College of Charleston basketball coach Doug Wojcik remembers family friend Erik Kristensen as "a very upbeat, very positive guy."
"He was such an optimistic person and such a go-getter," Wojcik said of the Navy SEAL who was killed in action on the rugged terrain of Afghanistan in June of 2005 during a mission made famous by the "Lone Survivor" bestseller and film. "He had so much energy. He was just so full of life."
For some, the gripping tale of a covert attempt to kill a top insurgent leader is intense entertainment shortchanged by the Academy Award nominations.
Others find it motivational, in the personal way that truly heroic life and death struggles might help someone make a commission sale, or get a base hit.
College of Charleston basketball players got the expected emotional tugs from their "Lone Survivor" experience during a recent road-trip night off in Boston, and they got something more. They got the perspective of a Navy guy who knew this story all too well long before it went Hollywood.
Wojcik is a 1987 Naval Academy graduate and former Navy assistant coach. His wife Lael is a 1990 Naval Academy grad. They got to know Kristensen when he was an English professor at the academy between military assignments, and through other family connections.
'Kind of epic'
"In July of 2005 when I heard about what happened to Erik and the others, I was three months into my first head coaching job at Tulsa," Wojcik said Tuesday during a break in preparation for a Wednesday night Colonial Athletic Association home game against UNC-Wilmington. "To have this young, healthy guy get killed by enemy fire . It was just very unfortunate, and such an amazing story."
Kristensen, the 33-year-old commander of one of two Operation Red Wings helicopter teams assigned to rescue four Navy SEALs on the ground, is portrayed in the movie by actor Eric Bana.
Kristensen and 18 other Americans died in a battle with Taliban soldiers.
Only Marcus Luttrell (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) survived.
"The heroism and bravery are really kind of epic," College of Charleston senior forward Willis Hall said. "It's very fortunate that we got to see that kind of movie as a team, especially together on the road. It helped build a chemistry and a bond."
"Lone Survivor" is popular, and more so with athletes and coaches. The Florida State football team got hold of one of the advance copies made available to sports teams and watched it the night before an October win at Clemson.
"Life-changing," is how Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher described the movie just after the game at Death Valley.
The Tigers saw "Lone Survivor" in Miami the night before their Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State. The likes of Peyton Manning and Jerry Jones have raved about the film.
The brave life
The Cougars don't usually take in a movie together, at home or on the road. But beyond motivation, "Lone Survivor" fit in with Wojcik's goal to teach leadership skills and team building.
The coach got choked up after dinner at the hotel as he briefed the team on the movie, offering insight into the brave life of Erik Kristensen.
"My staff and I have always been able to read our team," Wojcik said, "what's best for them, how to have toughness but still keep it fun. We were in Boston and had just lost a 14-point lead at Hofstra. We woke up Sunday morning and said, 'We're going to change the routine.' So we practiced at Harvard and said, 'OK, guys, let's go back and shower; we're going to a movie.'"
Wojcik, after graduating from Navy, was commissioned as an officer and attended Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, R.I. His first duty was in Mayport, Fla., on the USS W.S. Sims. Wojcik served as a First Lieutenant and Engineering Officer for two years before starting his coaching career.
"Obviously, the 'Lone Survivor' story is close to our coach's heart," Hall said, "and we're close to our coach. We may not personally feel that like he does, but we feel for him because we care about him. Coach is a proud Navy guy and we're proud of him for it."
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff