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Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Eric Poole is a reporter and columnist for the Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger, a small newspaper nestled near the Ohio state line in the heart of Steelers Country. He has a wife, a son and a daughter (so there will be some daddy stuff on this blog). A former steelworker and retired rugby player, Poole has a wide range of interests, which was reflected in the 2008 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association awards, when Poole won first-prize honors for best columns and best special project. His upcoming book, "Company of Heroes," due out March 17, 2015, from Osprey Publishing, tells the story of Vietnam War hero Leslie Sabo and his comrades. Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor May 16, 2012, in a White House ceremony.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This week's rant: Oct. 29

Took a vacation from politics this week in my Ellwood City Ledger column to talk about my daughter's greatest hits.

All-time, All-Star, All-Russell-Crowe-character rugby side

For certain, the celebrity most associated with rugby in this country is Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe. Although Crowe is identified with Australia, he was born in New Zealand and is reportedly a fan of the All Blacks in rugby union. He also is majority owner of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, which won the 2014 Australian Rugby League championship.

In honor of his longtime association with the sport and the All Blacks’ first trip to the United States since 1980, here is the All-Time All-Star All-Russell Crowe Character side (Disclaimer - even though the Rabbitohs play rugby league, which has 13 players to a side, this is a 15-man rugby union team, with the numbers corresponding to the jersey numbers for each position).

(Second disclaimer - Since Crowe is still making movies, including two releases set for 2015, I reserve the right as sole selector to bump any old Crowe character in favor of a new Crowe character, should performance demand it):

Warning: Spoilers abound.

1.       Wendell “Bud” White (LA Confidential) at loosehead prop – At first glance, the loosehead prop, like White, is a cementhead, good for little but brutality. But the position, so named because it has an outside position in the scrum’s front row, requires unexpected finesse, and looseheads occasionally dream of being flankers, just as Detective White pines to solve cases with his head instead of his fists.

2.       Noah (Noah) at hooker – Fodder for bumper-sticker jokes like “Support Your Local Hooker: Play Rugby,” the position is named because he hooks the ball back through the scrum from front and center of the front row. In the scrum, the hooker’s arms are pinned over the shoulders of the props on either side of him, so he goes in face first. The hooker is not easily dissuaded from his purpose, and is a leader among the forwards – he usually throws in on lineouts and the ball goes into the scrum on his signal.

3.       John Biebe (Mystery, Alaska) at tighthead prop – Even though rugby is the link of sports evolution between soccer and American football, in many ways, it resembles hockey. Biebe, past his prime – described as a little slow of foot – knows all the tricks necessary to prevail in the scrum’s front row.

4.       Jim Braddock (Cinderella Man) at lock – This position, also called second row, provides the push in the scrum and jumps for the ball during lineouts. On the pitch, a lock moves forward relentlessly, style be damned, just like Braddock.

5.       Pearly Soames (Winter’s Tale) at lock – Anyone capable of head-butting Colin Farrell off the Brooklyn Bridge can be in anybody’s forward pack. Anytime. And one of Lucifer’s minions will certainly make sure no one on the other team will be lying on the ground at the wrong side of a ruck.

6.       Capt. Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) – In a scrum, the blindside flanker lines up on the field’s short side – rugby’s Far Side of the World – and makes deceptive attacks on offense and stops them on defense. Given Aubrey’s use of trickery when outgunned, this would be the place for him.

7.       SID 6.7 (Virtuosity) at openside flanker – Lawrence County (Pa.) Commissioner Steve Craig, who played openside flanker at George Washington, once likened the position to being a “paid assassin,” because he gets a free run at the opposing team’s scrum half and fly half on defense. If either of them makes the slightest bobble, the openside has a chance to kill, figuratively speaking, an opposing player. SID is a rampage killer, so the other team’s fly half should watch out.

