RALEIGH — During the locker room celebration that followed N.C. State's dramatic, 28-24 defeat of Florida State on Thursday night, Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien wanted to honor a person he believes had a profound influence on the team's resurgence this season.
After a game that O'Brien called the biggest of his tenure with the Wolfpack, he did not award the game ball to one of his players. N.C. State (6-2, 3-1 ACC) had become a contender in the race for the ACC Atlantic Division title with the win, and O'Brien offered the game ball to Eric Kapitulik, a fellow Naval Academy graduate and Marine who watched Thursday from the sideline.
On July 28 and 29, Kapitulik challenged the Wolfpack in a team-building exercise unlike anything the players had experienced, laying the foundation for N.C. State's ability to erase a 14-point deficit Thursday.
"It really emphasized working as a team," freshman running back Mustafa Greene said. "Never leave anybody behind. Follow your leader and prevail. When he came and showed up, it reminded us of how we worked together in those activities. We came and worked in the second half as a team, and we pulled through."
Kapitulik, 38, has had to pull through plenty of adversity in his own life. As a Marine Corps captain, Kapitulik commanded a platoon that was struck by tragedy during a Dec. 9, 1999 training exercise. While attempting to land on an aircraft carrier, the platoon's helicopter crashed into the side of the ship and plunged into the water.
Despite a fractured leg, Kapitulik hauled himself hand over hand out of the sinking helicopter. Six of his men died in the crash.
Part of the revenue from The Program Athletics, his leadership-training company, goes to a scholarship fund for the children of his deceased comrades. Kapitulik also has raised more than $200,000 for the fund, he said, while competing in Iron Man triathlons and climbing the highest peaks on five of the seven continents.
He downplays the idea that he's doing anything extraordinary.
"That's what good teammates and that's what good team leaders are expected to do," he said.
'A want to be good'
After spring practice, O'Brien decided the 2010 team was ready for a team-building exercise. It was not something he considered for any of his three previous N.C. State teams.
"I don't know, because of the kids we had the first three years here and their lack of character and everything else, that it would have made any difference [in past years]," O'Brien said. "But this team, certainly, coming out of spring was a much different football team ... and there was really a want to be good."
Because of the former Boston College coach's ties in New England, his staff learned about Kapitulik, whose company is based in Quincy, Mass. The Program Athletics trains teams to build leadership and teamwork. N.C. State paid $10,000 for Kapitulik to come to Raleigh with three of his employees, and is the first Football Bowl Subdivision team he has worked with.
(O'Brien said he went through proper channels to get the sessions approved by the administration and to ensure they followed NCAA guidelines.)
At first, some players were pessimistic about the program.
The first day of team building required hours of exercises and treading water in the pool, and the players struggled with it. A thunderstorm interrupted the session, and the team didn't finish until midnight.
On the second day, the players were required to report to Carter-Finley Stadium at 5 a.m. for exercises that included hauling 35- and 50-pound sandbags and moving 7-foot and 14-foot log poles.
"Some of us went into it with our heads down, like, 'We've really got to do this?' " N.C. State tight end George Bryan said. "As it went on, you saw the team come together, start to understand what they were trying to teach us and try to show us."
At the end of training, Kapitulik honored defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy as the player who most exemplified the training program's core principles of mental and physical toughness, no excuses, and working hard.
Kapitulik said he also was amazed at the impact senior defensive end David Akinniyi was having on the team just months after transferring from Northeastern.
"We recognize how challenging it is to come into a situation with one year to play and really have some sort of influence on the team," Kapitulik said, "and David, with his natural leadership ability and intelligence, you could tell he'd already gained the respect of his teammates."
Not just average
Kapitulik stopped in Raleigh on Thursday night before heading to Annapolis, Md., for his 15th Naval Academy reunion last weekend.
O'Brien asked him to speak to the team, and he told them about the trials he had faced while climbing Mount Everest. He said he was determined not to be just average, and that they needed to have the same commitment.
On the field before the game, senior defensive end Audi Augustin told him what a huge impact his training had made on the team. Then, with the Wolfpack trailing 21-7 at halftime, some of the leadership Kapitulik tried to build emerged in the locker room.
According to O'Brien, captains Nate Irving and Russell Wilson said the team wasn't going to be defined by what happened in the second quarter, when Florida State outscored N.C. State 21-0.
"The strides this team has taken in terms of leadership and in terms of being good teammates would not have happened if it had not been for [Kapitulik's] program," O'Brien said.
So O'Brien gave Kapitulik the game ball. Kapitulik said the experience rivaled the time he was on the field when another of his clients, the Tufts University lacrosse team, won the NCAA Division III championship in May.
Kapitulik deflected any credit for the Wolfpack's success. He said N.C. State is winning because it has a talented coaching staff, a good quarterback, strong captains and a good offense and defense. He said his goal was only to make the team "that much better."
"Seeing the difference that the players said that working with us made for them and made in the team, it's why we do what we do," Kapitulik said.
O'Brien said he plans on putting his team through Kapitulik's program again, perhaps in two years after the current leaders of the team complete their eligibility and new leaders emerge.
"It just brought us together," Irving said. "It taught us how to attack things, with no second-guessing one another, how to trust one another and how to keep pushing."
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