Heroes on the Field

From Football to the Forces

High school football is a big deal in the greater Chattanooga area, and the region is lucky to produce many star players. But what is it that makes a high school football player really stand out? While stats and yardage do count, what truly makes a player exceptional is more than just how fast he can run or how far he can throw. It’s also his commitment to the game, his drive, and his willingness to cooperate with his team to achieve a greater purpose. It’s his strength – in both character and body – and his ability to stay calm under pressure and to think and react quickly. 

All of these are characteristics that also make a good soldier. So, it should come as no surprise that many who have worked hard to serve their high school teams have gone on to serve their country. There is a lot of overlap between football and the armed forces. We spoke with several men who dedicated large parts of their lives to these two pursuits. Here is what they have to say about it.


By Kathy Bradshaw

Captain Jay “Pistol” Fullam, U.S. Air Force

McCallie School, Class of 2009

For Jay Fullam, both football and the military were not only his ambition, but also his destiny. His father was a huge football fan, and both his older brothers played. His grandfather used to tell him stories of his time in the service, and that left a lasting impression. So, from a very young age, Fullam knew that football and flying would both be a part of his future. “I told my family when I was young that I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, unless I could play SEC football. I was very fortunate that I got to live out both of those childhood dreams.”

Not only did he play football, but he excelled at it. Fullam was a three-year starter for McCallie as a safety and running back, and all three seasons produced an All-State team. He was also a Mr. Football candidate in 2008, Defensive MVP of the Division II
state championship game in 2006, and Division II leader in tackles that same year. He graduated from McCallie at the literal top of his game and went to Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship.

While at Vanderbilt, Fullam was able to participate in the ROTC. But he was looking for something more. After two years of playing college ball, he chose fighter planes over football and transferred to the United States Air Force Academy. Many years later, Fullam is still enjoying life as an Air Force pilot, in the cockpit of an A-10, and his brother and wife are A-10 fighter pilots along with him – one thing he loves most about being in the military.

For Fullam, the connection between football and the military is evident – especially in the case of camaraderie and accountability. “The overall family aspect of the two is undeniable – all the time spent with my best friends getting to do what we love. Football put some amazing people in my life who have truly shaped who I am today, and I will be forever grateful for that,” he says. “Also, football taught me to hold myself accountable because people count on you to do your job and do it right in order to win the game. The same goes for the military. The stakes are just a little higher there than winning a football game.”  

Major Kevin Beavers, U.S. Army

Soddy Daisy High School, Class of 2003

Kevin Beavers played football all four years that he was in high school. He was a star linebacker, even being named Tennessee’s State Linebacker of the Year for his region. His senior year, not only was Beavers elected team captain, but he also led his team in tackles with over 100 solo tackles that year alone. Like many high school football players, Beavers dated a cheerleader – and he went on to marry her. Today, he and his wife Stefanie, a former Miss Tennessee pageant winner, live together in Chattanooga with their daughter Stella.

Following high school, Beavers went on to attend and graduate from West Point. He also completed military schooling at the U.S. Army Ranger, Airborne, Pathfinder, and Air Assault Schools. During his 13 years of active duty, he was deployed several times to Iraq and quickly climbed the ranks to Major. He also led the ROTC program at UTC.

“Both football and the military were instilled in me at an early age – a true calling to be a part of something greater than myself,” he says, adding that the events of 9/11 were further incentive for him to want to serve his country. 

Beavers says that he sees a lot of overlap between football and the military – from the physical challenges and necessity of staying in top physical shape, to the camaraderie and brotherhood, to the teamwork and strategy involved in both. “The similarities are uncanny,” he says. “Everything from how you practice to how you play on game day, even down to spring camp.” He compares football practice to military training and points out that, in both cases, every person has a position to play or a duty or task to fulfill. And he notes the influence that your opponent – whether a competing team or enemy forces – has on the outcome. “You face each snap or each mission with grit and determination,” he says. “Occasionally, you will need to redesign a play because the enemy or opposing team adapts to your playbook, but you must be flexible and able to pivot at a moment’s notice.”

Both football and his military career have had a huge impact on Beavers’ life. They have provided him with memories, skills, and life lessons: “Nothing lasts forever. Enjoy the moment, take things one day at a time, be a life-long learner, and give back where you can,” he says.

Lieutenant Colonel Savas Kyriakidis, U.S. Army

McCallie School, Class of 1984

Savas Kyriakidis moved to Chattanooga from the Bronx when he was still in high school. He had played football in New York City, and once he transferred to McCallie, he picked up right where he left off and joined the team there as well. 