8.       Maximus Decimus (Gladiator) at number eight – Sitting at the back of the scrum, holding the ball on his foot until the scrum half lets it out at the precise moment to start the attack, sometimes deciding to pick up the ball and have a run himself, the number eight is an imposing figure. Big, strong, fast and tough. A real gladiator (sorry, couldn't resist). Team captain, by virtue of Crowe's Academy award for the part.

9.       John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) at scrum half – As the link between the backs and forwards, the scrum half must have a mathematician’s command of the game on offense and defense. On defense, he has to command all the angles. On offense, he sometimes needs to see openings even when no one else can.

10.   Cort (The Quick and the Dead) at fly half – Fly halves are the gunslingers of rugby. They decide when to kick for field position, take the ball themselves when they see an opening or let the ball out to the centres and wings. The fly halves do most of the kicking for points, either by drop kicks or place kicks. Cort is an outlaw-turned-preacher who shoots under his own arm to kill a bad guy sneaking up from behind, so there you are.

11.   Robin Longstride (Robin Hood) at wing – The wings are often a team’s fastest players – and come on, Longstride?

12.   Terry Thorne (Proof of Life) at inside centre – Centres need to have a combination of physical prowess and tactical acumen, and Thorne’s backstory as a British commando-turned corporate hostage consultant qualifies. Plus, "Proof of Life" includes an emotional attachment both on and off screen that evokes former England centre and team captain Will Carling's reported involvement with Princess Diana.

13.   Ben Wade (3:10 to Yuma) at outside centre – Wade, the leader of an outlaw band, is smart, elusive and aggressive. So are the best outside centres.

14.   John Brennan (The Next Three Days) at wing – In “The Next Three Days,” Brennan evades his opposition, takes his imprisoned wife and goes All. The. Way. – to Venezuela, just like wings are supposed to go to the goal for tries, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown.

15.   Jeffrey Wigand (The Insider) at fullback – Wigand is the last line of defense between the public and corporate corruption. Fullbacks are the last line of defense between the opposition and a try. Wigand is put under tremendous pressure by forces who would rather he kept his mouth shut. Fullbacks are under tremendous pressure from the other team when taking high kicks deep in their own end.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Mr. (and Mrs. and Gareth) Poole Goes to Washington

