Getting used to military school

Two Friday mornings ago, in a dark gym with no air conditioning, former Peach County standout and Georgia Bulldog-to-be Darius Dewberry learned to make his bed.

So did Justin Mincey, who is expected to be harassing quarterbacks for Florida State very soon, and Vidal Hazelton, the top-rated wide receiver in the nation and scores of other players who will soon move on to fairly pampered lives at Division I-A schools, where their bed probably won't be made once in four years.

Hargrave, though, is different. At Hargrave, and at Georgia Military College, it will be made every morning and it will be made the right way. For Dewberry, that means 18 inches of white visible at the top of the "rack" and the HMA insignia on the gray wool blanket in the middle of the bed.

All the players pay close attention as Sgt. Major Michael Payne, a Marine for 23 years, goes through it step by step.

"We might as well get it right," Dewberry said. "This is home for the next year anyway."

Hours later, the players will be overhead discussing how they might be able to sleep on top of the sheets so they only have to make the bed once a semester. This military stuff takes some getting used to, after all.

"Do we get resistance from the kids? Rarely, very rarely because our program in the football world is known for our success," said Col. Wheeler Baker, a retired Marine of 39 years who is Hargrave's president.

"Is there an adjustment for some of these kids who have been outstanding all their life or No. 1 on their campus and not to be No. 1 anymore? The answer is yes."

Leonard Pope's adjustment took a full three months, he said. Georgia's All-SEC tight end spent the 2002 season at Hargrave.

"I really had to swallow my pride," Pope said. "We couldn't wear any civilian clothes or nothing, no TV, people yelling at you and stuff. It's kind of crazy."

"Whether you want it to or not, it's going to change you," said GMC wide receiver Alex Myers, who is one of the three highest-ranking student officers on his campus.

Robert Prunty, Hargrave's postgraduate head coach, graduated from the academy's high school.

"The first day, I called my mother on the phone and asked her, ‘How in the world could you do me like this?'" he said. "When I first got here, I was the same as those guys. I didn't like it here, but as I matured, I learned to appreciate it."

Two hours before Dewberry learned to make his bed, on his first morning at the school, Payne came through the halls with a metal pan and wooden spoon to coax his new charges out of bed. Hargrave, which calls it program the "HMA Way," credits the military framework with helping some students make unusually high jumps in their standardized test scores.

"You bring them in and you tell them exactly what the program is about," Payne said. "It's not an easy transition, but what they did in the past didn't work. It's kind of a cut-and-dry type of thing for them, and, believe it or not, 99 percent of them take to it like a duck to water."

That doesn't mean there aren't weak moments.

"I've had kids come in here sit down at the desk, and they'll cry," Payne said. "A whole lot of them will talk to you about, ‘How in the world am I going to make it?'"

Along with wearing uniforms, cadets at both Hargrave and GMC march in formation to meals, perform morning military drills and keep their appearance and that of their room military-sharp at all times. It can be a humbling experience, particularly for some of the star players.

"That Florida kid or that Georgia kid, I'd have them clean a toilet just as quick I would any other kid that doesn't have a college home," Payne said.

And they better do it.

"If their belt is not shined, if their shoes are not shined or if their appearance is not the way it should be, it's shows a lack of self respect and a disregard to the rules," Williams said. "If they (break the rules) there is a penalty of some sort, and that penalty is going to happen. It's not going to be shooed away."

At GMC, the players accumulate "hours" for offenses. Five hours, the lightest penalty, can be worked off on the field for football players, but, if a player gets too many hours, that means a a 20-mile road march carrying a 40-pound pack.

At Hargrave, the most dreaded punishment is the Bull Ring, tight marching circles carrying a concrete-filled rifle.

The only place where football players get a break from the military work is in physical training.

"The things we need to train for to be successful on the field are different than what the service needs the cadets to do," Williams said. "My guys don't need to be able to do a 20-mile road march. My guys need power and explosiveness. They train for physical strength. We train for bulk. They'd rather be able to run 50 miles than bench press 300 pounds."

The strict adherence to a military regimen makes it difficult on football coaches to find enough time in the day.

"I'd kill for the (NCAA's) 20-hour rule," Williams said. "If I could get my kids for 20 hours a week, wow. When you get into the school year, everything you need to get, you better get in the two and a half hours on the field. You don't have time to meet. We practice every minute we can and then we send them back up the hill."

The only time GMC cadets have potentially to themselves is from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Often though, that time has to be used for a "G.I. party," which means cleaning the barracks.

The schedule at Hargrave is just as tight.

"It was quite an experience you know, but it taught me a lot of discipline and to not take anything for granted," Pope said, "like what I've got right now. It really made me better as a man to understand what I have to do."

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