Even as a newcomer to town, Kyriakidis fit right in, making many friends on the McCallie football team and becoming an outstanding nose guard and defensive tackle. Kyriakidis is the type who wants to get involved, and he doesn’t back away from a challenge. In fact, he once played almost an entire football game with a broken wrist because he refused to let that stop him. The aspects of playing football that proved to be his strengths – stamina, leadership, self-sacrifice, concentration, and overcoming obstacles – were the same things that would later lead him to a successful career in the military as well.

After high school, Kyriakidis attended Sewanee and eventually became a lawyer. He practiced law in Chattanooga before opening his family business, the Acropolis Grill restaurant, with his parents. But soon, the desire for a new challenge called him, and he joined the Army.

Kyriakidis was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he served in the 101st Airborne Division, Special Forces, and Special Operations. Among his many duties and accomplishments while in the military, one that he is especially proud of is his efforts to help a group of Iraqi lawyers establish a bar association and hold their first free election.

The focus, drive, learning, active involvement, brotherhood, and discipline that are inherent to both football and the military are what Kyriakidis finds so fulfilling about them. But beyond that, he really just enjoys being an officer in the Army. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say that serving in the military is flat-out fun!” he says. “Where else does a lawyer get to jump out of airplanes, assault out of helicopters, ruck march before breakfast, and help defend the nation? I would not trade my time in uniform for any title or treasure.” 

Captain Jim Kimball, U.S. Army

McCallie School, Class of 1964

Jim Kimball is a retired dentist who has spent most of his life in Chattanooga – except for the time when his military career led him elsewhere.

Kimball began playing football as early as his elementary school days, but he got more serious about the sport beginning in the 7th grade. He was an outstanding offensive guard and defensive middle guard, and by the time he was a senior, he had become captain of his team and earned All-City and All-Mid-South titles. Kimball was recruited by several prestigious colleges and, at his father’s encouragement, chose to attend West Point.

So began a military career that spanned nearly a decade. After four years at West Point – during which Kimball continued to play football – he trained at Ft. Benning and Ranger School before being sent to Vietnam during the war. There, he served as a platoon leader, a company executive officer, and a psychological warfare officer. Following his deployment in Vietnam, Kimball spent three years in the military in Germany. But as the Vietnam War ended and so did Kimball’s required period of active duty, he left the military and returned home. Then the GI Bill made it possible for him to attend dental school.

Kimball feels that his time playing high school football helped prepare him for his military life. “My high school football practice was especially rigorous. We started in late summer and practiced in the hottest part of the day,” he explains. “In Ranger School and in Vietnam, I did well in the heat, which was often overwhelming. Being able to continuously push was important in sports like football and also in the Army.”

But that’s not the only connection between the two that Kimball sees. “The challenge in both football and the military is that you have to work together as a team to be successful,” he says. “Insurmountable problems often show up, but you have to overcome those to succeed.”

And, perhaps most importantly, he feels, it’s what you take away from your experiences. “Sports are just a game, but the lessons you learn from participating in them can help you for the rest of your life,” Kimball says. “And joining the military is a very serious decision, but it can pay off in teaching you lessons that are hard to come by at an early age.”

Sergeant Robert Powderly, U.S. Air Force

East Ridge High School, Class of 1965

Robert Powderly started playing football in the 8th grade at East Ridge Jr. High School and continued playing all through high school at East Ridge High. He played two-position linebacker on defense and blocking back on offense – “a position in the Old Tennessee formation called ‘single-wing,’” he explains. Powderly says that although he enjoyed the game, what really drew him to the sport was staying fit and the companionship of his fellow players – what he refers to as “conditioning and contact.” And out of his entire football career, one play stands out in his memory above the rest. “In the five years I played, I made many blocks, tackles, and a few interceptions and fumble recoveries, but the play I remember the most was when I threw a pass for completion to Mike Odom, who took it to the house for a touchdown,” he recalls. “It was one of those shuffle passes up the middle, and Mike just outran the defense.”

Powderly then enrolled at Tennessee Tech University and joined the ROTC, which was mandatory. But within his very first week of college, he received his first draft notice. “President Richard Nixon was no longer giving college students deferments,” Powderly says. Fortunately, he was still able to complete three years of college before his fifth and final draft notice arrived and he left school for basic training. There, he was immediately promoted to platoon leader, and soon after, he began preparations to go to Vietnam.

But Powderly never made it to Vietnam. Following a pandemic that broke out at his Army post during training, his orders changed, and he was sent instead to South Korea. In Korea, he attended the Advanced Combat Training Academy, which allowed him to become a squad leader serving on guard duty. He was stationed there for over a year.

