Ben Brickman put on his Syracuse football helmet and jersey for the first time one day last spring and jogged out to his first practice.
It should have been a triumphant moment, after months of dogged persistence to even get a tryout. But then practice started and Brickman had no idea what to do, or where to go, or who anybody was once they started rushing past.
“The best way to describe it is -- you know the guys who save people out of the ocean?” Brickman said recently. “If somebody pushed me out of a helicopter into a hurricane, that would be the best way to describe it.”
Undeterred, Brickman did his best to follow along, telling himself this is exactly what he wanted: to be on a team, to have a sense of camaraderie, togetherness, motivation and responsibility. He craved all of that after serving two tours in Afghanistan with the Marines, fighting the Taliban.
Once he left the military in 2013, he eventually came back home to upstate New York and enrolled at Hudson Valley Community College. Though he had never played football, Brickman decided to walk on as a receiver.
“Football’s something I’ve always loved,” Brickman said. “It’s one of those things that if I didn’t try it, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
Brickman, now 26, spent three years there, learning how to actually play the position. But there was no way he would give up on his football dream just yet.
After he earned his degree, he enrolled at Syracuse for its exercise and science program so he could eventually get into physical therapy school. He decided he would try to walk on at Syracuse, too.
Brickman arrived in January and went to the football office. He was told to leave his information and someone would give him a call. Nobody called. He went back to the football office and was told the same thing. Nobody got back to him.
So Brickman decided to email every coach on staff and he kept showing up at the football office. Eventually, director of football player development Roy Wittke got back to him.
“He told me I’d have to wait until after this football season because that’s when they hold tryouts,” Brickman said. “I didn’t take no for an answer. I kept showing up.”
On one of those visits, he ran into coach Dino Babers. Brickman told him his story. Babers referred him back to Wittke.
“I have all the emails he sent to me, 16 or 17,” Wittke said. “He was so persistent. He would not let it go. You could tell he was a good person and he meant well and he wasn’t disrespectful in any manner. I wasn’t going to go against our policy and make an exception unless Coach was on board. When Coach found out he had the military background, Coach said he’s a guy who deserved an opportunity, so we brought him out for the tryout.”
Brickman worked out for Wittke and graduate assistant Lanear Sampson. He ran three 40-yard dashes, did some cone drills and ran routes.
“You could tell he had some athletic skills and our guys thought he was a guy we’d like to bring out for spring practice, and we did,” Wittke said.
Brickman soon joined the team, and word began spreading that he served in the military. In the receivers room, teammates would often ask for war stories. This gave him a chance to fill them in on his past.
Brickman went through basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina, a grueling 13 weeks that challenged him in every way. Then it was off to infantry training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. In August 2010, he left for his first deployment to Afghanistan, where he was stationed at a small patrol base with 11 others.
“We had a big IED threat, which is improvised explosive device, the bombs they put in the ground,” Brickman said. “Everywhere you’re walking, you’re staring at the ground making sure you step in the person’s footsteps ahead of you. If you step off the path, it might not be clear and you might blow up.”
He stayed there seven months. Brickman returned in January 2012 for another seven months. This time, his company was assigned to clear compounds and directly fight the Taliban. He estimates they went on 15 missions during that time.
“We’d land, take over someone’s compound. All the villagers would leave and we’d run around shooting Taliban,” Brickman said. “They’d shoot back at us for three to four days, and then they’d pick us up in helicopters and take us out.”
In describing the difference between the two missions, Brickman said, “Getting shot at is -- it’s almost relieving because you knew that they can’t shoot, they stick their rifle over a wall and just spray. The bombs in the ground are the worst. You can’t hear them, you can’t see them.”
Brickman has shared some of his stories to impress teammates.
“That’s how I knew he was a sniper,” receiver Devin Butler said. “He told us he was able to shoot from 500 yards away. I was like, ‘We have to be friends in case something ever goes bad, I’m on your side.’”
Although Brickman has gotten into only one game this season, coaches and players say he has made himself a valuable member of the scout team.
“Ben, he’s ready to take every rep because he wants to make himself better,” Butler said. “He’s open to what coaches say and what other players tell him. We see him improving in practice. He loves being a part of a team and that’s good energy to have. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ben have a down day.”
On Saturday against Wake Forest, his story will become even more widely known. Brickman will join Mike Chemotti, one of the oldest living Syracuse veterans, on the Carrier Dome field for a “Hometown Heroes” presentation. Chemotti, a former football walk-on himself in 1936, enlisted in the Army in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He is 103.
In all likelihood, Brickman will not play but, as he says, it’s not all about the games.
“I like the camaraderie of it; there’s always someone to talk to,” Brickman said. “I’m on the scout team and I get the behind-the-scenes information to go against our defense. Guys come to me when they need to talk, and it’s football. I’m having fun.”