When asked for the most difficult part of life as a linebacker/cadet (or the other way around) at the U.S. Military Academy, Kenneth Brinson retreats into another of his frequent thoughtful silences and sets to pondering.
And you begin to think that Brinson just pushed the pause button on that question because he’s not entirely acquainted with the concept of difficulty.
Like his coach at Army, Jeff Monken, said, “There’s nothing this place throws at him that he doesn’t succeed at, which is really remarkable. Because this is a very challenging school.
“He does really well in the classroom,” Monken said.
That’s an understatement, actually. Kennesaw’s Brinson is flirting with top-of-his-class status in a major not exactly scaled back to keep the football coach happy – chemical engineering. Med school looms as a possibility.
The coach continued. “He does really well in the corps with his military obligations, his role and his responsibilities there.
“And he’s also a smart football player. He understands football. He understands all the fits on defense, and you don’t always find that in a guy who’s book-smart intelligent.”
Eventually, Brinson, often held up as the model Army footballer, just gives up on trying to find one aspect of academy life more trying than the next. “Everything blends into one thing – which is West Point,” he said. “It’s hard for me to distinguish.”
A day like Tuesday is just what Brinson signed up for when he shunned offers from other high IQ addresses – notably Stanford and Virginia – and left Marist School for the Army life in 2015.
Rise at shortly after 6 a.m. Get your quarters in shape, just in case anyone comes to inspect. Make sure your appearance is “professional.” Yes, they employ that word regularly at this particular college. Who talks like that over the broad landscape of rumpled underclassmen? Army does.
Breakfast at 7 a.m. sharp.
Then how about five classes during the day, just to keep your brain engaged? A more normal load during the season is four. “I try to squeeze one extra one in,” Brinson said. Nothing like a Fluid Thermal Systems class to brighten your afternoon.
And after a spirited practice before the biggest game of your season – Saturday, vs. the swabbies from Navy – stand in a chilled rain in the early darkness of approaching winter and do just about your least favorite thing. Which is talk about yourself.
There are embarrassing things to ask of a fellow who is far more at ease doing the excelling than he is explaining it. First, though, a question to another Georgia-born Army teammate – the rosters of both Army and Navy are heavily salted with Georgians – who happens by.
So, Rhyan England (DB, Suwanee), just how smart is this guy next to you?
“He’s very smart. Put it this way, when I was a sophomore, he was in my Portuguese class as a freshman,” England said.
“And,” he added with a smile, “he never helped me. But it’s all good.”
“Hey,” Brinson objected, “you never asked me for help.”
Brinson swears he doesn’t know his current academic ranking among the junior class at Army. Top of your class is a big thing around here, and he has spent time at the summit.
“At this point, I’m just trying to get all A’s and whatever else happens, happens. I’ve kind of let that one (ranking) go,” he said.
“To me, it’s about getting as good a grade as possible in all my classes. Doing my best in everything else. Things are going to happen how they happen. Hopefully, I do well enough that I’ll have options at the end of this.”
The education of an Army football player can take many forms, beyond the school book and the playbook. At Marist, Brinson was one of those rare souls to whom much was given. The intelligence that took his GPA over the 4.0 barrier. An athletic ability that could not be contained by one sport so he starred at three – football (Marist’s all-time sack leader), wrestling (two-time state champion) and track and field (throws weighted things far, at an elite level). And he could even play a mean trombone.
According to what he told Army Football Insider when he chose Army before the 2015 season, it was obvious Brinson sought to take those givens beyond usual selfish bounds:
“The biggest thing for me (in choosing Army) was it felt like a family, and it felt I was doing something bigger than me. I felt it was a way for me to serve, and that’s good because my mom always teaches that it’s best to serve, and that’s what I need to dedicate my life to doing.”
So, he gets to West Point and when he plays well and gives it his all in a game, he’s one of those awarded the honor of wearing the special jerseys bearing the Army Ranger insignia the next week in practice. And that’s better to him than any turnover chain.
He comes to learn and accept that even though he is exceptionally motivated, that it’s OK to get pushed even harder.
The strictness of life at the academy was a bit of a jolt.
“It’s different disciplining yourself opposed to when someone you’ve never seen before comes at you,” Brinson said. “It was something I needed to learn – which was good for me – to reinforce that there’s an external code to follow, and there are people meant to enforce it.”
He is front and center for events like this summer when the academy dedicated a new barracks named for Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who entered West Point in 1932, endured years of discrimination and isolation on the way to becoming the fourth African-American to graduate there. Davis went on to become the first officer to graduate from the Army Air Corps all-black flight-training program, the Tuskegee Airmen.
After observing the ribbon cutting, Brinson was quoted in an Army publication: “West Point is a challenging enough environment as it is. And honestly, when I think of General Davis, I think there's no excuse to not do the best you can because he excelled here, under much tougher circumstances than me or any other cadet here today.
“It's really just an inspiration every day to work and grind and not lose sight of the fact that you can excel here.”
And, oh, yes, there’s the football thing.
With four sacks this season, a couple of fumble recoveries and a forced fumble, Brinson has become an opportunistic performer on an Army defense that ranks 30th in scoring defense in FBS.
“He has a great sense for the game,” England said.
There are, no doubt, countless players who would rank football the hardest part of their college years. Because it’s a hard game. But still a game.
At West Point, football is, importantly, the lesser duty.
So, Brinson can turn around and tell you the least difficult aspect of his experience thus far at Army.
“Yes, this is an escape from stuff down there,” Brinson said after practice, nodding down the hill that leads from the field to West Point’s campus. “It is a chance to get out here, enjoy spending time with the guys. This is the easiest part.”