He opens his e-mail, jotting down tips and asking questions: How was your footwork? How were your hands positioned on that block?
“It’s more hobby for me than feedback to him,” Huff said in an e-mail.
It’s not easy for Huff, who played college football at Army, to be stationed at International Security Assistance Force headquarters more than 7,000 miles from his family and Fort Meade home. And it won’t be easy for Will Jr. to glance up at the metal bleachers again during Meade’s 4A East region semifinal against Broadneck on Friday night and know his dad won’t be there.
“I definitely miss him, you know? He’s your dad,” Will said. “He’s always been mature and a leader, and that’s what I try to bring out here on the football field.”
Ask the 15-year-old about his future, and he will tell you his goal is to go to West Point and hopefully play football there, just like his dad. He doesn’t simply want to enlist in the Army; he wants to join the 82nd Airborne Division, where his dad was a battalion commander .
“Everyone looks up to their dad,” said Rich Martignetti, a family friend, “but he’s an especially easy guy to look up to given all he’s achieved and all he’s sacrificed.”
Sports have always been a common bond for father and son, and Huff’s four tours in Afghanistan and two-plus years in Iraq haven’t changed that. Their hours working out together and watching Army, Duke and Northwestern football games have been replaced by one or two 10-minute phone calls each week. But the go-to topic of conversation — football — hasn’t changed.
Military life and sports require similar qualities, including a balance of teamwork and personal accountability, and Huff has tried to instill those qualities in his son. He has always introduced Will Jr. to his fellow soldiers and former teammates at Army, where he was an undersize defensive lineman and team captain in the late 1980s. But he has never pushed Will to follow in his footsteps.
“He’s really an ideal parent to have in the program,” Meade Coach Rich Holzer said. “He coaches Will up but at the same time lets the coaches do their job. And he actually says that. He says, ‘I’m just here to help. Whatever you think is best for the team is what Will needs to do.’ ”
For most of his life, Will has been able to look up at the crowd and see his father giving him a thumbs-up after a nice play or a stern look after a mistake. Now, in addition to his sister, Nina, and mother, Beata, Will often looks up at the stands and sees Martignetti, whom he calls his uncle.
Martignetti has known Will’s father since they played opposite one another as linemen for rival high schools in New York more than 30 years ago. The former offensive lineman at Towson said the Huffs share the same personality, speak with the same intonation in their voice and even walk with the same gait, “almost as if Big Will had spit him out his mouth.”
“I like to think I’m a little more athletic than my dad,” Will said, grinning. “He always had his hand in the ground. He always tells me to be careful, keep a balanced diet and stay healthy. If I get too fat or slow, I’ll have to have my hand in the ground.”
Two weeks ago, before Meade’s win over Broadneck, Will was practicing with the second team and told his father he was a little frustrated by his role. Huff assured him that if he was physically and mentally prepared for an opportunity, it would come.
After an injury to one of his teammates in the second half against the Bruins, Will finished the game and converted a pivotal first down in the fourth quarter, continuing a drive that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown. An hour later, he was excitedly recapping the game over the phone for Huff, who woke up before sunrise in Afghanistan to account for the time change.
“It has been tough, without question,” said Huff, who expects to return home in March. “It’s part of the cost of the profession that we have. I think it would be more emotional if it was his senior year. I think that would be very, very hard to be away from.”
Will caught the first touchdown pass of his varsity career last weekend in a loss to Arundel, grabbing the ball on a short slant route and barreling into the end zone. A few days later, Huff watched the play on film from Kabul.
He hasn’t been to a game all season, but he hasn’t missed a single play.