Some of you may recall about a year ago, when I posted this story about my former Thousand Oaks High teammate – and one of my best friends – Corey Mazza, who had decided to join the United States Marine Corps.
Corey’s beloved grandfather, Gino, had just passed away, and we were all greatly affected. Gino was a wonderful man, still is in our hearts and minds, and even as we watched Corey walk down the aisle with his beautiful wife late last year, we thought of him.
Well, now the day has come for Corey, and he’s handling it better than I am.
Corey is leading a unit to Afghanistan, and in typical Corey fashion, had this to say:
“I am bringing 48 men over and am bringing 48 back. End of story. Thank you for the prayers for our family as we depart on our journey…Semper Fidelis!”
I’m reposting the story of Corey and Gino that I wrote in the Daily News a while back, because it deserves reposting. I’ve never been more proud of a story. I’ve never been more proud of a man.
Come back safely, Corey. We love you. 48-for-48.
Corey Mazza wants you to understand something, and he wants to make it clear and he wants to leave no doubt.
He is nothing special.
If he could tell it to each of you, break down his decision to forgo a professional football career, forget a burgeoning modeling and acting career, ignore a budding financial career after a Harvard education, he would.
He would love to pull you aside and explain why he’s just, well, average.
“I definitely don’t feel any more special than anyone else,” Mazza said in between slices of pizza on Tuesday, three days before he would board a plane to Marine Corps officer candidate school in Quantico, Virginia. “I love the anonymity of the service. There’s no name on the back of your jersey. The guys are there to go about their jobs, and they do it with honor or pride. It’s not a punch line.”
With every sentence, every word, Mazza reiterates that he is no different from the kid who enlists at 18.
But he is.
Most Marine enlistments have not led the life he’s led, with the prospects he has. That does not make him any better, he’ll make sure you know, but it certainly does separate him from the pack.
The modeling and acting is one thing, a fluke that he never put much time or care into. But Mazza spent five years at wide receiver for Harvard, tying the career touchdown reception record and leading the Crimson to two Ivy League championships. He followed his college career with a brief foray into professional football, playing in Italy for the Parma Panthers last summer.
And there are the financial opportunities that typically follow a Harvard education.
Mazza, essentially, is giving all that up.
Mazza, really, is giving up nothing.
“I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything,” he said. “I feel like I’d be giving something up if I didn’t do this. Coming out of school, there’s a lot of pressure to go out and get the big-money first job. One thing I did listen to a lot of people tell me is, ‘Do what you love, do what you love, do what you love.’
“It would be a mistake, giving up a whole lot more, not doing this.”
So how did he come to this decision?
A LIFELONG PASSION
Donna Mazza smiles as she discusses her son’s passion for the military.
Sitting around the coffee table with Corey and his sister, Jordyn, her husband Jerry and Jerry’s father Gino and his wife Margie, Donna Mazza recalls going through Corey’s old middle-school journals recently.
Corey’s eighth-grade teacher had given a writing assignment to describe two lifetime goals.
“‘No one will ever stop me from playing college sports, and I know when I get out of college, I’ll be a soldier,'” Donna Mazza said of her son’s words, now 10 years later.
“From eighth grade on, he’s wanted to do this. When I saw that, I said, ‘That’s him.’ He has not changed his course. He’s one of those people who had the luxury of knowing what they want from so young.”
The passion started early, as Corey listened to Gino describe his time in the Marines, back in the early 1950s, when he enlisted as a 21-year old Brooklynite. The stories were endless, always positive, about the barracks or the mess hall or the boot camps.
Gino did not purposely shield his grandson from the horrors of military service; as it happens, most of Gino’s stories just happen to be pretty funny.
So they’d sit and talk on Sunday nights, watching HBO’s Band of Brothers when Corey was a freshman in high school. And Corey would sit and listen, giving his full attention, dreaming of the day when it would be him telling the stories.