You know, there is a shoe repair shop in the Pentagon. Go ahead. Ask me how I know that. So I’m walking through the Pentagon last week when my shoe falls apart. The sole just rips off from the heel and it’s flapping against the floors as I go through the halls. The shoe, by the way, was rented along with my suit. I don’t own a suit of my own because I clean up well, but not very often. As I’m flapping through the hall, we’re walking past soldiers, ranked sergeant or higher, at each hallway junction holding a little sign, leading us in the proper direction, because the Pentagon is a big place. And each time I passed one of these soldiers, he said, “You know, we’ve got a shoe repair shop here?” Actually, that’s not surprising as you might think. Unlike the White House or the capitol building, the Pentagon isn’t in Washington D.C. It’s in Arlington, Virginia, and most amenities aren’t within walking distance. Actually, from some places in the building, an exit isn’t within walking distance.
So to meet the needs of those working in the world’s largest office building, there is a veritable mall inside the Pentagon. They have a CVS pharmacy, a Redbox video rental location and several other shops, including a shoe-repair place. Considering that most of the people working in the Pentagon are uniformed military, whose career prospects depend at least in part, on the condition of their footwear, there should be a shoe repair shop on the premises. So after the fourth or fifth time one of the soldiers said, “You know, we have a shoe repair shop here?” I decided to get the thing fixed. As outsiders, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere alone, so they broke off a Special Forces major to escort me to the shoe repair shop. A freaking Green Beret. This guy probably led commando raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can imagine the conversation when he got home from work that night: “How was your day, honey?” “I had to escort some schmuck to the shoe repair shop.”
I was in the Pentagon – a secure building that restricts entry only to people who have business there. Or by invitation, and I was invited. My wife, son and I were among more than 100 people who turned up last week in Washington D.C. to attend the Medal of Honor award to Vietnam War hero Leslie Halasz Sabo Jr. Sabo, who was killed on May 10, 1970, might have prevented what would have been the largest mass killing of U.S. troops since the Malmedy massacre during the Battle of the Bulge. He was recommended immediately for the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award for combat valor, but the paperwork went missing until 1999, when 101st Airborne Division veteran Tony Mabb found Sabo’s file in the National Archives and began pressuring to have the investigation reopened. He served in Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment – the same regiment that included Easy Company of “Band of Brothers” fame during World War II. I’m the author of Sabo’s biography, “Forgotten Honor,” which earned my invitation to the once-in-a-lifetime experience of attending ceremonies in the White House and Pentagon. As a prelude to the May 16 ceremony at the White House, I rented a business suit – and the aforementioned matching shoes – because I clean up well. Just not very often. I, my wife, Dawna, and son, Gareth – we left our 4-year-old daughter, Calista, with a babysitter because we deemed her too young to sit patiently through the ceremonies -- set off through multiple levels of security that gave us the right to be in the same room as the President of the United States.
After going through the first two, of four, levels of security, we waited in line to get into the White House with Ben Currin, a soldier who served alongside Sabo in Vietnam, and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (pictured above), a Democrat who represents the Denver suburbs in Congress. Perlmutter used some of his office’s discretionary funds to help some of Sabo’s comrades and family members with air fare and the $224-a-night cost of staying in the Sheraton National Hotel near the Pentagon, which served as staging area and a reunion venue for the veterans of Bravo Company. After the perfunctory introductions, Perlmutter said, “You look familiar,” and rifles through a handful of papers he was holding before producing a photocopy of this article. Currin, who stayed in the Army after Vietnam and was a team leader in the Army’s elite Golden Knights parachuting team, chatted with Perlmutter about the 1988 AFC Championship Game Currin and his team jumped into Mile High Stadium, then home of the Denver Broncos, as we enter the White House. We go into the East Room – where the president traditionally makes public indoor White House speeches and announcements. The address is typically eloquent for Obama, who mentions the shabby treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home. Fittingly, the ceremony’s longest and loudest applause is reserved for the more than two dozen veterans of Bravo Company seated immediately to the president’s left.
