Every person has the opportunity to be great every day.
“You have that choice,” Brian Stann told Culver Military Academy’s Corps of Cadets at Wednesday’s final session of the Culver Annual Review. Whether it is in the classroom, on the practice field, in any endeavor, giving it your best every time will have “direct implications on how well you do.”
Stann understands the importance of that decision. He is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a former mixed martial arts champion. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, where he played football, the former lieutenant received the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor in combat. He received the medal for his actions during a six-day battle to secure the Ramana Bridge near Karabilah, Iraq, in May 2005. All 42 Marines in Stann’s platoon survived.
He went on to a successful career as a professional MMA fighter, winning the World Extreme Cagefighting light heavyweight championship in 2008. The only training he had leading up to his first professional fight, which he won by knockout, was what he had learned in the Marines Corps. He retired in 2013. He won his first match in 2006 while he was still on active duty.
In 2008 he took over as president and CEO of Hire Heroes USA, a national non-profit corporation that works with returning veterans and their spouses to successfully make the transition from military life to civilian jobs. He also serves as an analyst for Fox Sports.
Leaders push to the point of friction. Leaders take the risk.
Stann was in high school in Scranton, Pa., when he realized he could turn his athletic skills and academic capabilities into something special if he focused. That allowed him to choose from colleges like Harvard, Yale, West Virginia, the United States Military Academy, and the United States Naval Academy.
It was at the Naval Academy where he had his “biggest disappointment,” Stan said. As a star quarterback in high school, he expected to do the same at Annapolis. Instead, he was moved from quarterback to wide receiver, then to safety, and finally linebacker. But he decided he would find a way to contribute to the team. That disappointment ended up becoming “a major lesson in growth, maturity, and leadership,” Stann said.
Everything changed for him – and the country – during the fall of his junior year. That is when 9/11 occurred. That is when he decided he wanted to be an infantry office in the Marine Corps and he dedicated himself to achieving that goal. And in 2004 he found himself, at age 24, in charge of a 42-man platoon – many of them 18 and 19 years old – with just seven weeks to prepare to ship out to Iraq.
Operation Matador is where he earned the Silver Star. He took enemy fire while he pulled an injured driver out of a disabled tank. He said the young man lived but is paralyzed from the waist down. He is a competitive skier now, Stann added. “He never used his injury as an excuse.”
His time in the Marines showed him the importance of preparation and training; everyone knowing their responsibilities and carrying them out. His included taking the risk to save his men and the equipment. “Leaders push to the point of friction,” he said. Being up front is “where we belong. Leaders take the risk.”
One of his men, who received a head wound, stayed to fight rather than be evacuated to the hospital. “At that moment,” Stann said, “he made a commitment to his brothers.” This was before the concussion protocols were in place that would now have automatically called for his evacuation.
Stann actually started mixed martial arts fighting as an outlet from the battlefield. It soon became his sanctuary. It allowed him to pay tribute to everyone he knew who had died in combat. He wore a T-shirt into the Octagon at each WEC (now UFC) fight with their names written on it.
The Marine Corps brass originally didn’t care if he fought because he was doing it on his free time, but as he kept winning and moving up the attention ladder, they realized the public relations opportunities. He wasn’t interested in doing publicity, but one officer encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunity because he could tell the real story about sacrifices being made, how the troops were helping re-open Iraqi schools, and the other positives happening that were not making the nightly news.
That led to his analysis work for Fox Sports. He was given just two days to prepare for his audition as a college football analyst, but he followed the same preparation routine he learned in the military. He got the job over higher profile candidates for that reason. He also works as a UFC commentator. “Fortune favors the prepared.”
Stann encouraged the cadets to take what they learn at Culver and choose to be great. He added that is best way for him to honor his fallen brothers.
“The easiest way to pay your debts is through success.”