FORK UNION, Va. — In the early 1930’s, John J. Wicker was in his early years as the president of Fork Union Military Academy when he happened upon a mason in downtown Richmond.
Wicker stopped to watch as the seemingly tireless mason carefully placed each brick, pausing in between to apply the perfect amount of mortar to hold each one together. Wicker eventually realized the structure the man was working on would serve as part of Richmond’s sewer system. When finished, the bricks would be topped by pavement and stormwater would filter down through the ground and be diverted by the subterranean bricks.
“How come you’re putting so much work into this brickwork?’ Wicker asked the man. “No one is ever going to see it.”
The bricklayer paused for a moment then turned and said:
“There’s only one way to lay brick and I’m going to do it the right way.”
Wicker offered the mason a contract on the spot. He was commissioned to build a chapel on Fork Union Military Academy’s campus. In 1935, the mason laid the first of thousands of bricks. In 1937, the mason laid last one.
Seventy-six years later, the spacious chapel stands apart from every other building on the mostly flat 280-acre campus. Its red bricks set it off from the off-white outer walls of Hatcher Hall — FUMA’s primary office building that resembles a fortification — and the two barracks that house slightly more than 400 cadets. Their designs offer imposing welcomes with their sharp edges complete with battlements lining their roofs.
But the chapel is different. It is serene and welcoming. It bears Wicker’s name, but just inside the entranceway it is dedicated to the mason Wicker found to build it. A plaque reads:
TO FELIX De PANICIS
WHO LAID EVERY BRICK AND STONE IN THIS CHAPEL AND PUT CHARACTER INTO HIS WORK
To this day, cadets sit in assigned seats in the chapel during Tuesday and Thursday services. Like each brick that went into the chapel’s construction, each cadet that has passed through has lent to the institution’s legacy in some way. Many, like Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, have done so with athletics.
When Micky Sullivan was a cadet at Fork Union from 1963 to 1967, he’d often come to the chapel to be alone if he needed to unwind, catch up on some of his studies, or just be alone with his thoughts.
In the corner, under one of the stained glass windows was his spot.
Sullivan would later return as its football coach and is now the athletic director. His oldest daughter was married inside the chapel and he still makes the quick five minute walk from his office in the athletic building to his spot in the chapel from time to time.
He does so with a bit of a limp now, but it’s a worthwhile destination.
“It’s just a quiet, peaceful place,” Sullivan says.
Christian Hackenberg used to do the same thing. He spent three years at FUMA, shuttling back and forth each morning and each night with a heavy dose of structure in between. He was always into athletics and was a straight-A student just up the road at Fluvanna County High School before a transfer was in order.
Erick Hackenberg, Christian’s father, saw an opportunity for his son just down the road at Fork Union. Erick Hackenberg grew up with teachers for parents. His dad was also a high school football coach in Schuylkill County, where he coached against some of the Pennsylvania coal region’s best.
When Erick Hackenberg met Micky Sullivan, he realized Sullivan was the type of coach who would get the best out of Christian on the football field. Meanwhile, Erick and Nicole Hackenberg, who is a teacher, too, quickly learned the academy would get the best from their son in the classroom.
“He’s getting straight As (at Fluvanna County) but he’s not studying,” Erick Hackenberg said. “He’s going to go to college and he’ll struggle. Not because he’s not smart enough. It’s because he’s not prepared. He’s not prepared to know how to manage his time and do things at a collegiate level.”
There’s not a whole lot to see as you wind down Virginia’s James Madison Highway toward the FUMA campus. A thrift store here and there. A bird sanctuary a few miles out. Right next door, the Fork Union Motor Lodge is shut down, the windows are boarded up and the parking lot has long been empty.
A metal overhang with the academy’s name spelled out with the year it was founded, 1898, welcomes visitors. A row of massive trees lines the entranceway, the massive branches providing a natural canopy .
Cadets are welcoming; friendly but serious. Decked out in a full military dress uniform finished with a gray beret, one young cadet offers to carry a visitor’s bags. Another insists on leading a stranger to the athletics building despite having to get to a previous appointment.
Inside, framed issues of Sports Illustrated with some of FUMA’s most famous athletic alums — Vinny Testaverde, Chris Perry and Plaxico Burress — hang in the blue hallway leading to Sullivan’s office. Inside, framed jerseys worn and signed by Eddie George hang on Sullivan’s walls.
