Dave Madaras imparts lessons of war to his son, Maryland tackle Mike Madaras


Good Counsel High School freshman line coach Dave Madaras works with his players during a practice Oct. 23. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 25, 2012

On weekday afternoons, you can find Dave Madaras in the Hole, ankle-deep in a muddy pit outside Good Counsel High School, where red tackling dummies and black tractor tires line the earth like tombstones.

“Hut-hut,” Madaras barks, his cadence ricocheting off the three white walls that surround the makeshift yard, echoing like the machine guns that were so familiar to him in a past life.

Wielding a sarcastic sense of humor that was honed in the Marine Corps — he often tells players he’s prone to mood swings, so their best option is to keep him happy — Madaras coaches the Falcons’ freshman offensive line, a modest evening gig. He lives for his wife and three kids back home in Urbana.

Less than an hour away from home, Maryland freshman tackle Mike Madaras sits at a table inside Gossett Team House, talking about how quickly things have moved in the past six months, how wonderful it is to have family so close by. Mike graduated from Good Counsel last spring and quickly shot up the Terrapins’ depth chart, earning his first start at left tackle against Wake Forest on Oct. 6.

Dave Madaras won’t be attending Maryland’s game at Boston College on Saturday, when the Eagles will honor wounded U.S. veterans with ceremonies, custom jerseys and a pregame flyover. It’s too far away. But if Dave were there, he would salute from the stands, above all else just another normal father beaming with pride.

Yet memories of his old family still endure, of the brothers who gave their lives alongside him. Twenty-nine years ago last Tuesday, a 22-year-old Dave Madaras was in Beirut, where he witnessed the worst that humanity had to offer.

Beirut assignment

Dave Madaras was born to a World War II paratrooper. Gabor Madaras (everyone called him Charles) always told Dave and his two older brothers to each serve two years in the military. Dave wanted to play football and party.

He was an offensive lineman at Churchill High School, one good enough to earn a look from Virginia Tech, but once the Hokies saw his academic transcript, their interest disappeared. Instead, he became one of the “Dirty Thirty” at Rockville’s Montgomery College, a rag-tag group.

He moved on to Division II Delta State in Mississippi, but bad grades soon got his scholarship revoked. One day back home, Dave and his father got into an argument. “Don’t worry about me,” Dave shouted. “I’m going into the Marines.”

At 22, he graduated from Parris Island boot camp in South Carolina in the best shape of his life, and after artillery school in Oklahoma was stationed at Camp Lejeune, a training facility in Jacksonville, N.C. Shortly after, he was called into an office. “Madaras, do you speak Lebanese?” the battery gunnery sergeant demanded. No sir, Madaras replied. “Well, you better learn. You’re assigned to Beirut.”

The Marines arrived as peacekeepers in Lebanon, which in 1983 had been devastated by a years-long civil war and further destabilized by an Israeli invasion the previous year.

The biggest soldier in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Madras performed gunnery computations, working with slide rules and figure angles, determining elevation and powder amounts.

One Sunday, during a week-long drivers’ training program with the truck platoon in Beirut, he rose at 6 a.m. Everyone else was still asleep, but Madras craved the hot breakfast served at the barracks down the road. When he put on his pants, the 100-degree heat began baking his legs. With comfort taking precedence over hunger, he undressed and began snoozing again.

Twenty-two minutes later, Dave was jolted from his bed in the corner of a tent that had been torn from its asphalt anchors, a wave of heat washing over his head.

At 6:22 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1983, a Hezbollah militant rammed a truck stuffed with 12,000 pounds of explosives into the atrium of the barracks, lifting four stories of reinforced concrete out of its foundation like a hot air balloon. Three hundred yards away, Madaras saw a smoke ring rise into the sky, a gaseous halo hovering over the carnage.

Jeeps were overturned. M-16s looked like pretzels. He stared at a metal folding chair that had pierced a soldier’s hip girdle, held hands with a sergeant crushed between two white slabs as a chaplain administered last rites beside a crater 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

“What in life prepares you to deal with that?” Madaras said. “It was absolute insanity. I don’t know how to describe it any other way.”

At some point, a photographer snapped the picture that later appeared on national magazine covers, including the cover of Time. That’s how Madaras’s parents knew he was alive. They saw him holding the legs of Sgt. Armando Ybarra, staring directly into the lens.

“Nine out of 10 times I would have gone to eat,” Madaras said. Had hunger guided him instead of exhaustion, he would have been dead like the 241 others, or severely wounded just like 100 more.

Getting into coaching

Madaras began coaching when his son was 7. They joined the I-70 League, a conference born as an offshoot of the overcrowded Carroll County Football League.

Tasked with running the league, Barry Tolbert also coached the Urbana Hawks. At the very first practice, he sought out the biggest parent in the bunch. That’s how he met Madras. “Which one’s yours?” Tolbert asked. Dave pointed to Mike. “Good,” Tolbert said. “Then you’re my assistant coach.”

Dave always reminded players and coaches not to harp on the wins and losses, and instead focus on the learning process. Mike is the same way.

“When we were a lot younger, whenever we’d get in a lot of trouble or do something stupid, it would come out,” Mike said. “He’d call it ‘drill-instructor mode.’ That’s when you knew you did something bad.”

Charles told Dave war stories over hunting trips in the mountains near Frederick, crouching atop makeshift stands at 4 a.m., waiting for deer to pass beneath. In turn, Dave showed Mike his father’s two bronze stars and two purple hearts, and took him to see his grandfather’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. They joke about Marine stories, that Dave served for the extra $63 a month in hostile-fire pay. Most importantly, Dave has made sure that Mike knows about what happened in Beirut.

Dave Madaras can see Urbana High School from his front porch, but there was something about a school founded in faith that became important. That’s how his son ended up at Good Counsel. Soon, the scholarship offers came rolling in for Mike, 21 in all. Enamored by Notre Dame’s illustrious history, Dave wanted his son to play for the Fighting Irish. Mike kept telling him it would be Stanford.

It wound up being neither. Mike committed to Maryland in March of his junior year. The first college football game he ever attended was at Byrd Stadium, watching the Terps play North Carolina State with his father. He gave all suitors a fair shot, but when he took an unofficial visit to Maryland, something just felt like home.

“I love that my family can go to games,” Mike said. “I love that my dad can still watch and coach me up.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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