Frank Azzarita, the starting quarterback for the Merchant Marine Academy, thought he was prepared for the "indoctrination."
As a Navy brat, he felt he had seen enough of military life to be ready for the two weeks of what most schools passively term "freshman orientation." He was wrong.
"It was an eye-awakener," said Azzarita, a 1984 graduate of W.T. Woodson High School. "It's our opening into regimental life. Let's say that they keep you real busy."
Azzarita, trying to lead the Merchant Marines (4-0-1) to their first winning season since 1976, could not pinpoint why he chose such a rigorous program.
"I'm still not exactly sure. I saw a program that was picking up and I thought it was something to try."
Indoctrination begins with a 5:30 wake-up call, where a plebe has two minutes to get to calisthenics. The rest of the day consists of running, push-ups, sit-ups, team sports, classes in regimental basics and marching drills. The marching is known as "the grinder."
"They just drill and drill you. They pound the regimental system into you and fast. We do a year's worth of learning in two weeks," Azzarita said.
Then at night, the plebes are schooled in "plebe-beat." Officers ask a lot of questions about "plebe-knowledge." "They want you to get used to reacting under pressure," Azzarita said.
After this kind of pressure, starting at quarterback two games into his freshman year seemed tame for Azzarita. His first opponent was C.W. Post, a team that the academy had not defeated in 16 years.
"I was nervous, but I tried to keep my mind on what I was doing and not the circumstances surrounding it, that is, not having beaten Post in 16 years," Azzarita said. "Both teams were fired up. It was like opening up to a new world."
Azzarita reacted fairly well, completing 11 of 23 passes for 127 yards. He did throw four interceptions, but the Merchant Marines managed a 21-21 tie.
"I didn't feel comfortable until after the second series as I ran more and more plays, and we really began to move the ball. I got a better feel for what I was doing," Azzarita said.
In his second start, he improved greatly against Fordham, completing 11 of 17 passes for 176 yards and three touchdowns to lead the academy to a 26-10 victory. Two of his touchdowns were caught by split end Boren Chambers, a Mount Vernon graduate.
After Fordham, Azzarita excelled again against overmatched Fitchburg State. In a 45-0 victory, he completed five of seven passes for 93 yards in the first quarter before Coach Dennis Barrett rested the starters. Azzarita's overall statistics are 34 for 62, 507 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions. He ran for his first rushing touchdown last week against Pace, as the Academy won, 30-0.
Azzarita, who last year quaarterbacked Woodson to a 9-1 record and earned all-Met honors, cited size and quickness as the two most important differences between high school and college football.
"I wasn't 100 percent adjusted to the differences against Post," he said. "The defenders really got up high. Their capability surprised me. I definitely underestimated them."
Barrett was impressed by Azzarita from the beginning of training camp. "He started out third on the depth chart, but I knew it was only a matter of time before he would progress. I know I just put him in the fire against Post, but I knew he could handle it," Barrett said.
Azzarita, a roll-out quarterback who played the wishbone at Woodson, has easily adapted to Barrett's split-T offense. "He's not the classic, dropback style of quarterback," Barrett said. "But he gets the ball in there. It may not be pretty, but he has that ability to find the open receiver."
"As he came up, the coaches were talking about him," Chambers said. "I knew of him because our fathers worked in the same office in the Navy at one time. But I'm not allowed to mix with him off the field because of fraternization rules. I do talk to him a lot on the field, telling him what I'm going to be doing. I can't knock him. He's doing the job."
Azzarita's father, who started at quarterback for Rutgers, taught his son how to throw. "I'm trying not to underthrow my balls or forcing balls in," Azzarita said. "I'm learning that I have to be quicker getting to the corner (of the rolling pocket)."