AFA Note: The story below was published in the Denver Post on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009. A special thanks to the Post for allowing the athletic department to reprint it on our site.
Band of brothers: 1985 Falcons
Team shares a special bond and a legacy that still soars to this day
By Jim Armstrong
The Denver Post
Terry Maki remembers it as if it were yesterday. The chaos in the cockpit, the sense of imminent disaster, the flashes of enemy fire cutting through the darkness toward his helicopter.
"We were 50 feet off the ground," Maki said. "The helicopter drowns out most of the sound and light, but there were a lot of anxious folks in that helicopter. I really thought, at one point, we were going to be shot down."
Maki doesn't particularly like talking about that day in Iraq, or any of his military experiences for that matter. It's all part of the code of a Special Forces officer. He will, however, acknowledge a certain box at his home in Montana, one filled with medals to honor a man filled with mettle.
"I have a few, yeah," he said.
The Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Medal, just to name three.
Before he became a real-life Rambo, a man who infiltrated enemy lines with the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, Maki was a heck of a linebacker at the Air Force Academy. What Dick Butkus was to the Chicago Bears of the mid-1960s, Maki was to the Air Force Falcons of the mid-1980s.
"One tough son of a gun," said his coach, Fisher DeBerry.
Maki had a lot of company on the 1985 Air Force team that finished 12-1 and ranked No. 5 in the nation. With each passing year, the pile of evidence grows higher, one that points to that season as the greatest in school history.
Funny thing, though. Time also has revealed the special nature of that team, and the players' lasting legacy has little to do with setting academy records for victories, or points scored, or interceptions, all of which they accomplished, but what they did after leaving the academy.
Maki was asked about his most prized piece of memorabilia from his days in the armed forces. He didn't mention any of his medals, but rather a helmet signed by DeBerry and members of the 2006 Air Force football team, DeBerry's last at the academy.
"They sent it to me for my retirement," Maki said. "That was really cool."
A special blue-collar group
They had nicknames for each other. Smaki. Sid Vicious. Fat Joe. Spike. Scooter. Horsehead. Bandstand. They spent countless hours together, squeezing in impromptu film sessions between late-night studythons involving such core courses as astronautical engineering and aeronautical engineering and statistics. And they had an unconditional commitment to each other, a bond they still feel to this day, with their hair thinning and graying.
"We had blue-collar players who bought into our foundation, which was family and brotherhood," said DeBerry, who won the 1985 Bear Bryant Award as the national coach of the year. "They didn't want to let each other down. That's what made that group."
Added wide receiver Tyrone Jeffcoat, one of the few black players on that team: "I don't know if people understand how tight we were as a group. We transcended race and background. We broke down a lot of the subcliques that may have existed in previous classes."
But there was no discounting the role played by the rigors of everyday academy life.
"The adversity of the situation brought us all together," Jeffcoat said. "You depend on teammates. They're your brothers. You lean on them, tell them about the bad days and the good days. We had real strong bonds because those guys see you at your most vulnerable. There's a certain degree of intimacy that comes with that."
All-America safety Scott Thomas stays in touch with former teammates via the Internet and when he gets the chance he travels to Colorado Springs for reunions from Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he serves as a squadron commander.
"We can pick up right where we left off, even if we haven't spoken to each other for a year," Thomas said. "There are so many guys I'm proud of on that team. I mean, look what they've done with their careers."
Only one player on the 1985 team, sophomore defensive tackle Chad Hennings, played in the NFL. But then, that was by design. Air Force graduates are supposed to aspire to stars on their shoulders, not on their helmets, as Hennings wore with the Dallas Cowboys.
If Hennings was the exception among those players, doing great things in the service of their country was the rule.
Some of those players became majors; several rose to colonel, most if not all ahead of the age curve -- under the zone, to use Air Force vernacular, serving in various danger zones -- Panama, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, to name a few. One, Richard Clark, is a brigadier general in his mid-40s. Another, Col. Mike Chandler, went on to command the Thunderbirds. Another, Brady Glick, has spent more hours in an A-10 fighter plane than any other flier in Air Force history.
They didn't just fly A-10s. They piloted C-141s and F-16s, even Air Force 2. They led troops that ultimately vanquished Manuel Noriega from Panama and Saddam Hussein from Baghdad. They tracked down terrorists, carried supplies for starving refugees, escorted the vice president and the secretary of state around the world, and took part in more operations than Hawkeye and Trapper John -- Operation Desert Storm, Operation Anaconda, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Desert Shield and Operation Just Cause among them.
