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Written by Brad Kirtley
Clarksville, TN – For every rule, an exception exists.
Isaac VanMeter embodies it. It is more than just the Henderson, KY, native playing college football for the first time at Austin Peay at age 32, an age most male involvement in such a physical sport is reserved to the Fantasy variety.
VanMeter also is an exception in being a fulltime college student for the first time at a point in many men’s lives they already are taking out a second mortgage on their house.Not only is VanMeter a first-time fulltime college student who is playing football for the first time, he is as well the exception in being a single father raising three young daughters.
VanMeter will have a large cheering section, Saturday night, when the Governors play host to Tennessee State. Not only will his daughters be in attendance, but members of the 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment will be there as well cheering him during APSU’s annual Military Appreciation Night.
APSU fullback/specials team performer Isaac VanMeter, who sports Govs uniform No. 52, also wears the uniform of the U.S. Army. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Isaac VanMeter is a member of that 101st Aviation Regiment. He is an Apache Helicopter pilot who has made four combat tours, two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He has flown countless missions. He has been engaged and taken fire in combat numerous times.
Now he is at Austin Peay as part of the Active Warrant Officer Service Degree Completion Program, a program that allows active duty officers to complete a baccalaureate degree within a 12-to-18-month span. Since enlisting in the Army in 1997, he has taken several classes along the way and combined with 75 flight-school hours, he will graduate in the spring.
In other words, he is at Austin Peay for one year, with the Governors football team for just one season. What would drive a man who regularly flies what enemy ground forces believe is the most terrifying machine to attempt a sport he has not played competitively since he was a teenager?
“I just love the game-I love football,” VanMeter said. “It’s a passion. We follow it a lot at work. We play the fantasy leagues for pro football. We follow the college game-when we are on deployment we stay up because it is on in the middle of the night. Everyone wants that next day off so they can stay up and watch the games.
“I have never lost the passion for it.”
In fact, the football passion has been a part of the VanMeter family. He and his father Allan, a Western Kentucky graduate, were Hilltopper season-ticket holders and their trips together to Bowling Green always will be some of the fondest family memories for the younger VanMeter.
“Three years ago I told my dad, while we were at one of the games, I am trying to get into this degree completion program,” he said. “I told him wherever I go I am going to try and walk on to the football program.
“He said that would be ‘humorous,” considering I already was in my late 20s.”
He started formulating a plan but a year later it became more than that-it became a promise to himself to fulfill that dream he shared with his father, who died in 2009 from colon cancer. As the calendar turned to 2011 the degree completion program came to fruition.
At only 5-foot-8 inches tall and in the 185-pound range, VanMeter knew at his age, his position options would be limited. An option quarterback/safety during his prep days, he looked at possible positions he could play. He knew he wasn’t fast or quick enough to play wide receiver or defensive back and certainly not big enough to play along the lines. Fullback/running back was a possible option.
Now it was up to him to get into “football shape.” He went to the internet, looking for different schools’ offseason workout programs, like the one at William and Mary. He spent the summer working relentlessly in the Olive Physical Fitness Center room at Fort Campbell. He then would drive to the Austin Peay campus and sprint up the hills behind the outfield fence at Raymond C. Hand Park and then utilize use his own ladder and cones for speed and quickness drills.
He also spoke to APSU assistant coach Marcus Gildersleeve, who was in charge of APSU’s walk-on program, about joining the Governors.
“I sent him an email because I did not want to fill out that recruit thing that would indicate to them what my age was, at least until they got to see me,” VanMeter said.
The first steps were gaining admittance to school along with receiving NCAA Clearance.
“The NCAA people were funny,” VanMeter said. “They wanted to know ‘why did you take your ACTs in 1996 and now are playing (college football). Did you play minor league baseball? Where have you been?’ I told them I had been in the Army, flying helicopters.
“I asked the guy if flying helicopters would make me ineligible? He laughed and said, ‘I don’t know. I have never been asked that before.’”
Next came a face-to-face meeting with Gildersleeve.
“Coach Gildersleeve was great,” VanMeter said. “He asked me some questions and when it came to my birth date I just kind of blew through it, January 16th, 1979. He said the 16th of January and left it at that.”
Turns out that Gildersleeve’s father, Monroe, was a Chief Warrant Officer 4 (now retired), just like VanMeter and that APSU’s wide receiver coach, who is 35, grew up with some of the same people that VanMeter served with, like Maj. Clint Cody, son of Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody, the former Commanding General, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and Fort Campbell.
