At night after football practice, Navy junior cornerback Jeremy McGown takes a pen, unlocks his bedroom locker and opens the three-ring binder he has had since arriving in Annapolis. On the pages of that notebook his two passions intertwine as he translates life as a football player into rhythmic poetry.
Some nights, the words flow as he describes the pressures of playing Division I-A football and succeeding at one of the country's toughest academic institutions. Other times, he struggles for the right word to depict relationships with his peers or the challenge to grow up quickly at a place that demands it.
"Does poetry make me a better football player? I don't think so," he said. "But I need it. Sometimes I have to clear my mind. I want to be diverse by doing something other than sports, which have always been such a big part of my life. Poetry gives me a release I need, and gives me a break."
McGown began stringing stanzas together in page-long poems in eighth grade, when he started retreating to his bedroom in his Houston home. His mother, Sue, didn't know what he was doing -- until he presented her with a poem for Mother's Day. It was one of the first in a collection that eventually filled five notebooks by the time he graduated high school.
"By the time I finished, it had brought me to tears. They were just beautifully written words," said Sue McGown, the only person Jeremy allows to read his work. "He's always been an introverted kid, and this is one way he expresses himself."
His other way is through sports. McGown was kicking soccer balls at age 3, and two years later he was playing basketball, football, baseball and running track. He hung posters of Bo Jackson in his bedroom, and then replaced them with Kordell Stewart posters when McGown was starring for Langham Creek High School in Houston.
"I've always liked guys who can do more than one sport or play more than one position and do it well," McGown said. "That's why I liked those two players so much. They were versatile."
So is McGown. He arrived at Navy as a quarterback who had turned down offers from Duke, Rice and Southern Methodist. But six weeks into practice, with too many players at his position, McGown became a wide receiver and kickoff returner and returned 14 kickoffs for 316 yards during his freshman season. And just as he was picking up Navy's complex triple-option offense entering his sophomore year, he was moved to safety and proved to be a quick learner. He started every game, recording 91 tackles and returning 15 kickoffs for 309 yards.
Then Vaughn Kelley graduated and Hunter Reddick quit the team, and McGown was moved to left cornerback this fall.
"He could probably play quarterback in all honesty, if we needed him to," Coach Paul Johnson said. "He's a good athlete. I knew he could play in the secondary. He's one of our better athletes. If he doesn't make the adjustment, it's not because he's not the best we've got. That's all you can do, put the best you have out there."
For McGown, it is like a stroll through his multi-sport, multi-position past.
He can read the quarterback because he used to be one when he led his high school to district titles his junior and senior years. When the receiver makes a move the point guard in him takes over, as his swift footwork keeps his man from gaining separation.
When the receiver sprints during a fly pattern, McGown relives his track career, when he was a standout in the 200 and 400 meters. And when the quarterback put the ball in the air, it's like he's patrolling center field, reading the ball's flight just like a baseball off a bat.
"A little bit of pretty much every sport I played growing up goes into playing cornerback," McGown said. "It's turning into a natural fit for me."
And a good subject for his poetry. McGown is working on his most comprehensive work, titled, "Forever And A Day," a reflection of what he has been through at the academy; dealing with the pressure of having to master a new position every year is one of his biggest challenges.
McGown is no longer the shy kid who arrived for plebe summer a little more than two years ago.
"I remember when Jeremy first came here how shell-shocked he was since this was such a big change for him and he'd never done anything in the military before," said junior outside linebacker David Mahoney, who along with junior fullback Matt Hall roomed with McGown as freshmen. "He was just a really great guy, so we showed him the ropes like we were his big brothers."
McGown is confident now. He is pursuing a degree in economics and hopes for a commission to flight school, but right now, he is focused on the present: leading a defense that returns just three starters from last year's squad that held eight teams to 21 points or fewer, helping Navy go 10-2.
"That's why the poem I'm working on right now is still a work in progress," he said. "I'll have to see what happens this year."