By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
HALIFAX — A football team can be likened to how the military operates on the battlefield: from platoon Sergeants to Generals, everyone has a job to do to ensure victory.
That same esprit de corps is evident on Friday-night battlefields across the country.
For the players on the Halifax football team, they have working with them two active reservists that have seen combat: Master Sergeant Mike Blough of the United States Army and Sergeant Cameron Gross of the United States Marine Corps.
Both coaches played high school football. Coach Blough played at Pine Grove while Coach Gross played at Newport.
One of the corps principals of the military is that, in order to succeed, a solid foundation must be established.
“The values that are instilled in me from the first day that I put my uniform on, I took into my heart and my soul and I bring that back and try to teach these young men those same values that they live by not just on the football field, I am trying to make better athletes and citizens out of our young men,” Blough said.
With the team off to an 0-2 start and not having scored a point yet, the values that both coaches are teaching from their military background are paying off.
“We had a senior wide receiver come to me after practice and say to me, “coach, I am willing to come down and work for you on the offensive line,” Blough said. “Knowing that he is giving up that opportunity to be that star receiver on Friday night scoring those touchdowns, he’s willing to come down into the trenches and fight hard every play and he is willing to make it a better team. He’s absorbed that self-sacrifice and is giving himself up for the team” Blough, a career Army reservist, went on to say that’s one of the values they are trying to instill in the young men that the team is bigger than the individual.
One player that can appreciate that lesson from the two coaches is senior Jackson Fuhrer who has been playing football since age 9.
His family has a history of serving in the military. His grandfathers were in the Army and Marines, respectively, while his cousin served in the Navy and his uncle in the Air Force. “There’s nothing like football, but what coaches Blough and Gross are teaching us will make us mentally stronger to go out into the real world and work 100 percent at whatever we do,” Fuhrer said. “They are teaching us teamwork, always do your best, loyalty to your team and to have your friends back.”
The change in the players is also seen by first-year head coach Matt Maniskas.
“I think the boys are learning about sacrifice and being a true teammate and being responsible not only for yourself but for your brother beside you,” he said. “These two not only teach the players, they teach me about sacrifice, honor and respect. I am truly blessed to have them as coaches on my staff.”
There are many ways in which football and combat parallel each other as both men noted that, like a Friday night pre-game speech, military leaders give pep talks as they are preparing for their next mission.
“You have that brother next to you, you have the support of your family and loved ones back home, but on that day-to-day life, regardless of the series, you know that brother has your back,” Blough said. “That translates onto the football field as every single down, the center has a guard on one side and another and the quarterback has an offensive line in front of him and they all have to operate as a unit to be productive and successful. The quarterback becomes an officer on the field and makes command decisions on the field.”
Gross played for two years under coach Maniskas and is in his first year of working with the team.
Honor, courage and commitment are the principal values that define the United States Marine Corps. Gross was deployed with his unit in Operation Enduring Freedom “With these kids, it’s not always about Friday nights,” Gross said. “We want them to see that they can go out onto the football field and become a team but we are putting more than just yourself in front of it and that it becomes about the team.”
Gross noted coach Maniskas and coach Blough, along with four members of the football team, prepared meals for the families at the Ronald McDonald House on Labor Day.
“They realized that there are a lot more things that are bigger than them in the world,” he said. “Just hard work and everything else out on the field makes you become a better citizen, a better person.”
Gross was inspired by the events of 9-11 to join the Marines “I was in study hall at the time and a lot of my friends who were seniors on the football team went off to join the Marine Corps and I had always wanted to be a Marine,” he said. “There was no option. I wasn’t going to college, I was going to the Marine Corps and I knew that from the eighth grade on. My older brother is a Marine.”
Gross, who was deployed with his unit in Operation Enduring Freedom, played linebacker, fullback and then offensive guard for the Buffaloes.
Blough was an inaugural member of the Jr. ROTC at Pine Grove High School and became its second Battalion Commander.
His grandfather on his mother’s side was in World War II and served in the Philippines. His father earned a Purple Heart during his tour in Vietnam.
Blough is a dedicated veteran who saw deployment during each of the three operations in the Middle East; Operation Desert Shield/ Desert Storm in 1990-1991; Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2004-2006 and Operation Enduring Freedom, 2010-2011.
He recalls one moment vividly before going off to theater.
“We had flown to Bangor (Maine) and we got there about 2 or 3 in the morning, it was our last stop before going overseas,” he said. “We were allowed to get off the plane for a few moments while they did some maintenance on the plane and when we came off the plane, there was a group of about 50 Vietnam veterans there to shake our hands. They wanted to give us something that they never had and they wanted to make sure no soldier, sailor, airman or Marine would ever go through what they went through.
“When we returned a year later, our first stop in the U.S. was Bangor, and those same 50 Vietnam veterans were there at 3 o’clock in the morning to welcome us home,” Blough added.
“When I came back into Reading with the reserve unit, we had a motorcycle escort from Vietnam veterans,” Gross added. “They are amazing veterans who want to give back what they didn’t get.”
A dozen years ago on Sept., 11, 2001, a group of terrorists tried to impose their will, way of life and religious beliefs on America.
Mike Blough and Cameron Gross are a true testament that the American military will forever be the greatest trained fighting force in the world, which will operate as one in a cause to uphold and defend the nation’s freedom.