He speaks with a heavy southern accent through a white mustache. Sullivan has spent the majority of his life working with cadets and coaching them up at FUMA. He’s an old-fashioned coach, one who believes most athletes learn faster from the feet up than they do from the neck up.
“Our guys wake up, they’re going to formation. They’re going to shine their shoes. They’re going to shave their face. They’re going to march,” Sullivan says. “It might be raining, it might be snowing, it might be hot, it might be cold. Nobody really cares. Get out of bed, put your stuff on and get going.”
Few distractions mean more opportunities to do what needs to be done for FUMA cadets.
Each one wakes up at 6 a.m. to the sound of a bugle. Their days are strictly planned for them from that point on.
From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. cadets are in the classroom where FUMA operates on a one-subject plan. For 35 days, cadets take just one subject. From 2 to 2:30 p.m. cadets are expected to follow up on school work, take up marching assignments, other military drills or attend an athletic practice. Participation in athletics is not mandatory. The use of cellphones throughout the day is prohibited.
Dinner is served until 6:15 p.m., and from 7:45 to 9:40 p.m. cadets are expected to remain in closed quarters (CQ), time devoted to nothing but studying. Eating, drinking, talking, listening to music and bathroom breaks are off-limits during this time.
Academic Dean Todd Giszack marvels at the sounds he can hear when walking past the barracks during CQ.
“When you think that there are 400 cadets, teenage boys doing homework in this building and you can’t hear anything, it’s a pretty amazing place,” Giszack says.
The rigors of catching on and buying in to the program at a military academy are tougher for some to adopt.
Vashon Hubert, who attended Fluvanna County High before enrolling at FUMA in its post-graduate program for a year, initially struggled to adjust like many cadets do. Hubert, a big man who played defensive tackle at Morehead State, upped his SAT scores with a year at FUMA enabling him to continue into college.
“It was kind of weird at first but I knew that I was here for a bigger purpose,” Hubert says. “It was hard. I was homesick. Even though I lived right down the road, I was homesick. But the brotherhood here, as you become friends with other cadets, that helps you out and takes your mind off home.”
Like Sullivan, Hubert returned to Fork Union as an intern and football coach and now works as a TAC officer in the barracks. He’s been back since 2006 and finds himself relating to cadets in the barracks who struggle with the adjustment at first.
Hackenberg was originally apprehensive about attending.
“I think Christian initially, because he was 14, 15 years old, looked at it as a punishment because he’s coming to a military school,” Erick Hackenberg says. “We enforced it multiple times until he fully understood it and heard it from Coach Sullivan and people here. ‘We’re presenting you with a golden opportunity. It’s up to you to grab it and run with it.’”
After a state title run in his first year with FUMA, Hackenberg fell on hard times on the field as a junior.
Star running back T.J. Dudley went down with an ankle injury and Sullivan had few options to fall back on. Teams didn’t have to worry about stopping Dudley, so they teed off on Hackenberg. Young running backs that tried to replace Dudley in pass protection were no match for bigger, more experienced defenders who battered Hackenberg relentlessly.
“People were just knocking the fool out of him,” Sullivan said. “We were throwing 50-60 times. And he knew. They’re coming.”
The usually steely teenager was rattled. He was angry and upset as the Blue Devils limped to a 4-6 record. He wanted to do more to help the team. Hackenberg wanted to get in on defense and play safety. Sullivan wouldn’t let him. He needed to keep his star quarterback healthy.
“I talked about that with all of them, anybody can play well when it’s all going good. When you find out if you’re any good or not is when it all falls to pieces and then you’ve got to stand there and play,” Sullivan said. “You will be judged not on how you do on great days but how you do when things go badly. And he accepted that mantle.”
The Blue Devils had a bounce-back season in Sullivan’s final year at the helm. Hackenberg threw for 2,144 yards, 24 touchdowns with nine interceptions and FUMA went 10-3.
Football wasn’t his only sport. He excelled on FUMA’s baseball diamond and was a valuable piece for Matt Donohue’s basketball team in his lone year on the roster.
Inside FUMA’s old gymnasium, Donahue is getting ready to coach the post-graduate team. Sneakers squeak across the old hardwood, parts of which are painted sea foam green. These sections used to be blue but sunlight has faded the old paint. The floor can be sanded down and refinished just once more before it will need to be replaced completely, Sullivan guesses.