“He always admired my dog tags,” Gino Mazza said. “I still have them; I keep them on my key chain. He keeps holding them, and I say, ‘Don’t worry, when I go, you can have them.’ I’ve always told him that there’s so much good rather than bad, about being in the service. It makes a man out of you.”
Added Corey: “One grandfather was a Marine, and he had nothing but great things to say about it. And the other grandfather was in the Air Force. I really love the history of that greatest generation; I read anything I can get my hands on.”
On his bookcase in his room at his parents’ house in Thousand Oaks, his two great passions come together.
On the top two shelves are his football keepsakes: The Harvard and Parma football helmets, the 2007 Ivy League championship ring, the Harvard team yearbook.
On the bottom two shelves, the military memorabilia, with a Marine Corps anthology and a Sept. 11 tribute as bookends. Then there are his hero Gino’s Marine effects, his bayonet, his compass, his patch and pins in front of one of Corey’s true prize possessions; a framed copy of Sports Illustrated, celebrating the life and death of his other hero, Pat Tillman.
“I just really admire and respect the guys who put on that uniform and go out and do a job that is so difficult, and they do it without complaints,” Corey said. “That’s their work. The pride that these guys are able to take away from what they do each day, I’ve always been enamored by it.”
It is a job, and a worthwhile one.
But Corey is also abandoning his other “calling.”
His football career.
“It’s weird thinking that I am ‘retired’ or whatever from football now,” Corey said. At the same time, it was a great ride, great fun. I don’t regret any of the decisions I made. I’m always going to miss strapping up and playing football, but I can walk away feeling good about the way it ended.”
GIVING UP THE GAME
Surprisingly, Corey seems not to be much affected by losing football.
He plans to play for the Marines, if he can manage both commitments, but his football career is on hold for now.
It truly started at Thousand Oaks High School.
There, Mazza was a star for the Lancers among many stars in both football and basketball. In his sophomore and junior seasons, Mazza played alongside Dave Anderson, now a wide receiver for the Houston Texans, Ben Olson, a quarterback for UCLA, and Kevin Rex, a former two-time All-Ivy League safety for Cornell.
Thousand Oaks won its first Marmonte League football championship in more than a decade in Mazza’s junior season, and the Lancers basketball team won the league title and advanced to the CIF championship game.
After high school, it was off to Harvard, where he started as a freshman for the Crimson. But those successful times in high school and college, those wonderful memories, were nothing compared to his one season in Italy.
The brand of football wasn’t quite as good, but it was fun again.
“It definitely wasn’t as competitive as it is in the U.S.,” Corey said. “Kids grow up playing it their whole lives, and these guys start playing when they’re older. They play for the same reasons now like we used to play, because it’s fun to hit people and play the game. It was great going back to that after the rigors of college football.”
Not that there weren’t a few rigors of adjusting to life in Italy.
Mazza had to become accustomed to the Italian way of life, where waiters take 45 minutes to serve food as things just move at a slower pace.
Simple things were tough for Mazza: Which bathroom to enter, which customs to follow, how to order food.
Mazza found it difficult to even roll with the Tide.
“It was definitely a culture shock. The day-to-day language barrier became difficult. We were doing our laundry with fabric softener for two months before a girl pointed it out to us and started laughing. We just thought, ‘Why is this washing machine so bad? Our clothes aren’t getting clean!'”
But on Sunday afternoons, everything seemed to come together. Football became the common language for Mazza and his teammates, which included two friends from Harvard. He quickly became a star, catching 31 touchdown passes in just 14 games against teams from throughout Europe.
Squaring off against former NFL players or athletes twice his age, Mazza was dominante.
“There are times you’re going up against former NFL linebackers, and there are times you’re going up against Giovanni, the accountant,” Mazza said. “There’s no rhyme nor reason to it; you get the full spectrum of football player out there. I tell people all the time, there was a 43-year old doctor who was the best guy on special teams, the first one down on kickoffs, but at the same time, he put a knee pad inside the top of his helmet because he thought it added extra protection.”
