Four Midshipmen Gone

Four Midshipmen Gone

After tragedy, all the 1989 Naval Academy cross-country team could do was run.

Four Midshipmen Gone
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 013, October 2019

By Liam Boylan-Pett
Photos Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy Athletics

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Sitting in Coach Al Cantello’s office that morning, Robert Packowski and Chris Tipton were excited.

There are few things more hopeful than a group of young men or women on the precipice of a cross-country season. In that moment—after a summer of sun-drenched runs and the clean slate of a season over hill and dale in front of them—they feel almost invincible. For the teams fortunate enough to embark on a preseason camp that aura only amplifies. Together with ten to fifteen of their teammates, the runners buoy one another’s goals and marvel at what they will soon accomplish.

This idea is not new. Nostalgia for future legends of the fall has passed through generations of high school and college cross-country teams. 

Packowski, Tipton, and the 1989 United States Naval Academy cross-country team were no different. Starting in the early 1970s, Midshipmen runners would meet up for a few days in the mountains before reporting to Annapolis at the end of the summer. The 1989 team was keeping with tradition by heading to a cabin in Gifford Pinchot State Park in York County, Pennsylvania. And like those before them, they had high expectations. 

The year before, Navy had finished 21st at the N.C.A.A. Championships with no seniors, and the talent coming back was enough to make a 21st place finish at N.C.A.A.s sound like a failure. Packowski was the captain on the ’88 team, and after setting the Navy record in the steeplechase in 8 minutes, 40.04 seconds that spring, was eager to lead the squad in the fall. 

That the Naval Academy was hosting the meet on their home cross-country course only added to the excitement. Not only should this be one of the best teams Navy had ever had, they were going to be able to show the country on their home course, one that Coach Cantello would tell press “tests the mettle of the runner, not the talent.” 

While Packowski and Tipton had thought that far ahead, on the morning of August 14, 1989, they were mostly thinking about how much fun cross-country camp was going to be. They had gone up to the state park the last few years to get out of the humidity of Annapolis, and to bond as a team before getting back to school and class and lights out and rules. Packowski and Tipton had spent much of the summer together, traveling around Switzerland, West Germany, and the south of France. Now, they were eager for the trails of the state park and late nights chatting over beers. They were taking separate cars up to Pennsylvania, though. Packowski was picking up some guys at the airport, and Tipton was jumping into Mark Zauel’s car along with junior Don Brown.

After going over a few last-minute details with Cantello about runs and workouts for the week, as Packowksi was leaving the office, Cantello gave him one last direction. “When you get there,” he said, “make sure you tell me.” 

Packowski said of course he would, and went on his way. He jumped into his blue Ford Mustang and left for Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Waiting curbside were two Texans—juniors William Donovan and Don Landry—and Andrew Meyers, a junior from Greeley, Colorado. Riding with Packo, as his teammates called him, would be a treat for three runners who were hoping to make varsity that fall. Spending time with Packo was a thrill for pretty much anyone, at least that’s how most of the Navy runners felt. 

“He was kind of otherworldly,” Tipton said of his friend that, with his big ears and button nose, looked like he could have been cast as the boy next door in an episode of Leave it to Beaver. “A guy that just, well, everybody loved him. He was funny and adventurous. He acted first and thought about the consequences after—in a good way.” 

At the regional cross-country meet the year before, there was a tree in the middle of the course on the in the field the mass of runners was about to plow through. In the starting box next to Navy, a runner from Brown University, who was one of the best runners in the country, kindly offered some advice to the Navy team. “We’re going to go to the right of the tree,” the Brown runner explained, “and you guys can go left.” Packowski didn’t want to hear it. “We’ll go wherever the fuck we want to go,” he snapped back. Zauel nearly laughed. He could barely believe what he had just heard, just moments before the race. But that was Packo. 

Donovan, meanwhile, was a good ol’ Texas boy, as the guys on the team saw it—never without a smile on his face. Meyers, who had made the varsity team as a Plebe (Navy-speak for first-year) on the team, was a workhorse. Navy’s home course was the perfect fit for a guy who might not have been a natural talent but attacked each and every hill he ran up. He was not quite as gung-ho for life as Packo, but his teammates thought he was a riot. Landry, meanwhile, was quiet—content to watch everyone do their thing and take it all in.

Driving up to the state park, they likely shared stories from their summer adventures and talked about the potential of the cross-country season. Then, once there wasn’t much else to talk about, Packowski probably cranked the music to eleven and rolled down the windows, flying along the Pennsylvania freeways and highways in his Mustang.

