want to join the Marines because I like the aspect of brotherhood surrounding it.''

Smolke is one of five players on both the combined East and West rosters in this year's PFSCA All-Star Game who will move on to service academies, but the only one who is doing so as a direct enlistee right out of high school.

The other four - the East squad's Jarvis Cummings, John Nurthern and Raymond Maples, and the West squad's Brian Williams - are all planning to play football at the next level. Cummings, of Hempfield High School in the Lancaster area, Nurthern, of Great Valley High School in the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern, and Williams, of Gateway High School in Monroeville - are all headed for the United States Naval Academy. Maples, of Philadelphia West Catholic High School, is bound for the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. to play football for Army.

Smolke, whose father and stepfather were both members of the Army Reserves, has no qualms about entering the service at wartime.

"I have a recon option to be joining the Marines Special Forces for a year and three months worth of training, so the war might be over before [his release from the Marines Special Forces],'' Smolke said. "The Marines Special Forces is to the Marines what the Navy Seals is to the Navy. It's an [intelligence-type operation] that goes behind the enemy lines and finds out information. But even after my time in the Marines Special Forces is over, if the war is still going on, I'll have no problem with going.''

Cummings, who will trade a five-year commitment to the Navy after his graduation for four years of paid schooling, echoed that thought.

"If you've got to defend your country, so be it,'' said the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Cummings, who started for four years at safety and three years at quarterback at Hempfield, a Class Quad-A high school in Landisville.

Cummings and Williams will both attend Military Academy Prep School (MAPS) with the Navy in Providence, R.I. for the 2009-10 school year. They will both play organized football there as they prepare for Division I football careers at Navy. Nurthern will go directly to the Naval Academy and hopes for football playing time with the Midshipmen this fall, and Maples will attend a military prep school and play football at Fort Monmouth, N.J. this year before moving on to West Point in the fall of 2010.

The prospects of a paid education and a quality lifestyle thereafter appealed to both Maples and Williams.

"I'm very excited about [going to West Point],'' said the 6-foot, 200-pound Maples, who was a first team all-state selection at defensive back at Philadelphia West Catholic, where he also starred at running back in leading West Catholic to the Class AA state championship game last December. "You're guaranteed of a good future after graduation, whether it's a military life or in the [National Football League]. And the pay is good.''

The 5-6, 145-pound Williams, a first-team Quad-A all-stater at running back who also started at defensive back for Gateway, concurred.

"It was just the education and all the benefits that come with it,'' Williams said of his decision to attend Navy during a stop in practice at Mansion Park. "And I'll still be playing [Division] I football in Maryland, where I have some family.''

Cummings is being groomed as a quarterback by Navy. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Nurthern, who graduated from Great Valley with a 3.9 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, was a three-year starter at fullback and linebacker in high school who hopes to get immediate playing time on at least the special teams at Navy this fall.

"I have two uncles who went to the Naval Academy, and they were a huge influence on me [attending],'' Nurthern said. "I like their program, and the fact that it's a team philosophy there over anything else. Everything felt right about me playing football there.''

Players from both the East and West squads will get a better idea of what military life is like today, when the East squad makes a visit to the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home and the West team visits the James E. Van Zandt Medical Center on Pleasant Valley Boulevard.

"I really want to talk to the veterans [at the Hollidaysburg Vets Home] and get their take about what goes on in the military,'' Smolke said.


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