Then the president invited us to dine at a reception in the White House’s East Wing by saying, “I hear the food’s pretty good here.” And the food was good, if you like fancy dining. I stayed toward the Oriental chicken skewers and beef medallions-on-a-stick. Like most of the other 100-plus guests, I initially go for the champagne until I see the bottle of Yuengling Light at the open bar. As a Yuengling – but not usually Yuengling Light – drinker, I realized that the opportunity to have my brand of beer at the White House comes along, by my count, twice in a lifetime. Once when I had my first glass and then five minutes later when I had my second glass. Because I don’t always drink light beer, but when I do, I pay for it with my tax dollars.
The White House ceremony marked the third time I’ve been at the same event with a president, fourth if you count fictional presidents. I was closer to Obama than I was to Clinton, further away than I was from Bush. And further away than I was from Josiah Bartlett – there’s a close up of the back of my head in the opening shot of “20 Hours In America,” the Season Four opener for “The West Wing.” Barack and Michelle met with Rose Sabo-Brown, Leslie’s widow, and George and Olga Sabo, Leslie’s brother and sister-in-law, and I heard second-hand that Michelle cried when she heard Leslie’s story. For me, though, the highlight was getting the chance to reacquaint myself with the Bravo Company veterans, some of whom came home only because of Leslie’s sacrifice. One of the best parts of Leslie Sabo’s story is that he helped bring his comrades together – the unit started having reunions about 10 years ago, after Mabb found Sabo’s file and began contacting the Bravo Company veterans. Mabb’s inquiries coincided with an expanded growth of the internet. Bravo Company veteran Rick Clanton set up a web site that reconnected the soldiers who gathered last week in Washington, D.C. I was at Bravo Company’s 2009 reunion and the interviews I did there formed a large part of my book. Most of them are retired now, having spent the last four decades working, living and raising children in a country that had little or no respect for their sacrifice. On Wednesday night, between the White House and Pentagon ceremonies Bravo Company held a ceremony of its own to recognize Sabo along with the other 17 men the unit lost between Jan. 1 and May 10, 1970. The other two ceremonies, featured – for the most part – politicians who never knew the men of whom they spoke. Wednesday night’s flag ceremony featured the words of men speaking of the friends and comrades, whom they knew and lost. Impressive men, all.
During both ceremonies, the military provided us with several escorts, none of whom were ranked lower than sergeant. My wife and I were talking to a couple of lieutenant colonels who said being named to the honor contingent was a coveted duty – even the uniformed military don’t meet the commander-in-chief every day. On Sept. 11, 2001, one of the lieutenant colonels was working in the Pentagon when it was clobbered by a terrorist-piloted passenger jet. The other one was stationed just outside the Pentagon. For the most part, they served a ceremonial purpose, a reminder of the reason all those people in suits were there. At the Pentagon ceremony, they also were human GPS, keeping we outsiders on the correct path. The Pentagon ceremony was, personally, a little more gratifying than the White House ceremony had been. In sequence, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta referred to my book during their speeches. Panetta had the line of the day, though. He said that Leslie and George Sabo had good taste because, “both of them married Italian girls.” Rose Sabo-Brown is the former Rose Buccelli – her father, Carmen, earned a Silver Star during World War II. George married the former Olga Nocera. The thing Panetta didn’t realize when he said that is, if you live in Ellwood City and you refuse to consider going out with Italian girls, you’re cutting your dating pool at least in half. For some people, following Odierno, McHugh and Panetta might have been a rough trick. But George Sabo delivered a heartfelt speech about his family and his brother, and upstaged three of the U.S. Army’s highest-ranking officials. Sabo thanked a long list of people he credited for the Medal of Honor award – modesty prevents me from providing a complete list. But if you get to the end of the 45-minute ceremony linked above, you can hear what he said about me.
While my shoe is being repaired after the ceremony, I’m strolling around the Pentagon dining room with only one shoe on during a post-ceremony reception. After a few minutes, I went back to get the shoe, accompanied this time by a sergeant from the Army’s public affairs office. On the way back, she said, “So what’s your connection to the Sabo family?” “I wrote Leslie Sabo’s biography.” “Oh,” she said. “You’re Eric Poole.” A few minutes later, a defense department employee entered the dining hall with an armload of my books, which were distributed to members of the Sabo families. Two of those copies were autographed by the President, Gen. Odierno and Army Secretary McHugh and distributed to Rose Sabo-Brown and George Sabo. Seeing that was really cool, but one thing occurred to me – those might be the only two books in existence whose value would decrease if they were signed by the author.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blast from the past