Around 1:30 p.m., the four runners pulled up to a cabin and unpacked the car. Packowski, per Coach’s instructions, made sure to find the phone and called back to Annapolis. Cantello wasn’t there, but Packowski was able to leave a message for him: They had made it.

They were the first to arrive, and instead of waiting around for everyone else to show up, they decided to head to Rossville, the closest town, to pick up groceries. Sometime around 2:30, they left, traveling southbound down Route 177. 

About one hour later, the rest of the Navy cross-country team started to show up at the cabin. Zauel, a senior from Michigan, pulled into the cabin’s dusty drive around 3:30 with Brown and Tipton. The rest of the team was bound to show up soon. There was a note on the door explaining Packo, Will, Andy, and Landry were off in Rossville getting groceries. Tipton, Brown, and Zauel were supposed to get groceries and beer, too, so they piled back into the car. 

It was a gray, mostly cloudy day and by 4:00 the heat of the afternoon was starting to cool. Tracing the route his teammates had taken earlier, Zauel drove south on Route 177, a tree-lined, two-lane highway on the west border of Gifford Pinchot State Park. They sped past the trails they would soon run on their left; their right was peppered with homes and small businesses. Shortly after crossing a bridge that crossed a small feeder pond of Pinchot Lake, Zauel slowed because of an accident. There were skid marks on the road, but they didn’t get a good look at the car because it was covered by a tarp. Once in the beer store, the clerk asked them if they had seen the accident just outside town. “Was it a blue Mustang?” Tipton joked.

The answer broke Tipton’s heart.

At around 3:00 that afternoon, about a half-mile from Rossville, Packowski lost control of his car. It went off the road, hitting a street sign before going airborne. The car knocked one tree down and struck one more, then it burst into flames. The Mustang was about 100 feet from a home on Route 177. A 12-year-old boy rushed out of the house and grabbed a garden hose, and a man who had stopped when he saw the accident attempted to extinguish the fire. But it was too late. By 3:45, a coroner had pronounced the four young men dead. 

Zauel, Brown, and Tipton drove to the site of the accident as soon as the store clerk told them it was a Mustang. When the coroner showed them Packoski’s driver’s license, Tipton just walked away, unable to fathom what had happened. Zauel and Brown, through tears, asked which hospital their friends had been taken to, but soon realized they were still in the car.

They couldn’t believe it. Tipton called his dad, a 1958 Navy graduate, from a payphone, but could not get out the words of what transpired, sniffling and sobbing into the phone for what felt like 10 minutes. Zauel called Cantello but had to leave a message at the office. They decided to cancel camp. No one on the team stayed in York County that week, aside from Tim Barkdoll, the captain of the 1989 team, who grew up in the area. “We’d just be waiting for the guys to drive up,” Barkdoll told a reporter from the York Daily Record. “And that’s not going to happen.” 

The next few weeks were a blur for many on the team. Zauel and Tipton drove back to Annapolis and stayed at Cantello’s home that night.  They didn’t talk about the season or training or the fact that their dream season had begun in the worst way possible. Tipton’s birthday was the next day. It was nice to be with his coach, at least. Zauel would stay there the rest of the week while Tipton, who called Texas home, went and visited family in Virginia. The week before, he and Packowski had stayed there. Now, he had one week until school started, and he was without his best friend. 

Tipton reported back to Annapolis the following week, but life was not normal. The Naval Academy held a ceremony for the four fallen runners. Nearly three-thousand friends and relatives of the four midshipmen were at the service, where Rear Admiral Virgil L. Hill, Jr., teared up as he asked the mourners to make “their dreams our dreams.” 

“Looking back on it,” Zauel said, “the funeral was probably pretty nice.” But at that point, life was fuzzy. He went through the motions as best he could while attending four of his friends’ funerals. Tipton went to the service on campus, then he went to Poughkeepsie to Packowski’s funeral and two more in Texas and one in Colorado. Throughout it all, he kept up with his schoolwork. Plus, there was still a cross-country season to run. 

Which is what saved him and his teammates.

“Navy was like a prison to me,” Zauel said. “I wasn’t super happy at the school, and I escaped on the cross-country team. Having that team every day made the difference for me.” That season after the accident was even more difficult for Zauel. He was in the same company as Donovan and lived next to him for two years. Not having him to walk to practice with was brutal. Plus, Zauel was nursing a meniscus injury, so he was not even running with his teammates daily. 

For the rest of the team, getting back to practice and to running was a path to feeling normal, even if not better. “I think we were all still processing it,” Tipton said of the season. “It was a situation where we all were just kind of looking at eachother like, well, we gotta suck it up and keep going. That’s what people do. We were training to be officers in the military. There was no time for crying—we obviously we did, at times. But once the season got going, we all just did what we needed to do.” 

