The Army football program dipped into the Baltimore-area talent pool multiple times last year, signing three local prospects to its 2008 recruiting class.
Atholton linebacker/safety Geoff Easterling, Hereford running back Lonnie Liggins and Atholton running back Kelechi Odocha all signed with the Black Knights last February.
Here’s a look at how each player ended up choosing West Point.
The rival school
With his mother working at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and his grandfather an Air Force veteran, the military was always on the mind of Odocha during his childhood.
By the age of 10, Odocha had already made up his mind on where he wanted to go to college. He was sold on attending a military academy -- it just wasn’t West Point.
“I always wanted to go to Navy -- that was a dream of mine,” Odocha said. “They were talking to me and everything, but they never really called. I went to three of their games, and I was waiting for that to play out.”
Odocha, a standout sprinter for Atholton, piqued the interest of the Navy track and field coaching staff, which began recruiting him heavily. Navy’s football coaches, however, “never really responded“ to Odocha‘s interest in their program.
Meanwhile, Army began showing serious interest in Odocha. But with his mother working weekends, the five-hour drive to West Point for an official visit during the football season was out of the question. Luckily for Odocha, he was able to take an up-close look at the program before the Army-Navy game at M&T Bank Stadium in December.
“Before they played [that weekend I got to meet] all the players, and that’s when [Army wide receivers coach] Dan Baranik gave the offer,” Odocha said. “[That experience] just made me feel at home. ... It just felt like a good fit for me.”
The experience pushed West Point to the forefront of Odocha’s mind, but the opportunity to run track at Navy was still a possibility.
“The Navy coach was like, ‘you’re going through the admission board and I’ll call you back in a week.’ [I thought] if he doesn’t call back, I’ll go and commit to Army,” Odocha said. “A couple weeks later, a Navy letter shows up at the house. And it was the acceptance letter to the Naval Academy Prep School. That was my dream and my goal. It was a bummer, but I knew that if I would’ve went there it wouldn’t have been what I imagined. ... [Plus, the Navy] track coach wanted me to run ... but I really wanted to play football.”
The week after the Army-Navy game, Baranik paid Odocha and Easterling a visit at Atholton and reiterated his desire for both players to come to West Point. While Easterling needed a little more time, Odocha made his commitment -- and hasn’t doubted his choice since.
“It’s a good feeling just because for the next five years, [I’m going to play in the Army-Navy game],” Odocha said. “Hopefully we’ll come [to Annapolis] and start beating them, because I’m from Maryland and wanted to go to their school. So it’s going to be a good feeling.”
The best fit
Easterling and Odocha first met each other and became good friends at Wilde Lake Middle School. The friendship continued through high school, with both playing football and participating in Atholton’s ROTC program.
While Odocha was completely focused on a military career, Easterling became more receptive to the academy lifestyle over time.
“I did a lot of military things [growing up],” Easterling said. “I spent three summers at Valley Forge Military Academy [in Wayne, Pa.]. I did three years of ROTC and it gave me a lot of discipline. So I would never have considered myself as someone gung-ho about the military, but it’s always been around and I just became accustomed to it.”
When Army started recruiting Easterling, he was immediately interested. Lehigh eventually offered a football scholarship, Towson wanted him to walk on and Ohio Dominican gave him an academic scholarship. But the allure of West Point and playing Division I football was strong from the start.
“I was never like, ‘OK, [Army is] my top choice,’ as soon [the coaches] walked in the door,” Easterling said. “My dream school was Penn State or Clemson, all these crazy places, but it’s Division I football, so I was flattered that a Division I school was walking in the door and had something to say to me.”
Easterling, who contributed 66 tackles, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and two blocked kicks during an injury-shortened senior season, made many of his recruiting trips with Odocha. But he took one visit to West Point without his friend. That October trip ultimately stood out above the rest.
“Kelechi and I, we went on a lot of trips together,” Easterling said. “I think there was only one time I went alone. It was after the Reservoir game, when I had hurt my knee. I went up there just to check out a game. I jacked up my knee, but they still told me I was their guy, and that’s when I told my parents [that I was thinking about committing]. They didn’t even care that my knee was messed up. They were still willing to take me on.”
While Easterling had a high level of comfort at West Point, he let Signing Day pass without inking with the Black Knights. Easterling said he just wanted to be deliberate with his decision. Four days after the date, Easterling signed his letter of intent.
“I just wanted to make sure it was the best deal for me and my family,” Easterling said. “Lehigh had offered, and a couple other places [were talking about offering]. It turned out [Army was] willing to wait for me, which made me even more comfortable with my decision.”
The right position
Liggins was the most heavily recruited of Army’s Maryland trio, but most of the attention came at a position he wanted no part of at the next level.
“A lot of people talked to me, but they wanted me to play defense and I wanted to stick with a school that strictly wanted me as a running back,” Liggins said. “Navy came, Maryland wanted me to play defensive back and I basically told them I didn’t want to play defensive back, so they didn’t come all the way through [with an offer].”
Duke and James Madison eventually offered, while Indiana and West Virginia also recruited Liggins for defensive back. But if Liggins ever had any doubts about his ability to play running back in college, they were erased last spring.
“Army [started recruiting me] after I won the Nike Penn State camp,” Liggins said. “That was like May 10. I won the running back award there. I think the week after that they called my coach and offered me.”
Liggins put together a spectacular senior season for Hereford, rushing for 1,321 yards and 23 touchdowns. His efforts earned him a spot on The Sun‘s All-Metro first team. Still, Army was the only school that remained convinced of Liggins’ potential at running back.
“I’ve been playing running back for all my life, so why would I change it?” Liggins said. “I wouldn’t be happy if I was putting all this effort into a position I didn’t want to play.”
Eventually, Liggins had to decide what mattered most to him -- playing defensive back at another DI school, or sticking with running back at Army. Liggins said he had never really considered attending a military academy, so it was a difficult decision. A visit to West Point helped alleviate most of his concerns.
“I had to kind of be sold [on visiting West Point],” Liggins said. “I kind of didn’t want to go, but my mom told me to just check it out and see how it would be. … they just never brought up the whole situation of playing defensive back and that’s what I liked. I didn’t want to play defense at all and [they never mentioned it]. They said I could do this and that, and I’d be set for the rest of my life when I graduate from there.”
Liggins was sold and committed to Army in January. Now he said he’s looking forward to getting back on the field and proving the Army coaches right by eventually making an impact at running back.
“I’m just ready to have fun and start this whole new season, meet these new kids and go up against the top competition.”
Easterling, Liggins and Odocha will spend the upcoming school year at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School in Fort Monmouth, N.J., playing football, going to school and getting acclimated to the military lifestyle.
“I mean it’s just getting ready and running and lifting,” Odocha said. “Just changing my mindset from high school to learning military training and military discipline. It’s a different mindset.”
The football team at West Point Prep will play a schedule that includes matchups with Army’s junior varsity squad, Navy Prep and several other schools.
“They expect me to come from prep school and compete for the starting spot,” Liggins said. “So I’ve just got to keep in shape, do what I have to do at prep school and get it done.”
The Maryland trio will report to New Jersey by July 18 -- better known as Reception Day. That’s when the military, academic and football careers for Easterling, Liggins and Odocha will commence.
“It’s just a short summer,” Easterling said, “but it’s a small sacrifice considering I’m going to West Point and I’ll get to play Division I football next year.”
Credits: Sun photo of Kelechi Odocha by Kim Hairston; Photo of Geoff Easterling courtesy of Rivals.com; Sun photo of Lonnie Liggins by Elizabeth Malby.