This video has making the rounds on Facebook this week. The video's timestamp reads 2009, but it actually happened in 2006, because that was when I wrote this in the Ellwood City Ledger:

How would you like to be Jim Johnson? How would you like to be the basketball coach who let the best shooter on the team sit on the bench, wearing a shirt and tie, for three years, until finally turning him loose in the last home game of his senior year.

In Johnson’s defense, Jason McElwain didn’t look like a basketball player. In a big man’s sport, he stands a Lilliputian 5-foot-6, not even tall enough to make the Athena High School junior varsity team in Greece, N.Y.

And he’s autistic.

But he’s also the kind of kid who, for three years as team manager, did everything Johnson asked of him.

“He is such a great help and is well-liked by everyone on the team,” Johnson told the Associated Press.

So, as a reward, Johnson gave the kid a uniform for the last home game of his high school career.

By far, the best thing about high school basketball is that, on nearly every team, there is a kid who sits on the end of his team’s bench, working hard every day in practice, without the guarantee of glory on game night.

But as soon as the home team goes up by 20 points, the crowd begins to chant his name, calling for the last man to get into the game.

On Feb. 15, for the Trojans’ game against Spencerport, Jason McElwain was that kid, with students waving signs reading “J-MAC” in his honor. Johnson said he hoped to get the senior manager into his first game action, but with a playoff berth on the line, he had to worry about winning the game first.

Of course, winning the game might have been easier if Johnson had put McElwain in the game earlier, but he had no way of knowing his student manager would put on a shooting clinic.

With four minutes left in the contest, and a Trojans’ victory in hand, Johnson gave the crowd what it had asked for. After missing a long-range shot and a layup, McElwain went on the kind of tear that would have had Kobe Bryant shaking his head in wonder.

McElwain drained seven of his next nine shots – including an even half-dozen three-pointers – to finish with 20 points in Greece’s 79-43 victory. He had part of his foot over the line on one of his field goals.

Is it dark in here or did someone just shoot the lights out?

It’s possible that McElwain’s teammates were feeding him. And it’s equally possible that Spencerport decided to leave him open in a game that already had been decided.

But, even if that’s true, it’s not as if any of that would have diminished what McElwain did. If you think it’s easy to hit an open three-pointer, head on down to the Lincoln High School gym Monday and try to hit seven-of-nine from your favorite spot beyond the arc – you’re allowed to step on the stripe once.

You could try that for 100 years and not drain seven before missing three, even on an empty court. Now imagine doing it as a high school senior in front of a crowd of hundreds chanting your name in your very first varsity appearance. You’re likely to be throwing up nothing but airballs.

And your dinner.

After establishing himself as the straightest shooter in high school basketball, McElwain got a ride off the court on the shoulders of his teammates.

Then, the young man who didn’t talk until he was 5 did a creditable Dick Vitale impression.

“I ended my career on the right note,” he told the Associated Press. “I was hotter than a pistol.”

Little did Jim Johnson know 10 days ago that he would end up as the not-so-evil villain in McElwain’s Cinderella saga by keeping a marksman on the bench for three years.

But that’s not so bad. After all, not everybody gets to be a character in a fairy tale, even as the stepcoach.

For Jason McElwain, it must be even better. Even though he’s back in his suit and tie as his teammates head into the playoffs tonight, he’ll never again be the autistic kid at the bench’s end.

From now on, he’ll be known as just about the hottest hand high school basketball has ever seen, if only for one night.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The empty places

This column originally ran Sept. 28, 2006, in the Ellwood City Ledger.

There is something missing from the picture of New York Athletic Club's 2005 rugby team, but you might not immediately notice it.

Kind of like the void in New York City's skyline.

In Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, it's possible to make a handsome living playing rugby and get face time before the first commercial on overseas equivalents of "Sportscenter."

But in the United States, the sport is almost entirely amateur, so members of the rugby brotherhood in this country look out for one another. They lift furniture for teammates on moving day and bend elbows together at the local tavern.

They help their buddies find jobs, which is why Sean Lugano, Mark Ludvigsen and Brent Woodall were in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, working at the investment firm of Keefe, Bruyette and Woods.

"They were all looking out for each other." said Mike Tolkin, coach of NYAC's rugby team, also called Winged Foot.

I saw Lugano play in the last important match of his life, the U.S. 2001 Division I club championship. Based on its second-place national finish that year, NYAC won promotion to USA Rugby Super League, the sport's highest level in this country.

Lugano was a rugged and scrappy player, but for a scrum half, that's more a job description than a character assessment. Scrum halves are the rugby equivalent of a quarterback, only tougher, and few were better at it than Lugano, an All-American in college.

"He was definitely the heart and soul of this team," Tolkin said.

On that day five years ago when terrorists flew United Airlines Flight 175 almost right through the Keefe, Bruyette and Woods office windows, it tore the heart and soul out of Winged Foot.

It also erased a big piece of the club's past and its potential.