“It was like having a quarterback on the team,” Donahue says of Hackenberg’s lone basketball season. “We got that leadership from him as a sophomore.”
Less than a year after he made his final high school football start, Hackenberg stepped on the field to take over the Penn State offense against Syracuse, where he was expected to lead older players again. He stayed in the pocket and took a few hits to make some throws — mainly a key touchdown to Eugene Lewis late — and Penn State beat the Orange 23-17.
Through three games he’s leading the Big Ten, completing nearly 72 percent of his passes.
“I didn’t think he would be this far along,” Sullivan said. “He’s worked really, really hard to get to where he is and the trust that he’s developed with Coach (Bill) O’Brien is trust we had for Christian.”
Sullivan speaks to his former quarterback regularly. He phoned Hackenberg earlier this week but got Hackenberg’s voicemail. The next day, Hackenberg called him back with an apology for missing the call.
“‘He said, ‘Coach I’m sorry I missed you. I had to go to massage therapy before I went to study hall,’” Sullivan said, mockingly emphasizing the words massage therapy. There’s no such thing on this campus.
“I gave him a hard time because this is Fork Union.”
The alumni cannon, a fully restored Civil War-era artillery piece greets visitors in the foyer of Hatcher Hall. This building — it looks more like a military fortress from the outside, holds most of FUMA’s faculty offices.
Bev Hanlin is in her 44th year at FUMA. As the academy’s registrar, part of her duties includes readying diplomas and making sure cadets’ credentials are prepared for award ceremonies.
Sitting at her desk inside an office with polished wood walls, Hanlin motions to a bookcase where a white binder awaits. She takes hold of it and shuffles through a few pages before finding Hackenberg’s file. His awards are numerous and his achievements rank up there with other decorated cadets.
He was a two-time winner of the Sonny Randle Achievement Medal in 2012 and 2013. Hackenberg’s name was also scrawled on a plaque that showcases the school’s Jackie Jensen Baseball Award, given to the player who best shows a love for the game, sportsmanship, team spirit and a desire to excel.
Academically, Hackenberg left FUMA as an honor graduate — with at least a 3.5 GPA and less than 40 demerits.
“I don’t think he had any,” Hanlin said, riffling through the pages. She can’t find one.
Hanlin smiles and peers through her glasses proudly. She remembers all the top students who pass through. She keeps track of the star athletes, too, she said, even keeping a mental list where most of them have wound up, happy she can watch many of them play on TV on Saturdays or Sundays.
Recently, she’s been tuning in to Penn State games to watch No. 14.
“He really made his mark here and not in a splashy way,” Hanlin said. “For all the attention he got and for all the publicity he got, he was pretty well grounded.”
That has carried over into college life for Hackenberg. Sure, he gets noticed but he tries to keep out of the spotlight.
“I usually try to keep my head down,” Hackenberg said. “I just want to be recognized as a regular student during the day. I’m here doing the same thing that everyone else is, just trying to get an education, but I just play football as well.”
Hackenberg was thrust into a tricky position for an 18-year old. The majority of Penn State’s returning starters on offense are seniors, and suddenly this young kid was expected to be their leader.
His personality is quite different from their previous field general. Matt McGloin was a firecracker. His teammates were often encouraged by McGloin’s fiery, sometimes red-faced on-field rants. He pulled few punches in the interview room, too. Hackenberg isn’t like that. He’s quiet but his teammates insist his cool, even temperament has been welcome and refreshing.
Hackenberg’s play has spoken for itself.
As Erick Hackenberg kicks back, getting ready to watch another of his four sons, Adam, play in FUMA’s ninth-grade game, he remembers the conversations he and his wife had with his oldest son years ago when Christian was adamant about not going to military school.
“It’s kind of one of those lessons where your dad says, ‘You might not understand this now but you’ll understand it when you’re 20. We’ve already had that conversation,” Erick Hackenberg said.
In July, after Hackenberg had spent a few weeks in Penn State’s summer bridge program, taking credits and attending players-only workouts with his new teammates, he spoke by phone with his father. The topic of the conversation wasn’t football. It was academics.
“I was like, ‘How’s school going?’ ‘He’s like, it’s easy. Some guys are struggling.’ I said, ‘Why do you think it’s easy for you?’ He said: “Well, everything at Fork Union. Thanks.’ At 18 he got it.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.