There was not as much horseplay on the bus or staying up too late telling stories as there was in past seasons. “It was more about showing up and doing the work, and doing it for them, and doing it the best we could,” Tipton said. 

There was no team meeting about winning one for the Gipper—Coach Cantello wasn’t much for inspirational speeches, he was more of a take-care-of-your-business type of coach—but the guys on the team did talk to one another about what they were going through. The guys talked a lot, and they hugged a lot. There was an unspoken bond that this season could still be a profound one.

Cantello, meanwhile, thought about calling the N.C.A.A. to ask if Navy still had to host the national championships. He decided against it, and instead focused on preparing the team for a season that would be far from normal. Not that the team would be bad. Packowski was gone, and Navy was out three more potential scorers, but the team was deep. 

At the first race of the year on September 9, they swept nine of the first ten spots against Saint Joseph’s University to win 15-49 on their home course. Tipton, Brown, and sophomore Chris Pass all crossed the finish line in 26 minutes, 36 seconds. Because Navy was hosting N.C.A.A.s, teams like Tennessee, who finished third in the country the year before, wanted a shot at the course. Two weeks after the win over St. Joseph’s, Tennessee beat Navy, 21-36 as Brown led the way in fourth place. 

Today, many team’s cross-country seasons begin in earnest in the middle of October, when top squads send out their best to pre-nationals or the Wisconsin meet. Then, it’s two weeks until conference, two more weeks until regionals, and one more for the national championships. The best runners might race only four times. The 1989 Navy team was racing what seemed like every weekend. Which was just the way they liked it, and by the time they were going up against their archrival Army, the Midshipmen were 6-2 in dual meets. 

It had rained the entire week leading up to the October 20 race in West Point, and much of the course was underwater and covered in mud. That was cross-country, though, the Navy guys thought. Up until that point, they were happy with how the season was going. When the gun went off in New York that day, they took it to another level. “Once you got muddy, it was, ‘All right, let’s go,’” Tipton said. 

The Navy team let Army’s Aaron Pogue go. But after that, no one was getting by them. Splashing and sloshing through the course as mud clomped to their spikes and spit up on their faces, Tipton, Brown, Barkdoll, Greg Keller, and Frank Flores attacked the course at every chance they got.

Army didn’t have a chance. 

Pogue won the 5-mile race in 27 minutes, 5 seconds, then it was all Navy. Tipton was second in 27 minutes, 18 seconds, then Brown, Keller, and Flores followed within 30 seconds. Navy swept finishing spots 2 through 7 and beat Army 20 to 42. It was the fifteenth win in sixteen tries against Army, but this one felt sweeter. Tipton’s confidence soared following the race. The next week he was third at the Heptagonal Championships (at that point, the league consisted of the eight Ivy League schools and Army and Navy) as the team took second to a Dartmouth team that would go on to finish ninth in the country. 

Barkdoll was the team captain, but Tipton, the blonde-haired, red-cheeked kid from Dallas, and Brown were leading the way on the cross-country course. He said that while he and Brown had taken on leadership roles, he didn’t even know if he wanted one. Not that he had a choice. While they were starting to believe this team was special, they still lived with the burden of losing four friends and teammates. Tipton didn’t seek professional help from anyone, nor did he know of any teammates who did.

There was a wall at the cemetery on campus that looked like it belonged next to a monument on the National Mall—a simple, stoic face of stone that listed the names of the dead. Packowski was the only of the four to be buried in the cemetery—the other three were buried in their hometowns. Every time Tipton walked by the wall, he touched Packowski’s name. He thought about his best friend a lot. He missed him. He tried to be like him as best as he could, especially on the cross-country course. 

Tipton remembered multiple races the year before when he would begin to slow. It always happened when he was near Cantello, somehow. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself, Tipton,” he’d hear Cantello yell. “Go get that guy. Go get ‘im.” 

Cantello was a hardass. He loved his guys, but in the way he might yell at you one moment then wrap his arm around you the next. He coached at Navy for over fifty years and had a hand in countless athletes’ careers. (He did not want to talk about the accident for this story but did send along newspaper clippings and media guides.) In 1989, he never had to yell at anyone about effort. This team always put it all on the line. 

Tipton ran with Packowski in his thoughts. “Everybody loved him and respected him,” Tipton said of Packowski. “Bob never took a race off. He would fight through pain more than everybody I’ve ever seen compete.”