Ludvigsen, a former NYAC standout, went on to become the club chairman. Tolkin said he was one of the team's most effective recruiters because of his personality.

"He was the nicest guy there was," the coach said. "I can't remember him ever speaking badly of anyone."

Tolkin said Woodall was probably the best athlete ever to play for Winged Foot, where he was taking on his third athletic pursuit, and he competed at a high level in all three. He was a tight end for the University of California and reached the high minors in the Chicago Cubs system.

But rugby wasn't the only thing in his life. Woodall’s wife, Tracey, was pregnant with their first child.

In 2001, NYAC's first Super League season, it lost a spate of close matches in situations when just having some heart and soul might have been enough to turn defeat into victory.

Improbably though, Winged Foot managed to soar from the ashes of Ground Zero. The 2005 team – the one in that picture – won the USA Rugby Super League championship.

Tolkin said the team couldn't have claimed this country's biggest rugby prize without Lugano, Ludvigsen and Woodall, although that's exactly what happened.

Lugano's brother Mike played on the championship team. For years, the two lined up not far from each other in NYAC's backline. Tolkin said losing a brother was difficult for Mike Lugano.

But playing rugby means you're never an only child.

During matches, rugby players don't go anywhere alone. They are taught to run alongside the ballcarrier, ready to take a pass or protect him after the tackle. It's called support, and when a rugby player is in trouble, he knows to run toward his support. The same principle applies off the pitch.

"From a guy breaking up with his girlfriend to a house burning down to 9-11, you need support and rugby players have always been a part of that," Tolkin said.

Winged Foot memorializes its lost brothers Saturday with its annual Remembrance Cup tournament, but the greatest memories are in the things that weren't buried when the towers fell. For Woodall, it's a daughter he'll never see. For Ludvigsen, it's the friends he'll never again see. For Lugano, it's a trophy he will never hold.

And without them, there's a championship picture that will never be complete.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Amateur sports = hypocrisy

This article appeared originally Dec. 30, 2010, in the Ellwood City Ledger, and was purged from the paper's internet archives when it upgraded its website.

Early in the last century, there was little doubt that Jack Kelly was the greatest rower of his day. He won two Olympic gold medals and would have bagged more hardware had the 1916 Olympics not been pre-empted for World War I.

But Kelly was prohibited from entering one of the world's most prestigious rowing events - the Diamond Sculls in England - because his club had been accused of professionalism and also that, as a bricklayer, his work amounted to training.

Like the Olympic Games in those days, the Diamond Sculls was strictly for amateurs only, although the latter event was even more fiercely anti-professional. But the idea behind both was to enable the upper crust to participate in competition apart from the great unwashed.

In short, Jack Kelly's blood hue was tested and found not to have been blue enough to compete in the Diamond Sculls.

That turned out to be comically ironic when the bricklayer's daughter joined the ranks of European royalty as Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco - nee Grace Kelly.

As a business all amateur athletics is exploitative, elitist and corrupt because it's predicated on depriving the athletes of any financial benefit from their efforts. And the Olympic Games' history of hypocrisy is now repeating itself with NCAA football and basketball.

The modern Olympics were created in the late 1800s by the French Baron de Coubertin, whose intention was to establish the games as a pushback against professionalism in soccer, horse racing, baseball and boxing.

Initially,the Olympics' amateur rules were so restrictive that physical education teachers were deemed professional athletes and thus ineligible to participate. Coubertin's vision - he was a baron for goodness sake - was to limit the games only to those who could train long enough and hard enough to become an elite athlete without getting paid.

In other words, the idle rich.

As the Olympic Games became increasingly popular and generated huge profits for its promoters, that vision proved unsustainable. Ultimately, the lords of the Olympics discovered what everyone else knew - that letting athletes make money is infinitely more honest than amateurism.

Today, when people long for the days of amateur sports in the Olympics, what they're really nostalgic for is a system rife with hypocrisy that was rigged in favor of state-sponsored Eastern Bloc stars and the already wealthy.

