Before he flew in U.S. Marine Corps fighter jets, Ralph Featherstone took flight inside a run-down ice skating rink on Ely Place Southeast in Washington, D.C.
Before he became a ramrod straight lieutenant colonel, Featherstone was a Fort Dupont Cannon, an African-American teenager in the 1990s learning how to play hockey in the oldest minority youth hockey program in North America.
Like a plebe, he rose through the ranks, advancing from a seldom-used second-unit penalty kill specialist on the team to become the first African-American team captain in Navy hockey club history.
“The biggest attribute that I learned at Fort Dupont was persistence,” Featherstone told me. “That’s been one of the main things in my life, in my career, my personal life. Being persistent will make up for a load of shortcomings.”
The academy and the National Hockey League honored Featherstone last month – Black History Month – with a moving video scoreboard salute between periods of the Washington Capitals–Toronto Maple Leafs game played outdside at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
He also participated in a ceremonial puck drop last month when the Capitals paid tribute to the Fort Dupont Cannons, Founder/Coach Neal Henderson and his staff, before a game against the Buffalo Sabres at Washington’s Capital One Arena.
“I got a standing O from the Navy/Marine Corps crowd, which was awesome,” Featherstone said of the outdoor game salute. “Hockey has done me right.”
So has the Marine Corps. Featherstone is a desk officer for the FB-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program Office in suburban Washington. This summer, he’ll move to San Diego and Marine Corps Air Station Mirimar to become the commanding officer of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225, also known as the Vikings, next year.
For Featherstone, 40, it all goes back to hockey and the lessons taught by tough-love Coach Neal inside the Fort Dupont Ice Arena on Ely Place Southeast.
“He did it by making you overcome obstacles, not handing out things, not allowing you to feel that you’re entitled to play, entitled to ice time,” Featherstone said of Henderson. “Everything is based on your performance and you earning those things. You realize after hard work, after the effort and dedication, that you’ll achieve those things that you want. Those are some of the early life lessons in the game of hockey that are analogous to things that occur throughout life.”
Honored to have Neal Henderson and the coaches from Fort Dupont Ice Arena to drop the ceremonial first puck at our Black History in Hockey night. #HockeyIsForEveryone #ALLCAPS @KidsOnIce pic.twitter.com/B3tLiIxv2q
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) February 25, 2018
A lesson learned quickly when Featherstone visited Annapolis at the end of his junior in high school junior to observe what freshman life at the Naval Academy was like.
“I did a one-week camp there and on the last day, they treat you like a plebe, like a freshman,” Featherstone recalled. “I was looking around, these kids are crying from the intensity of getting turned up. And I was, like, ‘This is nothing. Come out to Fort Dupont, I’ll show you what getting yelled at feels like. This is easy.'”
While Featherstone loved his four years at Annapolis, his tenure there also had its challenges. A top player at Fort Dupont, he was anything but on the Midshipmen hockey club.
That led him to question his talent and to feel somewhat isolated as the only black player on the team and in the Eastern College Hockey Association at the time.
“I honestly questioned whether or not I was good at the sport, I questioned whether I loved hockey or loved being at Fort Dupont with my friends,” he recalled. “I was very much down on myself and wondering, ‘Hey I don’t know if this is really for me at this level.'”
Those doubts were gone by his senior year when he became the Midshipmen’s starting center and his teammates voted to give him the captain’s “C,” the symbol of being the squad’s undisputed leader.
“It was awesome, it was probably one of the biggest accomplishments in my life up to that point,” Featherstone recalled. “Making that transition, that journey from penalty kill-2 to team captain was something that I was really proud of.”
He had the respect of his teammates, but not from some of the opponents that he faced. Featherstone recalled the sting of being called a racial slur on the ice during one game in the 1997-98 season. He reached back to lessons ingrained at Fort Dupont and at home.
“In playing for Coach Neal, you can’t allow that to bother you,” Featherstone said. “And having a frank discussion with my dad, he was, like, ‘You’re in a different realm. You’re in a world that if that bothers you, maybe you shouldn’t play, maybe you shouldn’t be in that environment.”
“With dad and Coach Neal taking that stance, I kind of saw that as a challenge to rise above that type of thing, when you know someone is doing it only to manipulate you and get you off your game,” Featherstone added.
Featherstone also applied lessons learned at Dupont to help get him through aviation training in Pensacola, Florida.
He suffered from air sickness, not an unusual malady for new aviators. But his lasted 15 months, an unusually long and potentially career-crippling amount of time.
“I would puke two to three times a week when I would go fly – it was like a Pavlovian response of getting in an aircraft,” he recalled. “Within 15 minutes I’m getting queasy and about another 10 minutes later, I’m vomiting and trying to hang on.”
Determined to make it through flight training, Featherstone remembered what Coach Neal and his dad taught him about dealing with racially uncomfortable situations.
“‘Hey, if you can’t deal with the discomfort, someone calling you a name, you have to reconcile for yourself that this is not going to bother you or maybe you need to think about something else to do,'” Featherstone said. “Same thing with the flying. ‘Okay, you need to reconcile that you’re probably going to get sick and either you’re going to gut this out and still perform or maybe you need to go in there and tell them that this is not for you,’ which was not an option for me.”
Today, jets are a major part of the lieutenant colonel’s life. So if Fort Dupont. Featherstone is a volunteer coach with the Cannons and his 9-year-old son, also named Ralph, plays for the team.
“It’s great having him out there – we can tell Coach Neal stories,” Featherstone said. “Coach’s nuances and his catch phrases haven’t changed in 40 years.”
For all that Fort Dupont has done for Featherstone, he said he didn’t realize his impact on the program until Duante Abercrombie, another Cannons alum, posted a thank you tribute to him on Facebook a few years ago after meeting him.
“Ralph made my dreams tangible. I knew zero about his journey, but what I did know was that he looked like me and played where I played and hockey took him places, places other than Ely Place Southeast,” said Abercrombie, 31, who played professional hockey in the U.S. and New Zealand and is currently seeking collegiate hockey coaching opportunities.
“I still remember sitting in that old meeting room upstairs (at Fort Dupont) when Ralph presented Coach Neal with his college jersey,” Abercrombie added. “I don’t remember what was said in his speech, but that moment single-handedly set me on the path I’m still on today.”
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