When Sean Magee started his first semester at the United States Naval Academy in June 2000, he quickly gravitated toward a pair of fellow plebes: Brendan Looney and Travis Manion, who were classmates and later roommates.
Sean and Brendan connected as teammates on Navy's football team while Travis competed on the wrestling team. It was common for student-athletes at the Academy to form unique bonds. Sean called the experience as a Midshipman by itself "arduous and challenging," and adding on the workload of a student-athlete was exceptionally difficult.
As Sean experienced each challenge with Brendan and Travis, all of whom graduated in 2004, he viewed the duo as "invincible" and "larger than life." But three years later, Travis, a Marine 1st Lieutenant from the 1st Recon Battalion, was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper while deployed in Iraq on April 29, 2007.
Then on September 21, 2010, Brendan – who became a Navy SEAL after graduating from the Naval Academy – was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan 10 days before his expected return to the United States.
"I think all of us while at the Academy, knew the realities of war and combat, but at the same time, you couldn't necessarily put an immediate face to it until you have someone close to you that is taken because of the conflict," Sean said. "And Travis was that person in our class. And then Brendan again, it's like hearing a superhero was killed because he was just that sort of presence, being that you just assumed he was indestructible. So, it was the reality of mortality."
Now in Sean's first season in the NFL, serving as Bears chief of staff, he will honor both Brendan and Travis as part of the league's My Cause My Cleats initiative. In Sunday's game against the Packers at Soldier Field, Magee will wear a pair of custom shoes, representing both the Travis Manion Foundation and Brendan Looney Foundation.
Travis' family created TMF shortly after his passing to carry on his legacy. The Travis Manion Foundation "empowers veterans and families of fallen heroes to develop character in future generations" through nationwide programs, training opportunities and events.
With a similar mission, The Brendan Looney Foundation "works to honor the lives our brave heroes by creating opportunities to improve the quality of life of families and individuals throughout the military community." BLF provides educational and camp scholarships, assistance programs, awards, grants and more to "enrich the lives of our U.S. military families."
"After Travis was killed, his sister and family started the Travis Manion Foundation, which has really morphed into an incredible organization across the country," Sean said. "Travis wrote a letter to his dad sometime before passing on that deployment realizing, if you ask the question, 'why are we doing this, what are we doing this for?' and Travis posed, 'if not me, then who to be able to answer that sort of call?'
"So that became the motto of the Travis Manion Foundation: 'If not me, then who?' They work across the country with youth, with organizations educating on character matters, so for me, it's an absolute honor to represent not only the life and legacy of both Travis and Brendan, but also the foundations that continue to do incredible things.
"Brendan's foundation, the motto is his life credo: be strong, be accountable and never complain. I think those are pretty unbelievable words to live by."
Sean's shoes, which feature painted portraits of Brendan and Travis while serving, were designed by another 2004 Naval Academy graduate and Navy Football teammate: Chris Wade, a former Marine officer. Now a custom shoe creator, Chris also developed friendships with Travis, Brendan and Sean while at the Academy.
When Sean formed the idea of honoring Brendan and Travis through My Cause My Cleats, he called up Chris and the two were immediately in sync with how the shoes would look. Brendan and his foundation on one foot, Travis and his foundation on the other. Connecting the legacies of Travis and Brendan with the help of another classmate created a full circle moment for Sean, who takes great pride in his military background.
"My first year working with an NFL club and being on this level and this sort of stage, it's an incredible honor to feel like I represent more than myself," Sean said. "I represent the military at large, the Navy, the Naval Academy. I feel like I have the opportunity to represent many in being a veteran that works in the NFL and works for the Chicago Bears. It's just extraordinarily humbling to know that I can have a sort of platform like this to honor two individuals that have meant a tremendous amount to me and continue to mean a tremendous amount to me, and their foundations in what they continue to do."
Honoring Brendan and Travis, even without a cause, is a typical occurrence for Sean. It's an easy thing to do when he recalls the memories they shared at the Naval Academy and the few years after.
With Travis, Sean remembers how focused and determined he was from the very beginning of training, always having "an intensity to compete and be great." He believes Travis inherited those qualities from his father, Colonel Tom Manion, who served 30 years in the Marine Corps.
Brendan, on the other hand, felt like a big brother to everyone, with his leadership qualities standing out. Sean remembers when Brendan decided to stop playing football his sophomore year and instead, join Navy's lacrosse team. While Brendan had never played the sport competitively, he wanted to share the field with his two brothers, Billy and Stephen, who were All-Americans. In Brendan's senior year, the three Looney brothers played in the NCAA National Championship game together.
"I think everyone was kind of thinking, 'you can't just pick up and play Division I lacrosse, like when's the last time you played?' He's like, 'I was a kid, but I'll be fine.' But that was the kind of individual he was," Sean said.
When reflecting on the legacies of Brendan and Travis, Sean described them as "men who lived and breathed just all that's good with this country, with service, with thinking and caring for others and leading people through literal conflict and arduous times."
If you ask any of Sean's six kids who Travis and Brendan are, they'd have no hesitation in answering. Sean has made it a point to share those friendships with his family, even bringing them to Arlington National Cemetery, where Travis and Brendan are buried side-by-side.
"It's been a spot that I've gone back to, taken my family there to see that and understand that sacrifice and that the servicemen there are not just names and numbers, but really the faces of war," Sean said. "I want my family and my kids to know who they were and what they stood for. And that was the big thing about this, when I had the opportunity to say, 'hey, you can honor a cause.' For me, it's honoring their lives and legacies so maybe someone can hear about them and find out about who they were and the mission of their foundations and what they continue to do and be inspired by their actions."
Several Bears players and coaches rocked special footwear for the team's My Cause My Cleats game December 4th against the Packers. Take an exclusive look at each person's custom spikes, which were created to support a charitable organization of their choice.