NEW PORT RICHEY — When Army Lt. Col. Al Klyap left for his first deployment to Afghanistan, he knew what he was getting into.
His youngest son did not.
Chris Klyap didn’t fully understand that everyday conversations and games of catch would disappear for months. That his dad wouldn’t see him run onto a high school football field for the first time, or that watching the news would become terrifying. That he’d have to help his little sister with her homework, but his dad wouldn’t be around to teach him how to put on shoulder pads.
The experience forced Chris to grow up fast and adapt even faster.
Thursday night, the Gulf junior will start at quarterback against Sunlake, a day before Veterans Day and six years after a father of four went to war, leaving Chris and his family behind.
Al Klyap joined the Army 30 years ago when he was 18. The former Hudson football player wanted to protect his nation from the Soviets.
“It was never about anything other than serving my country,” Al said.
The Army became his new team and his career. The Ranger climbed through the ranks, jumped out of planes, helped in the ROTC and worked under Gen. David Petraeus.
In 2005, Al was deployed to Afghanistan, where he rebuilt a school destroyed by the Taliban, helped train the Afghan army and brought home a man whose family was killed in action.
Thousands of miles away, his family carried on at home.
His wife, Tracey, continued working full time at a hospital while taking care of her daughter and three sons. She shuttled them from karate to cross country to dance. She comforted them when coaches didn’t understand that news of a downed helicopter or bombed building could lead to a slump or a lazy practice. She cooked and looked after the dogs.
“After a while, I guess, you do what you have to do,” Tracey said. “That’s sort of what we learned.”
Just before Al left for the Middle East, he asked his wife to sign up Chris for Salvation Army football, even if the 9-year-old was the second-smallest child in his grade. Chris started playing running back and fell in love with the freedom of an open field.
His older brothers, AJ and Harry, never played football, so Chris and his mom relied on coaches to teach him the game and how to get in uniform.
“Having his father there would have been perfect,” Tracey said.
Al came home 19 months later. His children had sprouted a few inches, and their high-and-tight military haircuts had grown shaggy.
The Klyaps tried to return to normal. Al was honored by the football league before he watched his son play for the first time. Chris said watching his dad stand on the sidelines the first time is one of his favorite memories with his father.
“That meant a lot,” Chris said.
Then his dad left again.
Since 2005, Al has spent 39 months in Iraq or Afghanistan helping plan the wars. He was gone for more than six months each year.
He missed cross country meets, daddy-daughter dances and Florida Gators games with the family.
Chris began to grow up. When his older brothers left for college, Chris transferred middle schools. He had to start over with new friends, but it made transportation easier for his mom.
Chris helped out more around the house. He took out the trash, looked after the dogs, walked his sister, Kelly, home from school and helped her study.
“I had to do it because no one else was there …” Chris said.
Chris rarely forgot about his dad’s absence. He had no father to talk to, throw a football with or bum money from. He worried when he watched the news and heard protestors yell awful things about soldiers in front of a bookstore.
He didn’t say much, but he feared his dad would never come home.
“He never really showed that he was bothered,” said Will Fulmer, Chris’ friend and former Gulf teammate, “but I always knew it was in the back of his mind.”
Not even football was a permanent escape.
When Chris ran onto the field for his first high school game in 2009, he focused on the mounting pressure, the noisy crowd — and the one person who wasn’t in the stands.
“I just remember being in that locker room, going out and just my mom was here — not him,” Chris said. “It was a lot different than Salvation Army.”
Al followed his son’s football games from afar, watching video clips online and showing photos to his friends at the base.
Last season, Chris finally got to play in front of his dad again. Al returned home on Veterans Day 2009, just after Chris’ freshman season ended.
Al works at MacDill Air Force Base and still travels some, but he has been a fixture in the bleachers. He sat alone in the stands in his camouflage uniform this week, quietly watching his son practice on the field below.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Al said. “I sit up here and I’ve had things shot at me, I’ve been in bad situations, I’ve jumped out of airplanes, and I’m more nervous watching him …”
He has seen the maturation of a player and a young man.
“He’s grown up,” Gulf coach Tom Carter said of Chris.
Chris played JV last season and switched from receiver to quarterback before his junior year. Because he could throw the ball only 25 yards at first, he worked hard to increase his arm strength.
The Buccaneers have needed Chris all over the field. He began his first year on varsity as a receiver/defensive back, but injuries and defections forced him to become the starting quarterback. When the usual long snapper was banged up, the 5-foot-8, 131-pound Chris took over.
“Adapt and succeed,” Carter said.
Chris said he uses some of the lessons his military father taught him. He doesn’t complain about his ever-changing role and stays disciplined. When a team with only six seniors needed a leader and a voice in the huddle to lead the veer offense he’s still learning, Chris did it.
“I just feel like somebody needed to step up on the team,” Chris said.
Thursday night, Chris will take the field for the last time as a junior. He’ll lead his two-win Buccaneers against massive, playoff-bound Sunlake.
Chris said he knows the Seahawks will be favored “by a lot,” but a day before Veterans Day, and with his father in the stands, he’ll keep fighting.
Staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.