Army first-class cadet Eric Osteen has waited four years for this – his own chapter in a 113-year-old supremely American story.
“I couldn’t be more excited. I can’t wait for that game to come,” the former Richmond Academy kicker said of Saturday’s annual Army-Navy game. “Ever since you set foot on the place you start thinking about the game-winning kick. You visualize it over and over and over.”
Osteen can easily understand what John Feinstein wrote in his book A Civil War about America’s most unique football rivalry. It might no longer have the significance of Georgia-Florida or Ohio State-Michigan, but Army-Navy retains an undeniable passion.
“It is played with the fervor of people who know that they are doing something they love for a final time, that they are closing a chapter in their lives,” Feinstein wrote.
Osteen has waited patiently for his first and final shot placekicking against the Midshipmen. The kid who once kicked a 57-yard field goal as a junior at Richmond Academy was recruited to play football in West Point, N.Y., in 2009. But Osteen didn’t kick for the Black Knights as a plebe or yearling (cadet jargon for freshman and sophomore).
He handled kickoffs as a cow (junior) and through the first 10 games as a firstie (senior). But before Army’s last start against Temple, Osteen took over the placekicking duties. In the second quarter he made his first career point-after and a few minutes later his first field goal from 37 yards.
“Only one field-goal attempt and I made it. One for one,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for the chance for about four years and to finally get to do field goals. Throughout your time you visualize kicks so you’re ready when you’re in the game. I think doing kickoffs helped me and propelled me to perform in a game doing field goals as well.”
Patience, discipline and team are three fundamentals instilled on the cadet corps at Army. Osteen grew up thinking one day he might kick for Georgia Tech, then was all set to accept a spot at Yale before stopping by West Point on the way home from a college visit to New Haven, Conn.
“From then on I just fell in love with it,” he said of Army. “I sought out as many old grads as possible to talk about it and just thought it was the best fit for me.”
Despite a grandfather who retired as an Army major and a father who made a stint in the Navy’s submarine force before going to Auburn, Osteen wasn’t fully prepared for life as a cadet.
“At first it was overwhelming – just the amount of schoolwork you have to do and the physical requirements and military duties that are all placed on you,” he said. “And they’re thrown on you from day one. But you learn over time to manage your time. You learn a lot of discipline and the true values of a team, whether it’s trust or just knowing it’s not all about you.”
That’s a far departure from the athletic pursuit Osteen originally wanted. When he left Westminster to join Richmond Academy in high school, he thought he’d be a golfer. But it was soccer and football where his skills excelled. He’s played soccer since childhood and always kept a football around to attempt field goals after practice.
“Football has become something that I just truly enjoy doing,” he said. “The best part of your day is going to practice.”
He kicked a 50-yarder as a prep sophomore to first show off his range. Then on the opening drive in the final game of an 0-10 junior season, Richmond Academy coach Chris Hughes allowed Osteen to stretch his leg.
“Originally Coach Hughes sent me in to just punt but then called a timeout and said, ‘Guess what, you’re kicking it,’” Osteen recalled. “When I first went out there I didn’t know how far it was. I didn’t know until a couple minutes later that it was 57 yards. It didn’t clear it by too much. As soon as the ref signaled good I was bouncing off the field.”
Now he hopes to have a similar experience in front of a packed house in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in the nationally televised game on Saturday. With the entire 4,400-man student bodies of both schools in attendance, the atmosphere gives anyone who’s ever played in the series chills.
“Really the only word to describe it is awesome,” said Osteen, who handled kickoffs in last year’s meeting in Landover, Md. “It’s a huge game, America’s game, and you know the whole world is watching. The rivalry between Army and Navy is bigger than you can imagine. It’s pretty cool, because while we’re competing on the football field, afterwards we’re really fighting on the same team.”
Army hasn’t won the rival showdown since 2001. At the time, the Black Knights led the overall series 49-46-7 before the Midshipmen peeled off the last 10 straight to take its largest lead in the civil football war dating back to 1890.
But with a 41-21 victory over Air Force already this season, Army has a chance to win the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 1996. Despite its 2-9 record and Navy’s 7-4 mark that earned a bowl date with Arizona State, Osteen believes the cadets will upset the Middies.
“This is the year,” he said. “Mark my words, this is the year we’ll beat them. Going into a game if you don’t think you’re going to win, what’s the point of playing? This year is arguably bigger than some years because we’ve beaten Air Force and now if we win this game we win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and visit the White House.
“There’s a never-accept-defeat, never-say-die attitude that goes with us everywhere. I would argue that we’re a lot better than our record has shown.”
Fortune certainly seems to be swinging Osteen’s way. A week after earning the placekicking job, he got what he wanted most on Branch Night, getting assigned for the next five years to the Signal Corps where he’ll get to go home to Fort Gordon for officer training.
Now with his parents (Mark and Sherri Brown-Osteen), sister (Samantha) and girlfriend (Erin Sentell) in attendance Saturday, he’ll be trying to punctuate his football career with his most significant points.
“This is the last one,” he said. “I’ve had a tremendous experience with football. I won’t want to take off the pads for the last time after the game. It will definitely be bittersweet, but I’m excited for what the future has to offer.”