“We started talking and laughing about things…and I realized the age thing was blown,” VanMeter said. “But I kept being allowed to do things, got my physical, and we got through the whole process. We were issued equipment and we got to go out there and run into people. It was good.”
And his three daughters, Scarlett, age 13; Isabella, age 10, and Virginia, age 4, were almost as excited as their father when he finally was allowed to step onto the football field.
“You know how kids are–my daughters think I can do anything,” he said. “They are all girlie girls, but they love watching football with me. Scarlett knows, for instance, that it is holding (penalty) because of where the flag is thrown. Isabella isn’t quite into it as her older sister but Virginia will sit there and watch the NFL Combine with me.”
Although VanMeter is just thrilled to be on the football field, he has no unrealistic expectations.
“There are different approaches to things,” he said. “I wanted to play football because I love the game. If I came out here and said I have one year (to play) so I need to get on the field, that would not be the reasonable way to approach it. The reasonable way is you (APSU coaching staff) are allowing me to play football and I love you for that.
“Coach (Rick) Christophel is trying to build something here-there is a lot of young talent and he could have looked at me one of two ways; one, that this guy can set the example, he is the old man and is not out there complaining, so you (the other players) can’t complain.
“Or he could have looked at this, at me, as being a joke for wanting to join this program…I couldn’t have asked for anything better. The coaches all have been great. The players have been really good to me.”
In fact, it was one of the younger players, sophomore wide receiver Tee Howell, who may have helped VanMeter get to the football field faster.
“Tee is my guy-he has been great to me,” VanMeter said. “When we were coming out of our geology class (earlier this semester) and he asked what position I was playing. I told him I was deep on the halfback chart. He told me with my size I should play fullback. I came over here that afternoon and Coach Gildersleeve (Howell’s position coach) told me I would have a better chance to playing if you were on the fullback depth chart. That made sense to me.”
In a sense, VanMeter is hoping to reciprocate for what was done for him early in his military career, serving in a mentoring role to young people who are searching for their own identities.
When he entered the Army, VanMeter again was an exception-he immediately became a Private First Class because he had been a member of the Jr. ROTC while at Henderson County High School. In less than four years, at age 21, he entered in Warrant Officer Candidate School in Fort Rucker, AL. Again, he was the exception.
“I was the baby there, I was 21,” he said, “and everybody else was 26 and 27 and senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers), fast-tracking guys. There were a lot of leadership classes, lot of physical training…there were so many guys who knew what was going on who helped me so much. They allowed me to follow them around and I got pinned…as a WO1 (Warrant Officer 1).
“Then I went through flight school, they helped me develop better study habits. I got through all of that. I was then lucky to be able to pick which helicopter I wanted to fly, the Apache.”
When VanMeter talks about flying the Apache the enthusiasm runs deep about the U.S. military’s most intricate flying tank of nearly 18,000 pounds that serves in so many different capacities, ranging from combat to deep-strike capabilities to reconnaissance.
“This job is just like the English language, for every rule there is an exception,” VanMeter said. “We usually fly between 120 (138 mph) to 140 knots (161 mph). But it is all relative. We can fly low so if you are going around 100 miles per hour your tail wheels are almost skimming the trees, you feel like you are really moving. If you are flying 600 miles per hour in a plane but you are at 30,000 feet, you feel like you are standing still. It is all relative.
“It is a fun job, it is a great job. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
But that passion for flying and the Apache doesn’t run even close to that for his family.
They are the reason he wants to earn his undergraduate degree.
“I want to get my degree and set an example to my daughters that education is important,” VanMeter said. “I don’t want them to say dad didn’t go to school…I want them to realize how important school is and how important education is.”
He has an assortment of cousins, aunts and uncles who live in the area and have helped him manage his household, especially when he has been deployed. They certainly will be there Saturday supporting his latest mission, with the Austin Peay football program.
Yes, much of his family will be there Saturday, with one exception. If he gets to step onto the football field Saturday night, don’t be surprised for a brief second VanMeter smiles, looks upward to his father, and says…”We did it.”
Topics101st Airborne Division, 101st Aviation Regiment, 3rd Battalion 101st Aviation Regiment, ACT, Apache Helicopter, Apache Pilot, APSU, APSU Athletics, APSU Football, APSU Men's Football, APSU Sports, Army, Austin Peay State University, Brad Kirtley, Clarksville TN, Clint Cody, Fort Campbell KY, Fort Rucker AL, Governors, Isaac VanMeter, Marcus Gildersleeve, Military Appreciation Night, Raymond C. Hand Park, Richard Cody, Rick Christophel, Soldier, Tennessee State
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