“Looking back at my football years, I see how they helped prepare me for Army life and life in general,” he says. “I learned the importance of team play, mental toughness, being sedulous and disciplined, and keeping fit.”

Captain Mickey McCamish, U.S. Navy

Chattanooga High School, Class of 1960

It seems like a natural course of events that Mickey McCamish would end up playing football and joining the military. He got into sports at an early age; his father was a WWII vet. “My brother DeWayne and I grew up playing and being around sports,” he says. “One of our first jobs was working for Joe Engel at Engel Stadium. Also, I always had a strong love for my country and the military and wanted to give the greatest gift one may give, and that’s the gift of myself.”

McCamish began playing football in high school. At Chattanooga High, where he played halfback and cornerback, McCamish was a big player on a small field, so to speak – he was an excellent athlete, but playing for an underdog team. “We didn’t have many winning seasons, except my senior year,” he remembers. But that just made every victory that much more significant. “The wins were all very special for us because we weren’t supposed to win,” he says. “My favorite memory was our winning 6-4 season, and the hard work – of both players and coaches – that went into that accomplishment still resonates with me.”

While in college at the University of Chattanooga (now UTC), McCamish was recruited by the Navy and joined on the officer track. “Even though the closest that I had been to water was swimming in Lake Chickamauga, I was interested in ships and also flying. The Navy had both.”

For the next 27 years, from 1965 until 1992, McCamish served in the Navy. He traveled the world – over the equator, through the Panama Canal, and across the Straits of Magellan – and fought war (Vietnam) and seasickness.

McCamish notes many similarities between football and the military, including structure and hierarchy, strategies for success, common goals, uniforms, and the importance of training and communication.

“You have to be disciplined – both of these pursuits require following the rules. You have to be committed to both, and with both, attention to detail is required,” he adds. “You are a member of a team, whether it’s a football team or a military team – you give up the me for we.”

Airman First Class Edward E. Austin, U.S. Air Force

Chattanooga Central High School, Class of 1966

A friend and neighbor of both Tim Lyle and Mickey McCamish (previously mentioned), Edward Austin likewise played high school football before going on to join the military. In fact, he and Lyle used to play on the same team at Brainerd until Austin transferred to Central, and then they found themselves as competitors on rival teams.

Austin played offensive and defensive end and helped Central win the state championship his senior year in 1966. His team never lost a single game to another Hamilton County team for close to 20 years – a record that Austin certainly contributed to while on the field. He was a talented player, second-string All-City, and in the running for a football scholarship. However, Austin feared that he would be drafted before he could take advantage of that scholarship and head to college. Therefore, to avoid the draft, Austin chose to join the military of his own free will, and he enlisted in the Air Force.

He remained in the service for four years, working as an aircraft mechanic. After aircraft tech school and an 18-month assignment in the Azore Islands off the coast of Portugal, Austin was sent to Vietnam during wartime, where he became a crew chief flying nighttime psychological warfare missions.

Like the others mentioned here, Austin sees many connections between football and the military. For him, it is organization and discipline that the two have in common. 

“In football, you learn to discipline yourself and not do things that would harm your body, your morale, or the integrity of your soul. You’ve got to know the play. And in the military, you have to know what to do when certain things happen,” he says. “And both have rank and file and involve getting into alignment. So, football taught me how to organize myself, how to get things accomplished, and how to deal with life in itself.” 

Austin also acknowledges that both activities are a huge time investment, physically as well as mentally. He recalls how he would have football practice every night during the week, twice on Saturdays, and then would have to spend hours going over tapes of previous games with the team to discuss how they could improve their playing. And the military? “It’s 24/7,” he says.

But Austin has no regrets. Football gave him companionship, and the Air Force provided him with travel and adventure. “Life has been fun,” he says.

The Late Lt. Colonel Timothy Lyle, U.S. Air Force

Brainerd High School, Class of 1965

For Tim Lyle, football was a family affair – Tim’s father Jimmy was a talented fullback at Sewanee, while Tim, his older brother Flip, and younger brother Sam all played at Brainerd High School. Lyle also followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a military career, as his dad was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy in WWII. 

In 1963, Lyle played inside linebacker and offensive guard during Brainerd’s first undefeated season ever. He went on to have two more successful years playing high school ball, and by the time he was a senior, Lyle had received an All-City title as well as a football scholarship to Auburn University.

Lyle continued to play football at the college level, earning three varsity letters and helping bring Auburn to victory at the 1968 Sun Bowl against Arizona. But it was also at Auburn where he learned to fly, which soon led him into a 20-year career in the Air Force. 

