BUFFALO - Sometimes, an institution's progress can be aided by returning heroes' march forward.
After finishing their 2011 season with a championship loss in its NJCAA Region III final, Coach Dennis Greene and his Erie Community College Kats had plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the future of their program. For one, they fought through a 2-8 season to come within one touchdown from stealing their region's crown from Alfred State. And two, future recruitment into their foray of red and black uniforms was about to get an unexpected boost by a member of their defensive line, former Marine Andrew Buczek.
Before he found ECC this past fall, Buczek-a native Western New Yorker-played full-contact football during his tour with the Marines. Once he enrolled with the college and started to see field time, he reached out to several fellow Marines he'd served and played football with overseas, men from states like Florida, Mississippi and West Virginia. Now, they're coming to serve with him again-on the New York gridiron.
"We have a number of veterans coming to this school because of the abundance of opportunities available to them," said Dan Frontera, a former Iraq War vet who now serves as a consultant with ECC's Veterans Affairs Office. "In the military, the unit and your commitment to each other mean everything.Once you've served together, you'll drop what you're doing to help your friend for the rest of your life. With these guys playing football, it's no different. They see their friends as part of a team, and now, they want to join the effort. They have an opportunity to part of a team again and use their GI Bill to pay for college, which will cover about 90% of the cost."
As many veterans start to return home from their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, they'll begin to search for educational and employment opportunities as they transition back into civilian life. With the opportunities Erie Community College is presenting veterans not only in athletics, but in the classroom and with extensive vet support services, the college has positioned itself as a sensible fit for our country's returning servicemen like Buczek and his fellow Marines. This past year, the college was rated the country's 11th-best community college for vets Military Times EDGE magazine, a ranking Frontera considers indicative of not only how the school accommodates these students, but how these students can affect the college as a whole.
"National statistics show that community colleges are the best place for vets to start out," said Frontera. "We offer smaller classes, smaller settings and an easier transition for these students. These veterans are going to see these facts and consider them once they decide to become a part of something again. They're students that bring different strengths to the classroom, and people are going to gravitate to that. They're setting an example every day for our student body."
This example can also be seen throughout Coach Greene's squad, both in the weight room and the classroom. Buczek has already been joined by Marine mates like linebacker Brandon Cannon and defensive back Terrence Wise for the Kats' spring workouts. Soon, former Corps members like defensive tackle Ryan Holdaway, tight end Nick Jones and wideout Chris McClean will follow to further influence the mood and work ethic of ECC's squad. According to Greene, it's an ethic and attitude that's already been influenced by his newest players.
"It's almost like having coaches on the field," said Greene, now approaching his 12th year with the program. "The younger kids listen because they know these guys have been around. They not only demand respect, but bring togetherness and leadership to our team. With the younger kids who may be a little crazy or immature, these vets can bring those players down and get them to focus both on the field and in the classroom. They can let these players know how important college is and what it's all about."
And, in turn, the college is helping these heroes start anew. Their infusion of leadership and experience can help strengthen ECC's athletics and student body, but it's the reciprocal relationship between the college and the veteran that, according to Frontera, is at the core of a truly unifying and supportive opportunity-for everyone involved.
"We're offering an opportunity for these vets to get started," he said. "The typical US military member enlists when (he or she) is 18 years old, not ready for college, not sure what they want to do for a career, so they decide to go into the military and learn some type of skills. Now, after having not been in a classroom in anywhere from six to 20 years, they're returning to learn skills that will either lead them to another professional level or into a four-year education. When we see that they're involved with football, that's great, but that's just one component of their life after the military. There are many other services this college offers our vets, like mentoring, counseling, adaptive services, and tutoring, things that can help get them through their new post-military lives."
For more information about Erie Community College and their veteran assistance services, contact (716) 851-1205 or go to www.ecc.edu/studentLife/supportservices/veterans.