CAMDEN - When former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz took the Irish to Annapolis to play one year, he looked around the inside ring of the stadium and saw a continuing circle of geographical names that included Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guadal Canal and Midway and quipped, ``That's a tough schedule.''
No, it doesn't get any tougher than those legendary life and death battle theaters in the Pacific, where the Navy and the Marines fought so bravely. That is why making any comparison or reference to a ``team played like the Marines storming the beach'' is utterly ridiculous.
Saturday, the Paul VI High School boys' soccer team sort of scraped elbows with what real war is about and at least touched part of that ``tough schedule'' Holtz talked about when 13 players volunteered to work on the battleship USS New Jersey.
The boys arrived at Big J a little after 8 a.m., or a little more than 12 hours after they had lost in the playoffs to St. Augustine on penalty kicks. Squeezed inside a turret with three 16-inch/50-caliber guns in the early morning on our nation's most decorated battleship quickly took some of the sting out of being bounced from the postseason on penalty kicks for the third straight season.
``In the big picture, it is a little less important,'' senior captain Matt Blumenstein said about the loss. ``I mean (Friday), I didn't think anything could've made it any less important.''
That's the thing with Big J, it makes everything seem so little.
And, it isn't just the enormity of old BB-62 stretched for 887 feet - almost the length of three soccer fields - along the Camden side of the Delaware River that seems to diminish everything, even a career-ending loss for a senior. It is the remarkable resume of the ship that just dwarfs its visitors.
The Big J has 19 battle stars - the most ever for a naval vessel - which are prominently displayed on the walkway toward the ship to symbolize the 19 theaters of operation during war time. The New Jersey saw action from World War II's celebrated conflicts at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 to the Persian Gulf War in 1989.
Now, for these Paul VI athletes, the Big J embraces more meaning than getting out of school early for a class trip. The volunteers realized many of the 50,000 sailors who served on board weren't much older than themselves.
``I couldn't see it,'' Andrew Dugandzic, a 17-year-old senior captain, said when asked if he could imagine having to go to war at his age.
Dugandzic added many of his classmates share his feelings.
``People don't want to think about it really, but when you come here you are pretty much forced to think about it, and you realize everything people have been doing for this country,'' he said.
Bob Walters, the father of Paul VI coach Keith, is the artifacts manager of the Big J. Walters, 65, served on board Big J from 1955 to 1957 during peacetime years after the Korean War. He left Moorestown High School at 17 to serve and finished high school and college later.
``I can't believe I was only 17, I guess I didn't look at it as a matter of age,'' he said. ``I guess I thought I was older and, of course, at 17 you know everything.''
In these turbulent times, Walters understands that it isn' t a stretch to think some of these 13 soccer players could be fighting overseas, maybe soon.
``It is really disheartening,'' Walters said. ``I hope none of our kids have to go over there or anyplace in harm' s way to do what a lot of people did on this ship and other ships.''
Blumenstein, of Barrington, is hoping to go to the the University of Delaware to major in business. But he admitted after seeing the Big J and understanding the troubles with Iraq, that his plans could change.
In fact, he must register for the draft when he turns 18 on Nov. 21.
``Before it was like, `Just go down and sign a piece of paper,' but now it kind of makes you realize that something could happen,'' Blumenstein said about registering. ``It puts things in perspective, how important certain things are.''
Keith Walters, 37, already understood that, which is why the Mount Laurel resident organized the volunteer work.
``I always wanted the boys to do something in the community and this seemed like a good fit,'' said Walters, the varsity coach for last five years who won a state title as a senior for Moorestown in 1982. ``I always try to do things as a group to try and create some memories for them.''
And, by visiting the Big J, Walters has also taught some lessons.
``With most things, when you start talking about something that is 60 or 70 years old, you have to read about it and see pictures while here they can walk on history and touch history,'' Bob Walters said.
This hands-on history class did make an impact.
``Sports is just sports,'' Dugandzic said, ``There is more to life.''
Junior sweeper Scott Samulis, 17, realized that before the visit. The Blackwood resident has long hoped to go to the Naval Academy. He understands that someday soon he could be fighting for something much more serious than a South Jersey soccer title.
``It is scary,'' he said, ``but a lot of other guys have done it.
Guys just as old as him."
Reach Kevin Callahan at (856) 486-2424 or at email@example.com