While in the military, Lyle logged over 1,000 hours in the cockpit of a U2 high-altitude reconnaissance spy plane – which today is on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. He piloted risky undercover missions flying over Russia during the Cold War and worked as a military attaché at the U.S Consulate and American Embassy in Brazil. Lyle passed away in 2015 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Those closest to him say that his time playing football as well as serving his country in the Air Force were influential experiences that, due to their similarities, both helped shape his values and outlook.

Whether it was the battlefield or the football field, “Tim believed that the qualities of self-discipline and leadership can be nurtured at an early age with teamwork on the fields of competition,” Lyle’s wife Cindy says.

Lyle’s brother Flip agrees. “Duty, leadership, honor, and commitment infused on the fields of football had tremendous carryover to our military,” he says. “Teamwork, goal fulfillment, and self-motivated achievement are applicable to both.”

“Tim was a great American and a genuine hero – a great athlete, pilot, husband, father, and brother in a life well-lived,” Flip adds. “I miss him every day.”

The Late Captain Kenneth L. Royal, U.S. Marine Corps

Baylor School, Class of 1978

Ken Royal was a center on the football team all four years that he was at Baylor, qualifying for varsity his junior and senior years. His senior year, Royal went all the way to the state championships with his team – an even bigger accomplishment since, back then, there were more competitors, as both public and private schools played against each other. The championship title was within reach for Royal and the rest of the Red Raiders, but in what has been referred to as a “stunning loss” and a “heartbreaker,” Baylor lost the game in the last few minutes of play.

When Royal wasn’t snapping and blocking on the gridiron, he was working toward getting his pilot’s license, which he acquired in his last year of high school. It was always his dream to fly, and after graduating from UTC in 1982, he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps, where he would serve as a helicopter pilot for the next six years. On October 25, 1988, Royal lost his life in a tragic helicopter accident during a nighttime training exercise that killed everyone on board both helicopters involved. Many people blame the incident on the use of the night-vision goggles that the pilots were wearing at the time, which can sometimes restrict visibility at short distances.

There is nothing that can lessen this tragedy, but perhaps some comfort can be found in knowing that Royal died doing something he loved. Royal’s widow, Ebbie Cruddas, explains how much her late husband valued his time in the Marines, as well as playing football before that – especially the friendships he formed. “Having mutual trust and friendship is so important, whether in a team sport or among your military squadron,” she says. “Whether in the air or on the ground, you must trust those with you. You always need to have each other’s backs.”

She also points out how Royal was dedicated and determined in everything he did. “High school football and the military are very challenging. You must be in good athletic condition to withstand the rigorous training that takes place in both,” she says. “The mental game is another challenge. You have to keep your head in the game and focus. Whether on the playing field or the battlefield, football and the military unite you as one.”

STS2/E-5 Zach Mercer, U.S. Navy

Chattanooga Christian School, Class of 2015

When Zach Mercer is sitting far below the surface of the sea – and very far from home – on a submarine off the coast of Guam, where he is stationed, he sometimes thinks about how he got where he is today. Mercer says that his four years playing high school football at Chattanooga Christian School pointed him in that direction and prepared him for what the military would require of him.

“Playing football taught me about honor, courage, and commitment, which just happen to be the ethos of the United States Navy,” he says. “Honor was putting in all the reps during practice and not skipping out on the running that I never wanted to do. Courage was facing the opponent who was bigger and stronger but fighting until the bitter end. Commitment was never quitting when things got hard.”

Mercer says he grew up watching football on TV and became hooked on the sport, longing to be just like the players he saw on ESPN. This motivated him to play high school ball. He was a quarterback, punter, running back, and safety at CCS and played in his school’s first-ever playoff game, which also turned out to be his younger brother’s first game as a varsity starting quarterback. Mercer remembers that game fondly and how his brother threw him a touchdown pass. “I am incredibly grateful to have played such an amazing sport with some amazing players and coaches,” he says. 

When Mercer was running and passing down the football field, he didn’t know that he would one day be living 8,000 miles away, working as a submarine sonar technician in the South Pacific. But football helped ready him for it. “I committed four years to football, and I’ve committed four years to the Navy so far, and the similarities are uncanny,” he says. “Football prepared me for the military more than I knew.” 

It was through football that he learned the principles of discipline and determination that are crucial to his work in the military, which requires long hours and in-depth training. “Football taught me that hard work pays off and to persevere and see things through to the end,” he says. “If you want it, set a goal and fight to achieve that goal. As one of my football coaches used to say, ‘If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.’”