A similar hypocrisy exists in major-college football and men's basketball, where athletes are getting punished for the same things that coaches and administrators do as routine.

Ex-USC running back Reggie Bush had to return his Heisman Trophy because he signed with an agent while still in college.

Ohio State University quarterback Terrelle Pryor is looking at sitting out five games next season after selling memorabilia that he received for prior bowl appearances.

Let me repeat that for you. Pryor and four of his Buckeyes teammates could be suspended for selling their own stuff. Of course, they'll be allowed to play a couple of days hence in the Cotton Bowl, so they can help generate income for the NCAA and its hangers-on.

The NCAA's rules, which seem designed solely to keep athletes from getting their hands on the great wodges of cash that goes to everyone else involved with college sports, foster corruption by driving players to seek under-the-table income.

Sometimes integrity is best served not by punishing corruption, but by making it legal. The International Olympic Committee learned that lesson. Now it's the NCAA's turn.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Lost "Brother" embodied military's virtues

This column appeared originally on Jan. 27 in the Ellwood City Ledger, but was never posted on the paper's website due to an editorial oversight.

There’s a scene in the first episode of “Band of Brothers” where Richard Winters where he reprimands another officer, Lynn “Buck” Compton, for gambling with the enlisted men.

Compton, who would one day lead the prosecution Sirhan Sirhan for the assassination of Robert Kennedy, thinks Winters – a religious tea-totaling non-gambler – is objecting on moral grounds. But that’s not the case.

“What if you’d won?” Winters asks, which temporarily baffles Compton. “Don’t ever put yourself in a position to take anything from these men.”

Winters, who died Jan. 2 just three weeks short of his 93rd birthday, distinguished himself as a young man during World War II. But fame found him late in life when he wound up as the hero of Ambrose’s book, “Band of Brothers,” and the follow-on Emmy-award-winning television miniseries of the same title.

In the anecdote above, Winters demonstrates a concept known to Christians as servant leadership – exemplified by Jesus when he washed the feet of his apostles.

During the invasion of Normandy, as depicted in the book and on TV, Winters led a force of 13 men in a successful assault on an artillery emplacement that was targeting American troops landing in the Normandy Utah sector. The guns were defended by 50 entrenched German paratroopers.

Earlier that day, Winters had taken command of Easy Company – of 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division – because the plane that was to have dropped the company commander in Normandy was shot down, and everyone on board was killed.

Winters received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. military’s second-highest award, for combat valor for leading the attack. It’s probably not a coincidence that, going by the words of those who served under his command, he was the most widely respected of the Band of Brothers.

But where it relates to Winters, “Band of Brothers” wasn’t just a story of one exceptional soldier, but of a philosophy that has yielded an exceptional military. It wasn’t many years before World War II that the world’s armies parceled out officer’s status based on noble title.

It wasn’t uncommon, for example, command of a regiment to fall upon the man who provided the funds to outfit that regiment, which produced a mentality of entitlement on the part of military leadership.

In his book, Ambrose sets up Easy Company’s World War II battles as not just a clash of military forces, but one of systems, of American democracy and meritocracy against European tradition and aristocracy.

Winters matched wits and guts against German officers who won their commissions in many cases because their grandfathers happened to be barons. The German infantry were exhorted to fight for their country and social betters, while their American counterparts were compelled to battle for their comrades.

And the American system that Winters embodied proved superior, Ambrose wrote in summing up the 101st Airborne Division's heroic stand at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

“It was a test of arms, will, and national systems, matching the best the Nazis had with the best the Americans had, with all the advantages on the German side … Democracy proved better able to produce young men who could be made into superb soldiers than Nazi Germany.”

A long time ago, Winters was one of those young men produced by that system. And the legacy of those young men is that in America, a nation created from the rejects of those European aristocracies, the American armed services are exceptional in large part because it embraces command the same way Winters did – as an obligation and a duty rather than a privilege to be exploited.

Eric Poole can be reached online at