John Ziegler, a defensive tackle on that team, is now Col. John Ziegler. He landed in Iraq in 2006, where he worked counterintelligence and special investigations to identify and locate terrorists.
"There's not a lot I can tell you," Ziegler said. "There were a few we had our eyes on and we were able to . . . keep tabs on them. I was watching a video feed from a Predator, and to be able to see our guys flying around a house I had been watching a month earlier, it was kind of rewarding."
Maki saw his share of combat
Maki was deployed nine times from the late 1980s into the early years of this decade before retiring from the military to coach high school football in Montana. Name just about any Middle East conflict and he saw it, sometimes behind enemy lines with his Special Forces brethren. And yes, he witnessed more than his share of casualties. That's why he's not comfortable talking about his military experiences.
"It's personal when you lose forces, men who put their tails on the line every day. You're talking about the bravest Americans you could imagine. The best of the best, each one of them."
Maki survived that hail of enemy fire toward his helicopter in Iraq. Thomas has a similar story, having been rescued behind enemy lines in Iraq after being forced to bail out of his F-16 when the engine caught fire. U.S. Army Special Forces arrived 2 1/2 hours later, but the mission wouldn't have been successful if some of those missiles whizzing past the helicopter had found their mark.
"I never thought I was going to die," said Thomas, now a lieutenant colonel. "There were a couple of long hours of wondering, but I always had confidence in everybody around me. That comes from what's instilled in you after being part of a team with that academy group."
Thomas isn't alone. To a man, members of the 1985 team interviewed by The Post credited the experience of playing football at the academy with helping to mold them into the officers they became.
"We had a lot of leadership courses, but I firmly believe that nothing taught you more about leadership than playing football at the academy," said Bart Weiss, the quarterback on the 1985 team. "It taught me to identify people's strengths and weaknesses. You learn that you're going to take a physical and mental pounding, but you can't get down. Because you're not always going to play on 72-degree sunny days."
Maybe it was meant to be that Maki, a retired lieutenant colonel, would teach those lessons himself to high school football players. He's coaching in Florence, Mont., population 1,000, where he and his players were preparing this past week for a Class B state playoff game Saturday night. The name of his team? What else?
Jim Armstrong: 303-954-1269 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About the 1985 Falcons
Some key members of the 1985 Air Force football team, and what they're doing now:
Head coach Fisher DeBerry
Then: Won Bear Bryant Award as nation's top coach
Now: Retired, living in Oklahoma and South Carolina
QB Bart Weiss
Then: Directed record-setting offense
Now: Colonel, vice commander, McConnell AFB, Derby, Kan.
LB Terry Maki
Then: His 30 tackles keyed win vs. Notre Dame
Now: Retired Special Forces officer coaching high school football in Montana
FS Scott Thomas
Then: All-American, returned kickoff, punt and interception for touchdowns in 1985.
Now: Lieutenant colonel in reserves; pilot for American Airlines
LB Brady Glick
Then: Backup linebacker/special- teams player
Now: Lieutenant colonel, has logged more hours in A-10 than any other Air Force flier
DT John Ziegler
Then: Scrappy defender who gave up 30 pounds to opponents most weeks
Now: Colonel, Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs
NG Dick Clark
Then: Helped defense allow school-best 2.8 yards per carry
Now: Brigadier general, Barksdale AFB, Shreveport, La.
LB Pat Malackowski
Then: Rivaled Maki as team's hardest hitter
Now: Colonel, Nellis AFB, Las Vegas
DT Chad Hennings
Then: Future Outland Trophy winner, played for Dallas Cowboys
Now: Motivational speaker, consultant in Dallas
WR Tyrone Jeffcoat
Then: Did dirty work as a blocker in option offense
Now: Running a packing plant in Little Rock, Ark.
LB Mike Chandler
Then: Second-leading tackler to Maki
Now: Colonel who once commanded the Thunderbirds
RB Kelly Pittman
Then: Weiss' wingman in the backfield
Now: Major, flight instructor at Randolph AFB, San Antonio
WR Ken Carpenter
Then: Led 1985 Falcons in receiving
Now: Retired lt. colonel, living in Pacific Northwest, flying for Delta