Former teammates Spencer, Peterson still blocking opposition
by Chris Goltermann
The uniform may have changed, but when Greg Spencer and Zach Peterson enter the field, they still strap on their helmets just as tight. The surroundings have drastically changed, however, for the former Northgate football teammates, who also went on to standout college careers with Army. Their home turf, once green and lush like the finest carpet under bright sunshine, is nothing more than a backdrop in drab shades of brown from dirt and sand that now engulfs them when the temperatures soar in August. The uniform is now camouflage; the team colors, red, white and blue.
While currently on separate missions in Afghanistan, their goals are much the same as previous on the field as teammates on opposite sides of the ball, Spencer as a defensive tackle, Peterson as an offensive center with the Black Knights. Foremost, it’s to again push forward at the line of scrimmage. In this case, it’s one that distinguishes where freedom begins and terror ends in a foreign land far from home.
This is no game, though, especially when ‘teammates’ can be prone to change allegiances or when the opponent has an explosive device buried on the other side of the 50-yard line. Peterson, who as a senior starter at center was part of an Army lineup in 2010 that snapped a 14-year bowl absence, reached the 6-month anniversary of his deployment in Afghanistan last week and hopes to be home to visit around Thanksgiving. Spencer, who graduated from the academy in 2009, is on his second tour and third trip to the country and could be home by February according to his father, Mark.
Military service has been a family tradition with the Spencers for at least three generations. Greg’s younger sister Kelly, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and former volleyball standout, recently returned from a six-month stint in Afghanistan working in intelligence while based in South Dakota. Youngest sibling, Sean, enters his freshman year at the Naval Academy this fall as a football recruit after also graduating from Northgate in May.
Years of football, however, have made their impact on the two former Army football teammates after teaching life-lessons regarding teamwork and leadership while facing long, grueling days that aren’t as clearly defined as wins and losses. “The senior leadership of our company has been working 16-17 hour days since we got here, and that can become a drain. You have to continue to challenge yourself to remain positive and not get frustrated or complacent,” Peterson recently told the Times-Herald in an online chat.
“I would absolutely tie football into what I am doing now. The lessons I learned playing football for Northgate and then West Point have developed me into the leader that I am today. The commitment and grind of a football season is something that you can draw parallels to a deployment” Now a First Lieutenant for Bravo 3-15, the goal, much like an offensive lineman, is to keep a clear and safe path on Highway 1.
It’s a winding, dusty stretch of paved asphalt and potholes between Kabul in the east and Kandahar in the south that acts as a lifeline for soldiers and civilians for getting troops and supplies in and out of territories once controlled by the Taliban. It’s also prime real estate for insurgents, who unlike a football opponent, cower in shadows waiting for sneak attacks to interrupt the progress or retrofitting a war-torn nation. Others who have initially pledged their allegiances to allies as part of the Afghan National Army, have turned, in attacks known to American soldiers as “green on blue. “It is frustrating, and that factor just requires you to be all the more alert and aware when operating with them,” Peterson wrote. ‘It can all be challenging when you have to take all of those things into consideration.”
Over the next year, the United States is expected to remove as many as 28,000 vehicles and 40,000 shipping containers of equipment, a bulk of which through Highway 1, a military term known to soldiers as “the retrograde.” Reports have stated the process was expected to reach its peak by this summer. The combination of assisting the retrograde and missions in the battlefield has been as much a challenge to Peterson. “The pressure situations and stress I have experienced playing football is something that I draw back to when over here and faced with very high stake decisions,” he wrote. “ I think the football I have played has helped develop the mental toughness that I have now and has ultimately allowed me to have success in Afghanistan when operating in a high stress environment.”
Spencer is equally in harm’s way while also a First Lieutenant assigned to 7-Special Forces, a unit that works with Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and constantly on the move between bases. “Every once and awhile we’ll get an e-mail from him to let us know how he’s doing,” said Mark of contact with his son. Both Spencer and Peterson, who had three fellow soldiers in his company killed in an IED explosion in late July, will be too busy to keep an eye on most college games this fall. But the aspect of the game Peterson said he misses most is being part of a big game in front of thousands of fans. “The thing I miss most about football is all the preparation and detail that you put into a game plan and then you go out in the field on Friday or Saturday and execute,” wrote Peterson, who still has hopes of becoming a coach someday. “There is no better feeling.”