Four days before the biggest football game of the year, Navy senior safety James Polanco was preparing Steak au Poivre in 73-year-old Penny Vahsen's kitchen in Annapolis.
"All these guys are going to be great leaders for our troops in battle," she said. "But the question is: Will they be able to cook a good meal for themselves and one day maybe for their girlfriends, so they won't have to eat out all the time?"
If it's up to Vahsen, they will. The grandmother of 13 serves as a cooking teacher, chef and surrogate mother to 12 midshipmen, including Polanco, a reserve who has made three tackles.
Vahsen, known as Mrs. V in the brigade, is one of approximately 1,200 volunteer sponsors for approximately 4,500 students who attend the Naval Academy. Like her counterparts at the Air Force and U.S. Military Academy, she provides a home away from home for some of those studying in Annapolis.
At Vahsen's home, midshipmen are treated to a night's sleep that isn't interrupted by loud footsteps in the hallway, home-cooked meals, and the comfort of being able to watch a big-screen television wearing T-shirts and jeans. Earlier this week, seniors Craig Dziewiatkowski, Jonny Kane, Dustin Wood and Polanco arrived for their cooking lesson in Navy's dress uniform, but within minutes, were wearing civilian clothes.
"Sponsors are lifesavers for us; I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't come here," Polanco said. "I think we'd all just stay in the dorm and be bored."
Vahsen's five-bedroom home is filled with mementos from the dozens of midshipmen she has sponsored since 1978 -- two years before her husband, George, a 1952 Academy graduate, died of a heart attack after a career as a submarine commander. Vahsen's father, John Fradd, and son, Steven, also graduated from the Academy.
On one wall is an autographed picture of former Navy basketball player David Robinson, who came to Vahsen's home to escape the academic and athletic demands he faced.
The retired middle school science teacher didn't attend the Naval Academy, but her service to its students earned her an honorary degree, one of the Academy's highest honors.
Vahsen's home is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as she gives her sponsors keys so they always have a place to call their own.
Before home games, she throws lavish tailgate parties for her current and former midshipmen and their families. Those returning to Annapolis have come to expect the parties that run well into the night.
Two hours after Navy defeated Temple last month, sophomore fullback Adam Ballard was relaxing on Vahsen's couch with his girlfriend eating a bowl of homemade crab soup and watching Penn State beat Michigan State.
James Polanco and his twin brother Aaron, last year's star quarterback who graduated last spring, were there with their parents.
More of Vahsen's former and current midshipmen continued to arrive every few minutes, and soon about 20 people are making themselves right at home.
"I don't see all the men I sponsor as sponsorees; I view and treat them like my sons, like they are my family," Vahsen said. "I've had 124 midshipmen graduate, and they are as welcome here like my five children or my 13 grandchildren. One of the best things about being a sponsor is you develop relationships that don't end when they graduate."
At Vahsen's house, each class is assigned a room. Any senior who stays gets the room on the top floor, complete with a double bed, four dressers, two closets and a desk. The room for juniors has a single bed and fewer amenities, and the room shared by freshmen and sophomores, has a single bed, couch, sink and a small refrigerator.
Vahsen has another room for players' family members and girlfriends, but on some weekends -- especially when Navy has a home football game -- even floor space is at a premium.
"Now you see why I try to sleep over here as much as I can," James Polanco said. "It's like you're sleeping in your own house."
Pam Davis, a government contractor, says her two-bedroom condominium is big enough "for her family of 27." That's the current number of midshipmen she sponsors, "Pam's Boys" as she calls them, which now includes junior linebacker Tyler Tidwell, whose football schedule was incompatible with his original sponsor, who worked as a nurse. But Tidwell, who had attended services at the Annapolis Church of Christ with Davis, asked her last year to become his sponsor.
Tidwell's change in sponsors in not uncommon. According to the Public Information Offices at all three service academies, freshmen are assigned sponsors and are encouraged, but not required, to develop a one-year relationship. Often, the sponsor and sponsorees forge longer relationships, and in Tidwell's case, he is glad he met Davis.
Davis provides transportation, shelter and meals, but also gives Tidwell with a break from the highly regimented life at the Academy.
"A lot of people think we are a local taxi service and local Holiday Inn, but we do more than just feed them and take them places," she said. "I don't think people understand how hard it is to attend the Naval Academy. It's not like going to another college. It's the military lifestyle 24 hours a day. One of the first things I tell my boys is now that's we've crossed paths, you've got a friend for life."
"If there was one thing to tell you about how much she means to me it had to be a few weeks ago," Tidwell said. "I had strep throat and didn't tell anyone. But she read about it in the paper and one night I was lying in bed and she calls from outside the dorm. I came down and she had two shopping bags full of soup, Jello, medicine and Kleenex. There's not a lot of people who would go out of there way to do that for you."
Navy junior cornerback Jeremy McGown celebrated his 21st birthday last week. But instead of having his first drink, he and more than a dozen teammates and their girlfriends partied at the Arnold home of his sponsors, Bill and Barbara McKinney.
Barbara made homemade hamburger pizza, salad and lemonade, and McGown's favorite dessert: vanilla and coffee ice cream pie drizzled with caramel and hot homemade fudge sauce.
"Usually, I don't tell anyone it's my birthday because the only thing that happens is guys [joke] about it in the locker room," McGown said. "It's not like you can throw a party here."
After McGown had surgery to repair a broken left arm suffered against Duke on Oct. 1, he spent five days at the McKinneys with his mother, Sue, who flew in from Houston.
"It's like they put their life on hold for me," McGown said. "There, you don't have to worry about sleeping on a hard mattress or getting woken up at 6:30 in the morning. There are times that I needed someone to talk to and they were there. Like the second semester of my plebe year. I was thinking about quitting because it was just too hard, and they made me realize why I should stay. I really don't know what would have happened if I didn't have them to talk to."
"Jeremy grew up in a very close knit and nurturing family," Sue McGown said. "So when I heard that he had a sponsor, I was a little worried about why he needed one. But as soon as I met the McKinneys, I could see how sincere they were about helping Jeremy, and as a mother, it's always good when you have people like them looking out for your son."
Bill McKinney, captain of the 1970 football team and currently the head pastor at Mariners Church, and his wife began sponsoring midshipmen when they moved to Arnold in 1997, when their three sons attended the Academy.
Vahsen, Davis and the McKinneys are all heading to Philadelphia on Saturday to watch their Midshipmen play in the Army-Navy game. But they all said they would be back at home Sunday, in case any of the midshipmen they sponsor need a ride or a meal or a place to rest.
"We don't even keep track of the money we spend because it doesn't matter; being a sponsor is just the right thing to do, and it's a relationship that will last a lifetime," Barbara McKinney said. "The young men who attend the Naval Academy are dedicating a good part of their lives to serving our country and risk their lives for it."