At approximately 9 a.m. Nov. 13, Staples High School Senior Sean Gallagher received a special delivery. A man wearing an American flag-themed tie brought the shipment, which contained good news. The announcement had its origins at a dinner hosted by a U.S. Naval Academy association in New Haven on Nov. 11. The academy's dean of admissions, Bruce Latta, had wanted to make the delivery himself to Gallagher that night, but Gallagher -- a player on the Staples boys soccer team, which that night was busy scoring an overtime win over Guilford in the Class LL state tournament -- was unable to attend the dinner.
Scheduled to leave by train for Baltimore the following day, Latta thought he would have to settle for mailing the announcement to Gallagher. Then, Jim "Johnnieee" Carrier -- a blue and gold officer for the academy's Admissions Office -- intervened. After speaking by phone with Latta on the morning of Nov. 12, Carrier offered to act as the courier for the announcement. The two then coordinated a strategy whereby Carrier would meet Latta at a designated door on the latter's train when it stopped at Penn Station in New York City. The plan also required the help of Amtrak police, including the services of one officer coincidentally named ... Sean Gallagher.
With the aid of the Westport Sean Gallagher's namesake, Latta handed off the contents of the good news to Carrier. About 24 hours later, Carrier drove to Gallagher's home in Westport, knocked on the front door, and presented a pristine blue folder. Gallagher opened it, and therein laid the auspicious announcement: an Offer of Appointment from the U.S. Naval Academy. Gallagher was now officially a midshipman who would begin serving his country next summer at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Such a thrilling back story does not accompany most students' college admissions. But the Naval Academy is not like most colleges, and its admission process highlights its unique place within the upper echelon of American universities.
"It's one college, but it feels you're applying to four colleges," Gallagher says of the application process to the academy.
Gallagher had aspired for many years to attend the Naval Academy. He was also inspired to serve by his grandfather, who was a navigator in the 8th Air Force during World War II. Navy stood out among the various military academies, Gallagher says, because it offered a range of academic and professional options.
He began the application process in earnest this past year. Having met basic eligibility requirements, he was accepted into the academy's summer seminar program, a de facto stepping stone to admission for prospective midshipmen. There, he took part in rigorous physical training, military drilling, as well as several academic workshops on subjects such as political science, physics and another that taught students how to repair damaged vessels.
While at summer seminar, he also underwent the candidate fitness assessment, a physical test required to gain admission to the academy. The assessment includes a one mile-run, push-ups, and pull-ups -- all of which have to be completed by meeting benchmarks for time or number of repetitions. Another part of the test, a kneeling basketball throw, calls on candidates to hurl the ball as far they can, simulating the lobbing of a grenade.
Gallagher subsequently sat down with Carrier for his formal admissions interview. Having met several months before, the two had already extensively discussed Gallagher's ambition to attend the academy, and even "PTed" or physically trained together. The interview functioned instead as an opportunity for Gallagher to summarize his experience and accomplishments to Carrier.
A couple of months later, Gallagher received a Letter of Assurance -- a conditional acceptance to the academy. But for full admission he still needed to receive a nomination to the academy from a high-ranking public official. On Nov. 4, he gained the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd.
And finally after Gallagher had completed the many prerequisites, Carrier delivered the Offer of Appointment.
"It's been awhile since I wanted this," Gallagher says of his admission to the Naval Academy. "It's taken a lot of work and a lot of different steps. To finally have it finished, I feel relieved."
This relief is one that few candidates will feel. Out of an applicant pool of approximately 18,000, Carrier says only about 1,200 or approximately 6 percent of this field, will be admitted to the academy.
"The raw numbers speak to the level of competitiveness," he says. "It's insane how competitive it is."
As soon as they met, however, Carrier says he believed that Gallagher would meet the high academic and physical standards needed to become a midshipman.
"I looked this young man in the eye and thought, `This guy's going to Navy,' " he says. "He looks like a naval officer.'"
With his close-cropped hair and athletic build, so does Carrier. He, in fact, earned his own Offer of Appointment to the academy in 1980, but chose instead to attend a civilian college.
"I'm embarrassed to admit that I turned it down," he says of his Offer of Appointment. "Since then, I've dedicated my life to honoring our nation's military."
Carrier, 48, has subsequently founded and participated in a number of organizations and events that support veterans and current service members. Two years ago, the wife of a friend who was a Navy SEAL noticed this work and recommended that Carrier become a blue and gold officer. A volunteer position, a blue and gold officer essentially acts as an admissions officer for the Naval Academy. Carrier though prefers to think of himself as a "shepherd" for academy candidates.
With the admissions process for Gallagher successfully completed, Carrier -- who works professionally for the New York-based investment firm, Edgewood -- is thinking ahead to next summer. Next July 1, Gallagher will officially begin his career as a midshipman when he reports for Induction Day at the academy. Carrier will also be in Annapolis to shepherd Gallagher as a plebe or first-year midshipman through these early days at Navy. And in solidarity with Gallagher who will get all his hair shorn, Carrier will be shaving his own head.
"I treat this is as seriously as wearing the uniform," Carrier says of his work as a blue and gold officer.
What comes next -- Plebe Summer, a seven-week boot camp for first-year midshipmen -- Gallagher must negotiate on his own.
"It will definitely be a huge change of pace, but I'm looking forward to it," he says. "I find fun in working out all the time."
After he finishes Plebe Summer, the workout schedule will hardly relent for Gallagher: He has signed on to join the varsity soccer team at Navy next season.
Dan Woog, the Staples boys soccer coach, says his tri-captain's selfless attitude prepares him to succeed both academically and athletically at the academy.
"Sean plays a position that gets no glory -- he's a defender," Woog says. "He does it with speed, and he does it with tenacity. He is a major reason why we're the FCIAC champions."
Ironically, Woog says one of his proudest memories of Gallagher is not from the pitch. Instead, it took place at a dinner hosted by a workplace equality group last spring in New York City. There, Gallagher was introduced to attendees by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"It's a testament to who Sean Gallagher is that not only did his teachers and his coaches realize how committed he is, but that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did as well," Woog adds.
But such recognition has not made Gallagher complacent. He instead focuses on what he has yet to achieve. He aspires in the long-term to a successful career in the military, possibly in the Marine Corps or the Navy SEALs. In the more immediate future, Gallagher's objectives center on what he will learn and contribute at the Naval Academy.
"Once I am there, I'll really understand what I can focus on," he says. "I'll know what my abilities would best serve."