The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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September 1, 2012

Joplin offensive coordinator understands true meaning of pressure

At some point during this high school football season, Joplin offensive coordinator Ethan Place will face a crucial moment.

There will come a time when the Eagles need a big play. A play that could save the game, maybe the season.

Place will make a call. He’ll send in a play that he feels best sets up his offense for success.

Some high school offensive coordinators might feel pressure in this situation.

Please. Don’t talk to Ethan Place about pressure.

April 26, 2004. Fallujah, Iraq

Ethan Place is 20 years old, leading a team of Marine Corps snipers.

He was in Iraq as the junior member of a sniper/spotter team five days before the initial U.S. invasion in 2003, disguised as a reporter. Now he’s back, leading a group of Marines all older than him.

At around 6 a.m., Place’s team is ambushed on three sides.

“Really, I was stupid,” says Place, standing on the sideline of Junge Field, eight years later. “Something like that had happened about three days before and I didn’t get one shot off. I knew if it happened again, I was going to move.”

Place picked up and ran 400 meters, straight into the line of fire.

“I ran right into a whole company that was just getting chopped up,” he said. “Like a moron.”

He left the cover of his defensive position, carried wounded Marines to safety and killed five insurgents in the process.

It was the apex of a month-long string of actions that earned Place the Silver Star, the third-highest combat military decoration that can be obtained.

A city called Fallujah

Place graduated from Wentzville High School, in suburban St. Louis, in 2001. He played varsity quarterback for three years and listened to some offers to play college ball.

“But I didn’t know if I was ready to go to college,” he said. “My high school football coach died the Saturday after our first win of my senior season. I just wanted to get away.”

He mulled it over and eventually enlisted in the Marine Corps, a “recruiter’s dream,” he says, referring to his determination to be thrown into the infantry.

Less than a month after Sept. 11, Place shipped out to boot camp.

A corporal convinced him to try and get into sniper school. He did and was one of the 12 in his class of 24 that passed.

He was 19 and on a sniper team, where the average age was 32. Place served his first tour of duty and returned to the States, where he went to division sniper school. He passed as instructor’s choice, got some advanced urban sniper training and took control of his first team when he was 20.

His next deployment was supposed to be a little less intense, “more chill,” he says.

But the 82nd Airborne was having trouble and Place’s company — Echo 2/1— was part of the reinforcement.

“We were deploying at the end of the month,” he said. “I went home and said, ‘We’re going to this city called Fallujah. I’ll see you when I get back.’ ”

Fallujah, it turned out, was what Place called a “sniper’s dream world.”

The compact city provided snipers the opportunity to occupy a block and find multiple shooting angles.

“You knock out a hole in the wall and sit back and shoot down,” he said. “You can shoot and relocate three buildings down and a story up. You have all these different angles and they can’t tell where you’re at.”

It was in Fallujah, in April of 2004, that Place earned his Silver Star.

In less that two weeks, he tallied 32 confirmed kills as a sniper.

Two days later, April 26, was the day he sprang into action and saved his fellow Marines.

His leaders thought enough of Place’s actions that they put him up for a Bronze Star. When the powers that be reviewed the Summary of Action that detailed Place’s heroics, they decided to bump his honor up to a Silver Star.

“I’ve never heard of that happening,” Place said. “I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I’d get a Silver Star.

“It sounds cliché. When I was a kid I would see movies where people didn’t give a crap about medals and you’re like ‘whatever.’ Until you get in. It’s an honor, don’t get me wrong, but you care more about your guys.”

The teaching bug

Place was determined to go back, voluntarily, for a third tour of duty. But a stern talk from a Marine partner made him decide against it.

Instead, he began a pre-sniper school, where he led a four-week class for incoming members of sniper school, focusing on the issues that were causing Marines to fail.

“That’s where I really got bit by the teaching bug,” he said.

He fully decided to follow his dream of teaching history and coaching football and began the process of getting out of the Marines.

“Some stuff happened in the sniper world and it was really hard to get out,” he said. “But I had a plan and I stuck to it.”

He returned home to the St. Louis area and began classes at Lindenwood University, where his dad was a professor.

At the same time, he went back to his old high school, Wentzville, and asked the football coach, who was in his first day on the job, if he had a spot.

That coach was Chris Shields, now Joplin’s head coach.

Place has been with Shields ever since and they both moved to Joplin last year.

But Place’s heroic past is never far behind him.

He has been featured on three History Channel specials, two of which highlighted his impressive shots while in Fallujah.

Later this year, Place will travel to California to be the guest speaker at the Marines’ sniper school graduation, an honor he calls “absolutely unbelievable.”

“Most of the players know about my past now because of the History Channel stuff,” Place said. “I think it’s good that they kind of got to know me first. They have this mindset they’ve built up in their head. I’ll talk about it a little bit in reference of stuff, but not a lot.”

What he does talk about is perspective.

“If the kids are complaining about being hot, I’ll tell them, ‘Well, nobody is trying to kill you. The road didn’t explode on the way in. You’re going to get some chow after practice,’ ” he said. “They get tired of hearing it, but I think they get it.”

Pressure

Football is taken seriously in these parts. It’s one reason Place says he and Shields decided to come to Joplin.

Place enjoys the passion and the want for victory.

Yes, he feels pressure on Friday nights, more for the kids than anything. He wants their hard work to pay off with a win.

But at the same time, he’s not in a sweltering Fallujah building, calculating wind speed and the rotation of the earth and temperature and humidity change.

He’s not worried that an enemy sniper’s sites are set on him.

Instead, he just worries about a delayed blitz or how his teenage quarterback will read the secondary.

“I enjoyed the pressure as a sniper. You have to,” he said. “We always said that you’re only as good as your last shot. If you screw up, it’s unforgivable.

“Here, it’s obviously not high stakes, but I like it. There is a sense of pressure. And I embrace it.”

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