FOS The Magazine Preview: Active Duty

Want a taste of the behind-the-scenes reporting Fight On State The Magazine Subscribers are enjoying? Then check out this free preview of a feature story that will run in our next issue. The article involves Al Ridenhour, a U.S. Marine in Iraq and the proud father of a Nittany Lion linebacker.

Interjecting overdramatic wartime analogies in sports discussions is common, but for anyone who follows Penn State, it might be a good idea to avoid the military jargon for two weekends this fall.

Think the Nittany Lions must break out the big guns after back-to-back losing seasons? Or veteran coach Joe Paterno is in a do-or-die situation? Or the defense, following a strong showing in 2004, may be vulnerable to sneak attack?

Well, Marine Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour (pronounced RIDE-en-HOWER) knows a thing or two about big guns, because he totes one every day. And he's familiar with do-or-die scenarios, because if he doesn't do what he does, people die. As for sneak attacks, as an Anti-Terror Force Protection Officer for the Multi-National Forces in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq, he is charged with preparing forward operating bases to defend themselves against enemy assault — sneak or otherwise.

“It takes us to some pretty hairy locations,” he said in a mid-July e-mail interview.

So what does any of this have to do with Penn State football? If you attend the Nittany Lions' games against Cincinnati and Central Michigan in September, you could find yourself sitting near Ridenhour and his wife, Lani. He is scheduled to be on R&R at the time, and plans to take the opportunity to watch his son — PSU redshirt freshman linebacker Spencer — play a little ball.

Or, as Al puts it, “to see Spencer and the rest of the Nittany Lions run all over their opponents.”

Though Spencer sat out last season while redshirting and, at a relatively small 6-foot-1, 211 pounds, is vying for playing time at outside linebacker, don't bet against him making an impact. Not with his family background.

Lani played basketball at Tennessee State and her father was a career Marine, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant. Al, meanwhile, played football at Southeastern Oklahoma State before embarking on a Marine career of his own.

He survived Officers Candidate Course in 1988 and later attended Basic Officer Course and Military Occupation Specialty, all brutal training programs. From there, his resume developed like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. During his 17 years in the Marines, in both active duty and as a reserve, he served as a rifle platoon commander in Desert Storm, was later a sniper platoon commander, a company commander, an intelligence officer and an assistant operations officer. He also participated in counterdrug missions along the U.S./Mexico border. All of that before arriving where he is now.

In civilian life (when not on active duty), he heads up a chemical and biological weapons response team for ConEdison and lectures on terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The 40-year-old Ridenhour's “hobbies?” He has trained in the martial arts for two decades, holds a fifth-degree black belt in close combat karate, and conducts self-defense seminars. In the aftermath of 9/11, he conducted a nationally televised demonstration of in-flight, anti-terrorist defensive techniques “using bare hands and common objects.” And he has co-authored a book: “Attack Proof: The Ultimate Guide to Personal Protection.”

In short, of the 100,000 people in Beaver Stadium watching Penn State play this fall, he is the last one with whom you would want to mess. And the first one you'd want covering your back. Which is essentially what he is doing in Iraq, where his field of operations covers a territory roughly the size of Utah.

“My team travels throughout the area, wherever Marines, soldiers or sailors are operating … to ensure they have the best protection available against enemy attacks,” Ridenhour explained. “Marines take great pride in their fighting skills and are considered one of the best-trained forces in the world. So it's my job to take advantage of that training, along with developing physical measures to deter attacks.”

Ridenhour's unit arrived in Iraq at the turn of the year and, outside of the brief trip home in September, he will be in the country at least through the end of 2005. Though he's an officer, his living conditions are anything but ideal. The unit is constantly moving, so some nights they sleep in conventional buildings with beds, other nights they sleep — literally — on the ground. The sun is oppressive and there are constant sandstorms, requiring locals and military personnel to cover their entire bodies in clothing.

“Even the wind feels hot when you are standing in the shade,” Ridenhour explained. “Anything made of metal becomes hot to the touch in a matter of minutes when exposed to the heat of the day.”

Lani's life is challenging in a different way. Spencer is their only child, so she holds down the fort, so to speak, by herself back home in White Plains, N.Y. And because Al and Spencer both maintain hectic schedules, it is difficult for father and son to find time to talk on the phone.

“My thing is, I'm in the middle,” Lani said. “All of us are alone, but since I am the mediator between Spencer and Al … I have my moments and I have my bad days … but I know I have to be strong for them.”

“It's tough on her because she's the glue that keeps us together and keeps our attitudes in check,” Al added. “She really runs things around the house, and she is always very supportive of both Spencer and me.”

Whatever Al's professional or military situation, the family has always been supportive of Spencer's athletic career. Spencer, meanwhile, has taken his no-nonsense cue from his dad. At White Plains High, he was a four-year, two-way starter, setting eight school records along the way. He also won the U.S. Army National Scholar-Athlete Award and Black Scholar Achievement Award.

Spencer has practiced Tai Chi since he was a child, is described as one of the most dedicated Nittany Lions when it comes to physical conditioning, and likes to play the bass and read in his free time.

“Spencer, from a very early age, understood that whatever a man sows, so shall he reap,” Al said. “When other kids were hanging out on Saturdays, he was off in the gym or off on a run. It was not unusual to see him burning the midnight oil studying for school. He's one of those driven individuals who will not settle for just doing well enough; he is very demanding of himself.”

What's that old saying about the apple not falling far from the tree?

But being so driven to succeed obviously comes with a price. For example, Al's military responsibilities caused him to miss Spencer's high school graduation. And, of course, there is the current state of affairs. With her husband 6,000 miles away and her son 250 miles away, Lani's role as family foundation is trying enough. But when she hears people debating Iraq as if the parties involved are chess pieces, sometimes it is too much.

“It's hard, I'm not gonna lie,” Lani said. “I really have a hard time. But I take it day by day, minute by minute. When I deal with Al, I deal with Al. When I deal with Spencer, I deal with Spencer. But I will tell you this: We don't discuss what's going on with the war, and that's really how we stay strong and handle it.”

The battles in Iraq strike much too close to the heart. Though Lani understandably prefers not to talk about them, Al, as you might imagine, is passionate about his job.

“We truly are in the fight of our lives, and in truth if we can't win in Iraq or Afghanistan, then we can't win at home, it's that simple,” he explained, using the recent terror attacks in London as an example. “Like it or not, this is what we're up against and this is what our young Marines, many of whom are the same age as the players at Penn State, are willing to stand up against every day.”

And they've broken out the big guns to do it.

We hope you enjoyed this special preview of the next issue of Fight On State The Magazine.

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