College football is steeped in tradition, and Army arguably has one of the coolest — and most dangerous — rituals.
Before every home game, with the game ball in tow, members of the West Point Parachute Team jump out of a helicopter and glide into Michie Stadium, delivering the ball to the referee.
“I’m biased,” cadet Jordan Komm says, “but I think it is the best part about football.”
The West Point Parachute Team was founded in 1958 and has been delivering the game ball at the Black Knights’ home games by air since the mid-1970s. Normally, the ball is with the first or second of five jumpers. The final jumper bears the American flag.
Cadet Cameron McDonald, a member of the class of 2016, says he visited West Point when he was a Cub Scout, and one of the first things he noticed was parachute team.
“When I was 10 years old, I came up here for a football game,” McDonald says, “And I saw them jump in the game ball and I thought, ‘Wow, I could picture myself doing that.’ And that actually initiated my looking at the academy. I figured if this is a place that can trust one of the students to jump in the game ball to a football game, that would be a pretty cool school to go to and learn what it’s all about.”
Tom Falzone, coach of the parachute team, says the jumpers — usually seniors — are selected on merit. Scores are kept at practice, as members are judged on how far they land from the center of the target.
“You have to earn that slot to jump into the stadium,” Falzone says.
How it works
A lot of preparation goes into an event that lasts about five minutes.
The team practices three to four days a week at West Point. On Saturdays and Sundays, provided there isn’t a game, they train from sunrise to sunset at a local skydiving center.
The game-day jumpers are part of a “stack.” For execution, Falzone says he looks for a clean stack and a nice separation of the jumpers (about 20-25 seconds between each) that’s not too tight or too loose because of timing.
Each jumper free falls — “It feels like the wind’s rushing your face, similar to if you put your face or your hand out a car window,” McDonald says — before opening the main parachute, then steers using the lines attached to the chute.
The Black Knights’ jumps can be as high as 4,500 feet or as low as 2,500 feet, depending on wind conditions.
The jumpers exit upwind of the target — in this case the midfield logo — and then drift back toward Michie Stadium with the aid of the wind. As they get closer, the jumpers are focused on having the proper descent rate, flying the proper angles, and readying for a smooth landing at the 50-yard line.
But it’s impossible not to hear the roar from the crowd when they’re roughly at 1,000 feet. At that point, it’s showtime. At about 600 feet, they enter the stadium, and that’s where the excitement begins for the spectators and the participants. One by one, the jumpers land to cheers. And that adrenaline rush, the Black Knights can attest, is incredible.
“It’s a very exciting feeling,” cadet Pace Murray says. “I can actually hear the crowd when I’m under canopy, so they really pump me up and it’s awesome to be able to land and deliver. It’s really an honor.”