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May 8, 2006
COLLEGE STATION, Texas ? Even when at his most fatigued, Texas A&M linebacker Mark Dodge didn't always welcome sleep.
Needed rest can come with sleep, but so can nocturnal demons that creep from the subconscious.
In his dreams Dodge would often be tormented by reliving the hell of September 11, 2001 - when his U.S. Army company from nearby Fort Myer entered a smoldering section of the Pentagon to recover bodies of victims on one of the most tragic days in American history.
The rooms, once filled with high-tech equipment and bustling with activity, were littered with debris and death. The stench of burnt flesh and jet fuel was overwhelming. And there was the ghastly sight of the bodies, some of which had melted into the seats of American Airlines Flight 77 - which was high-jacked by terrorists and steered into the Pentagon.
In dreams, the square-jawed, blue-eyed Dodge is removing a body from the wreckage when its eyes suddenly flash open and its hand reaches out and grabs him.
"The first few weeks (after Sept. 11) it didn't bother me because everything was moving so fast," Dodge said. "A few weeks later I broke down. You get emotional. You realize there were people in there and it gets to you. I still have nightmares, but not as often as I used to."
On that terrible day, the 20-year-old Dodge was in another part of the Pentagon filling out an application for secret security clearance. He was part of a crowd that had gathered around televisions watching footage of two high-jacked planes flown into the World Trade Center in New York earlier that day. They had no way of knowing they were the next target.
"When it hit us you could feel it and we didn't know what happened," he recalled. "Then the alarms started going off, we were told to evacuate the building and you could see the big plumes of smokes. I immediately drove back to my company at Fort Myer, which was only about two miles away. Our unit mobilized, we set up tents outside the Pentagon, and once the fire department put out the fires we went in on rescue operations that turned into body recovery and cleanup."
So many lives were lost that day, and so many more changed forever. Dodge's life was changed.
"I know it's bothered him a lot," said Toni Insera, Dodge's mother. "I know he's had nightmares. I know it's made him have a lot more appreciation for life. I remember he was able to call me and say, 'Mom, I'm OK,' but then I didn't get a chance to talk to him for a couple of days.
"I was fortunate because I got a phone call. It was a hard time for our country and a hard time for him. He says he still can smell that phantom smell."
After that ordeal Dodge started pondering what he wanted to do with his life. He knew he wanted to go to college, and he knew he wanted to play football again. As a 170-pound wide receiver and strong safety his senior year at Yerington High School in Nevada, he was named all-state. He had bulked up to a chiseled 205 pounds during his four-year stint in the Army.
Getting an opportunity to go to college would be easy. Getting a chance to play football would not. As his discharge neared, Dodge telephoned coaches at more than 30 junior colleges across the country seeking a scholarship, or at least a chance to try out for their football teams.
None returned his calls.
"Football has been his love forever," Insera said. "He didn't have the money for college and I couldn't help him, so he decided to go to the Army, but he still did not give up his dream."
When no one else responded, Dodge called coach Rob Cushman at Feather River College in Quincy, Calif. The school was only three hours from his hometown.
He enrolled in January, and when spring football started he just showed up. By the time spring practice ended, he was a starting linebacker.
Dodge eventually added 15 more pounds, led Feather River in tackles and helped the Eagles reach bowl games in his two seasons there.
Suddenly, the guy who couldn't get a return phone call from junior college coaches was being recruited by big-time college programs across the country.
He took trips to Nevada, Arizona State, Washington and California, but Texas A&M was a perfect fit - for a variety of reasons.
College Station is a patriotic, conservative community, and Texas A&M still has its Corp of Cadets. Dodge, who had three cousins do tours of duty in Iraq, felt comfortable in that environment.
Also, the Aggies defense, which ranked 107th in the nation last season, needed immediate help. Dodge, called grandpa by his younger teammates, came out of the spring listed as a starter at linebacker opposite All-Big 12 performer Justin Warren in the new 4-2-5 defensive scheme. He was also voted to coach Dennis Franchione's leadership council.
"He's really energetic," Warren said. "I like having him as my teammate."
Warren may like having Dodge even more in the Aggies' first two games against The Citadel and Army, a pair of opponents that an old enlisted man is already hyped up to face.
"I can't wait to give those officers from The Citadel and West Point some payback," Dodge said. "Some of those West Point boys think they're so great. I'll make sure they know I was prior service enlisted."
In a way, he makes sure his teammates know, too. He doesn't need to remind them he was in the Army ? that's old news ? but he'll let them know what he learned.
Sitting on an overstuffed maroon leather couch in the plush players' lounge of the Bright Family Athletic Complex, he looks around. He sees a big-screen TV surrounded by recliners and video games and admits he never thought he'd make it this far.
This is what dreams are made of. The good dreams. The dreams that don't jolt you awake in a cold sweat.
"The big difference is I don't take this for granted," he said, comparing himself to his teammates. "Look at this place. Who has this? This is a dream come true."