There was one custom, however, to which Mazza simply could not adjust.
“The entire right side of the offensive line would smoke before the game, halftime and, without even taking their helmets off, after the game,” he said. “It was definitely weird in the locker room, getting ready to go, with the cigarette smoke still hanging in the air. But this was their world, and we were just living in it.”
LEAVING FAMILY BEHIND
Sitting on his couch, surrounded by his loving family, Corey is back in his own world.
For the sixth time in as many years, though, he will leave them.
After saying goodbye to his son every summer for five years, then watching him pack up for Parma, you’d expect Jerry Mazza to be used to this.
“We went on the plane to school with him and came back and it was just brutal for me,” Jerry Mazza said. “It was just really, really hard that first semester. It gets a little easier each time. I’ll be OK going to the airport with him on Friday, but probably in January, that one will be a little tougher.”
Then, Mazza will be off to basic training. This initial officer candidate school is just 10 weeks, an introductory course.
It is an introduction Corey’s parents at first wished he’d never make.
Though they knew of Corey’s passion for the military and desire to one day enter the armed forces, Jerry and Donna were not particularly enthused about his decision. During high school, when Corey would talk about one day enlisting, they thought it was a passing fad.
He’d go to college, play football, start real life and lose interest.
“He didn’t,” said Jerry, who added that it took a long time for him to get on board to Corey’s decision. “(For years), he kind of could read my body language; I tried to do everything possible, like a stage-mom, to steer him into other areas. It wasn’t something I encouraged. But when we saw how important it was when he had all these other opportunities, we were happy he’d found his passion.”
While others doubted or worried or criticized the decision, Gino, the former Marine, was at his side.
And, always, he wants Corey at his.
“If he never does it, it would always be in the back of his mind,” Gino Mazza said. “He’d always be thinking, I could’ve done this, I could’ve done that. … He’s a man’s man. I would always be next to him. Not because he’s my grandson, but because I know what he is. I know the fiber that he has.
“Who would not want to look at that resume and say, ‘I’ll take this man.’ I don’t care what for, I want him, as a man.”
For Jerry, a loud, passionate, vivacious character – much like his father – he really just needed to look in his son’s eyes. For Donna, a pragmatist, she needed to research the issue. And, despite the numbers of fallen soldiers in the Iraqi war, including personal family friends, she was convinced.
“I started looking at numbers, and then I started with a lot of prayer, and then I came around to the idea that if this is Corey’s mission in life, then this is the mission,” Donna Mazza said. “If it were to end before I would want it to, then he did his mission.
“I’m not done being afraid, but I’m confident he’ll be a good Marine.”
The fear of their son being in harm’s way is simply something the Mazza’s do not want to think about. It hangs like a black cloud, and while an actual deployment is months away, it sits, weighing on them.
“My fears run the gauntlet,” Jerry Mazza said. “One of the fears is that he gets desensitized over there, sees so much that it affects his life when he comes back in a way that he never could be who he was. I can only imagine some of the things these guys see. The other fear, we have a strong faith, and we know where he’s going, and we’d miss him. But maybe coming back just halfway, either with a lot of physical or mental damage would be really (pause). We try not to forecast though.
“If he gets that deployment, yeah, I’ll be crying like a baby. But I’ll be loving him up and lifting him up.”
Jerry and Donna are good at letting go because, well, do they have a choice?
Corey is a strong, confident young man, his broad shoulders and thick neck belying a strength that has nothing to do with lifting weights. It is the strength of integrity, and of following through.
“I saw him put this huge American flag in his bedroom on the wall, and that’s when I knew,” Donna Mazza said. “He came home, and I’d put the flag outside the garage and it was tearing down, not sticking, and he took it. I thought, ‘He has this sense of patriotism in him.’ He had this strong commitment to country. Originally, I thought it was that, ‘I want to be a soldier,’ like all young men; I thought that it would pass.
