LIVE OAK, Fla. — Antonio White didn’t know what to say when he heard the news.
On Feb. 28, the Suwannee High senior was told by U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn during a surprise call at the school that he had received his appointment to West Point.
“Shocked is an understatement man,” White said. “It didn’t really hit me until later on that night … I didn’t know what to feel man.”
Shocked because of the extreme odds against receiving an appointment — out of the 15,000 students that applied in 2018, only 4000 received nominations with just 1,200 accepted into the academy — but also because before last fall, White had no plans or thoughts of attending a service academy. In fact, the 18-year-old had no idea what the service academies were.
But he did know what his future held: he was going to play football at Yale.
White was so “dead set” on that plan that he even told one of the interviewers on Dunn’s nomination committee that was his plan if he didn’t receive a nomination from Dunn.
Beth Cocchiarella had other plans and other advice for White, though.
The mother of one of White’s old friends from Winter Park High School near Orlando, Cocchiarella told White that he should look into the academies, such as West Point where her husband attended, as a backup plan.
She then made sure he followed through.
“She was very crucial,” White said. “She literally harassed me about it.”
That harassment meant pushing White to get letters of recommendations from teachers and staff at SHS to scheduling his appointment with Dunn’s committee and getting White medically qualified in Valdosta.
That push was needed to help White overcome lost time. Normally, students begin the process as a junior or even a sophomore.
White began in August.
“I’m not going to lie to you, there was a couple weeks there where I was like, ‘Please don’t give me this nomination so I don’t have to finish this,’” White said. “Once I got the nomination, I called her and she started crying. She goes, ‘Oh my God, Antonio, you don’t know what this is.’
“I was still very ignorant about the magnitude of what was going on.”
But Cocchiarella’s passion started to inspire White to get more seriously involved in the process. As did Dunn’s nomination.
Then, after finally finishing his candidate fitness assessment after numerous attempts to get his push-ups submitted and verified, the odds started to move in White’s favor.
The day after his admissions officer told White he was good with his CFA, he sent White an email that included an all-expense paid trip to West Point.
“I’m like you’ve got to be kidding me,” White said, who went and talked to SHS athletic director Mike Braun, who played football at West Point, about what that meant.
“He called the athletic director at West Point … the athletic director told him an all-expense paid trip means West Point wants you but they want to make sure you want them. (Braun) was like, ‘Wow.’”
White, though, still was not 100% convinced that West Point was the place. He had also been taking recruiting visits across the country for football, including in January to Claremont McKenna in California. White was planning to sign with Claremont on National Signing Day in early February when he received that email two days prior.
Once again, White followed Cocchiarella’s advice.
“She said, ‘Don’t do it,’” White said about signing with Claremont. “She told me that (his admissions officer) told her that only 30 people in the entire country were invited on this visit. She said, ‘I highly doubt they invite you and you don’t get in.’”
White didn’t sign despite no assurances that his appointment was coming.
He then took his visit to West Point on Feb. 20-22.
“Dude, it was incredible,” he said, adding that he met the superintendent, a three-star general, as well as the first captain, Daine Van de Wall.
The meeting with Van de Wall particularly impacted White and his mindset.
“I’m about to start my life, what’s something you can tell me, your biggest advice,” White said he asked the first captain near the end of their breakfast conversation early one morning. “He said, ‘moderation is for cowards.’
“I just loved that man. My philosophy is if I’m going to do anything, I want to be the best at it.”
That now means being the best cadet he can be. It also means, to White, in following in Van de Wall’s footsteps as his goals are to become the first captain and a Rhodes scholar.
“I just feel like God has blessed me with this opportunity,” White said. “The odds were never stacked in my favor and now that I have this opportunity, I’m not going to go and just be a regular person. I want to be great. I want to go there and give it my all. I want to graduate in four years and say that I couldn’t have done any better.”