Atop each varsity football locker in the Archer fieldhouse is a nameplate honoring past Tigers who used it.
Dillon Bliss’ name is on the locker for No. 20. Next door at No. 21 is John Gillis. They were defensive teammates — Gillis graduated in 2014, Bliss in 2015 — and shared plenty of memories for some of their high school’s best teams.
They headed to colleges separated by more than 250 miles, yet their bond remained strong, in large part because their post-high school experiences were so similar. Gillis was at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and Bliss was four-plus hours north in West Point, N.Y., at the U.S. Military Academy. Both were college athletes, Gillis as a Navy defensive back and Bliss as a linebacker on Army’s sprint football team.
Bliss and Gillis graduated from their academies a day apart last month, and they expect their friendship to grow deeper as they enter five-year commitments serving their country.
“I feel like (our bond) will get better now,” Gillis said. “We might be going through sort of similar things. Not the exact same thing, but we can use each other, give each other pointers on how to take certain situations with people under us. How to handle leadership.”
Bliss quickly agreed.
“Even though it’s Army-Navy, it’s a shared experience,” Bliss said. “If I have a leadership problem, it’s easier to talk to him than someone who didn’t go through the leadership program we have. Leadership is all the same. Just because I’m leading a tank platoon or leading an intelligence platoon, and he’s on a ship, leadership in general is still the same, and being able to draw on each other is really good to have.”
The military path wasn’t initially the plan for either as a high-schooler, though they learned about it when an older teammate, Ernest Alexander, joined the Navy football program. That led to Gillis joining the Midshipmen the following year.
He spent his first year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island before moving on to the main campus in Maryland.
“That year was tough, the first year away from home and the rules there are a lot different from the Academy, they can train you harder, it’s a lot more military than academics,” Gillis said. “That year you’re technically enlisted and it’s a lot harder. That year we had a record-breaking blizzard. The snow was around your hips. You couldn’t go outside without a battle buddy. It was so bad visibility that you couldn’t see your hands in front of you. It was tough, but it prepared me to get to the Academy and get my scheduling down.”
The routine and rigorous academics made the path challenging, particularly for someone playing high-level football. The reward at the end is worth it, though, Gillis said.
And he stacked up loads of memories from college football, including a win over rival Army. But he also endured losses the past three years to Army.
America’s Game gave Gillis and Bliss the opportunity to trade barbs digitally each year.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Gillis said. “We’re brothers before the game. When you get into the game on the field, you just try to kill each other. After everybody sings (their alma mater), everybody’s brothers again. … The worst day of my life as a football player was losing to Army. You saw the clock go zero, Army storm the field. All you could do was just stare.”
While Gillis suffered a loss to Army on the field, Bliss got to celebrate with his fellow cadets in the stands. His matchups with Navy in sprint football — players must be 178 pounds or less — were just as fierce.
He had no idea about sprint football until late in his high school career.
“It was interesting, especially coming from playing down there,” Gillis said. “I kind of looked at it as my way out of football. I had played football since I was 6 and I knew I would miss it a lot. And I also wanted to move over to the next path of my life. It was a shorter season, but it was a lot of fun. I met some of the best people playing with them all four years. And I got to beat Navy a couple of times, so that was good.”
Now that they have finished with their military academy work, they are teammates again, just serving in different branches of the U.S. military.
Gillis, a general science major, returns to Annapolis this weekend for temporary assignments through the beginning of August, when he begins six months of intelligence training school in Virginia Beach. After that, he gets his first assignment.
Bliss, who majored in systems engineering at West Point, leaves this week for Fort Benning, where he will spend a year on officer leadership courses and other classes. When he finishes in Columbus, he moves to Texas for duty at Fort Hood.
Before those assignments began, Bliss and Gillis spent nearly a month at home catching up with family and friends. That included a trip to Archer to visit their coaches, and check out their old, side-by-side lockers.
It also allowed Archer head football coach Andy Dyer to stress how proud he was of their accomplishments.
“I think that No. 1, they are both made up of the right stuff and they both have got that it factor,” Dyer said. “They have great character and work ethic. They both have super support systems at home. When you’ve got those two, you can do great things. For me, the only people more proud of them is their parents. I think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread what they’ve done. I’ve never walked in their shoes, but just the amount of work and the discipline and the military part of what they’ve gone through is different than anything else.
“What they did was make a conscious decision to do something way different than others. That’s something to me that’s as important as any decision a kid can make, being a part of our military, the most powerful military in the world. You want great people in it and those two fit that mold.”