“Sure enough, when he got home and he had a new room here, he got that flag and put it right back up.”
Corey’s room is on the second floor of the Mazza home, and the walls of the winding staircase are covered in family photos. There’s Corey and Jordyn, smiling. There’s Corey and Jerry, laughing. There’s Corey and Donna, hugging. There’s Corey and Gino, grinning.
Soon, though, all tears.
“For me, every time he gets back, we get closer and closer,” Jordyn Mazza said, choking up. “Then it gets harder and harder to say goodbye. But I’m just so happy to see him do what means most to him. Saturday, it will be sad because when he’s not here, part of the house – a big part – is missing.
“But I’ll be happy because we get to see him get one step closer on his journey.”
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
It is a Thursday afternoon in early October, unseasonably sweltering.
Mazza is sweaty and hot, a long day of packing his belongings taking its toll.
Also, he’s nervous.
“There are the nerves and apprehensions that everyone goes through before their first day at boot camp,” Mazza said. “It will be the hardest thing I’ve had to do. And, obviously, I want to make sure I do OK and I measure up. I don’t want to let my family and friends down by not doing a good job. I don’t want to fail.”
The constant threat of war is playing a part, too.
The United States is embroiled in the War in Iraq, and threats from throughout the Middle East are a constant worry. But Mazza is not focusing on the day he might have to defend his country in the future, instead absorbed by the now.
“I’m not gonna say I’m scared,” Corey said. “I’m concentrating on day one before I start concentrating on day 247. I’m not gonna get caught up, all because we have situations with our service personnel being overseas. That’s something I’m going to have to be comfortable with, but at the same time, I respect what we’re doing. It’s a volatile time right now and it’s a time when a lot great things are being done.”
Corey likes to point out that all these heroic tasks are accomplished in an entirely volunteer army. As a history and military buff, he takes pride in that. It makes him sound a little macho, a little, “It’s our time.”
But it is genuine.
“They’re doing it for the pride,” Corey said. “Our generation is a little undersold on that. There is so much focus on me, me, me. But at the same time, when the bell sounds, I think our generation will be right there answering the call, in the same way the ones before us have.”
Now, Corey anxiously awaits his opportunity. He has found himself recently sitting alone, smiling, his heart racing, “thinking that some drill sergeant is going to be yelling at my ass for three days.”
It makes him excited, proof that this isn’t just some flavor of the month.
It makes him feel like he did on Sept. 11, when he sat in Thousand Oaks High School, the beginning of his junior year, watching the classroom televisions all tuned to the news. A high school friend, Kalin Pharis, still remembers him saying that he would one day join the military because of that day.
“I talked to one of our football coaches that day, and he had expressed to me that he was interested in joining beforehand,” Corey said. “We always talked about the military, and he was 28, 29, in the last year he could join and still be an officer. After it happened, he said, ‘I’m going in,’ and I said, ‘I’ll see you there a few years from now.’ It was our inside thing, and then he left, went to officer’s school, served two tours over there, and I’ve still emailed him once a week.
“I was so proud of him; it wasn’t just idle words with him, he said something, he meant it, he did it.”
Maybe not idle words, but certainly idol words.
They are unlike the words he has heard from so many.
The ones that end with, “Are you sure?” or “Do you realize what you’re getting into?”
Or, worse, “You’re going to come back a changed man.”
“People have told me how I was going to come back changed, come back different. I hope I do,” Corey said. “I hope I do. The Marine Corps will make me a better person, a better all-around man. I want to succeed in that environment. Whether it’s the defining moment of my life, I don’t know. It’s the thing I’m going to be most proud of. I guess you’d say, yeah, this is the defining moment of my life. I hope I look back and think this is the best decision I’ve ever made.
“Right now, I’d be proud and honored to be defined as a Marine and not as a football player.”