After the dominant win over Army and the great race at Heps, Navy was feeling good. But there was a meet on the calendar that they hadn’t talked about much. Could they finish in the top three at the regional meet to qualify for N.C.A.A.s?

Just as they had done nearly every week that fall, the Navy harriers geared up for another race, another chance to run for themselves and their fallen teammates. (Zauel, who battled injuries throughout the season did not make the top seven, so did not race.) At Yale in the District II regional, they would need to hang with powerhouses like Georgetown, Penn State and Villanova. 

For Cantello, the prospect of fielding a team at their home cross-country course after the fall they had had was too much. In the pre-race huddle, as the athletes held each other’s shoulders and looked around the circle, Cantello gave his athletes what he what he could.

“At a tough point in the race,” he said and looked at each of the seven runners in the eyes, “think of someone who inspires you. Draw strength from them.” He did not have to name any of the four men each athlete was thinking of. Cantello’s eyes welled with tears as he sent his steam to the line. 

The runners took it from there. Tipton and Brown led the way as they had all season. “Just a lot of races that season felt like out-of-body experiences,” Tipton said. “I was floating on air. I would feel that in the middle of races knowing what we were doing and what we were accomplishing that year.” Around the 5-mile mark of the 10-kilometer race, he started to struggle. He heeded Cantello’s words, though, and drew off Packo. He was able to stay with Brown the rest of the way. They finished 15th and 16th. Behind them, Greg Keller (28th), Frank Flores (33rd) and Mike Conover (54th) finished the job. Georgetown won the race with 65 points; Navy was second with 77. They were going to N.C.A.A.s again. 

The Navy cross-country team had remained focused and stoic throughout the year. Crossing the finish line at regionals broke the floodgates open. Cantello cried his eyes out. So did the athletes. “I think the emotion of those three months finally came out,” Tipton said. There weren’t enough hugs to go around. 

“You can’t inspire yourself to run a 10-flat 100,” Cantello told the Baltimore Sun. “But when you talk about cross-country, the terrain, a crazy myriad of surfaces come into play. Equalizers abound, one of them being emotion.” 

Emotion carried Navy that day—right into the N.C.A.A. Championships. 

On their home course one week later, Navy once again finished 21st at the N.C.A.A. Championships, matching their mark from one season ago. At the beginning of the year, a repeat would have been deemed a failure. At the 1989 national championships, however, the run was a celebration. 

Tipton led the way, finishing 57th on the 10-kilometer course in 31 minutes, 2.59 seconds. Brown was 15 seconds behind him. Iowa State won the team title with 54 points. Navy was 21st with 394 points. The result did not matter much to Navy, though. Running in front of their friends and family on their home course was good enough. Zauel was thrilled that so many of the country’s best runners were on their course. Tipton said it was anticlimactic. Qualifying was what mattered. 

Packo, Will, Andy, and Landry would have been proud.

Tipton was proud. He still is. Today, he lives in Dallas and is a vice president at a solar development company. He has four children. His oldest daughter met Cantello last year for dinner when they were in the area. Cantello grilled her on what she was going to do with her life—she was 14. “Coach is still the same,” Tipton laughed. 

Tipton was surprised that Cantello did not want to speak to me for this story, but he understood. “For him, it was devastating,” Tipton said. “We are all probably still are processing the whole thing in some ways.”

“Looking back,” he said, “at least for me personally, some counseling probably would have helped. I carried that loss for a long time.”

Tipton will be up in Annapolis at some point this fall for the 30th reunion of the team and his time on campus. He will think of the accident and that year of running for the four friends and teammates the Navy cross-country team lost. If he walks by the cemetery, he will find Packo’s name like he did his senior year. 

If he goes to the cross-country course in Annapolis, he will find a boulder with a plaque on it. On that plaque are the names of the four who died in August 1989. Navy has not hosted the N.C.A.A. Championships since, but runners from all over the country still race on the daunting course. 

No one knows exactly what happened in the car in the moments before it spun out of control on Route 177 on that August day in 1989. Tipton does have an idea. He remembers the feeling of excitement of cross-country camp—that strong feeling of hope, anticipation, and possibility that comes with it. He knows that Packowski was full of it, because he had spent the whole summer with him, watching it build as the season approached. Tipton knows that Packo was the driver, and that he was probably speeding. “He probably had the windows down,” Tipton says, “and he was probably yelling at the top of his lungs. He was just excited to be where he was with his teammates. And, uh,” Tipton pauses, “it got the best of him.”

The 1989 Navy Cross-Country team still lives with that loss. But as Cantello told them in the huddle before the biggest race of their lives, they can still take strength from those who inspire them.

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