Keeping His Eyes on the Skies
By BJ Bennett
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A Georgia high school senior, Zerbin Singleton was set to enroll at Navy. It was a tale of dedication and resolve. It was one, sadly enough, not quite ready for the happy ending.
Aviation has always been a part of Zerbin Singleton's life. The sky has long been an interest, an obsession, an ambition, a dream. Early on, as a child living in Alaska, the clouds provided Singleton an escape. More so, they offered opportunity. At just ten years old, he boarded his first plane with cross-continental change packed deep in his bags. That day wasn't just one with a long flight, it was a very real fight or flight dynamic. Singleton, though he may not have fully known it at the time, chose both.
Singleton was born a self-described "crack baby", struggling for stability in a life fit with drug abuse and violence. It was a terrifying setting for a wide-eyed child, watching his mother limp through her days with little to call her own. Home was, at times, drug houses or shelters for battered women. There were days when home was nothing more than the frigid streets of The Last Frontier. As a young grade-schooler, Singleton had seen and experienced a lifetime's worth of troubles. The scenery would soon dramatically change. The results, seemingly, as well.
"When my mom was incarcerated when I was about ten, I moved down to Georgia with my cousin," Singleton recalled. "When I got down there, I set goals. One of my goals, I always wanted to fly since I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. I knew that to be an astronaut, I had to go to college. I knew if I wanted to go to college, I was going to have to do something to get there. I started to apply myself. I did well in school and it wasn't because I was the smartest person, it was because I worked harder than everyone else. It was just the same way as in football and in wrestling. I was a state champion in wrestling, captain on the wrestling team as well as the football team."
Singleton had managed, somehow, to get his life back on the fast track. As a senior at Columbia High School in Decatur, Georgia, has was set to enroll at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There he would realize his childhood aspirations: play college football, train for a career and one day graduate as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was a budding tale of dedication and resolve. It was one, sadly enough, not quite ready for the happy ending.
"About a week before I'm supposed to graduate as valedictorian, I'm hit head on by a drunk driver," Singleton remembered. "At this time, I had already been accepted into the Naval Academy. With the accident, they told me I would not be able to attend the academy. A week later, I still graduated. It took a lot of prayer and refocusing and continuing with my goals."
Still undeterred, Singleton made the best of an unspeakable situation. He enrolled at nearby Georgia Tech, got his academic goals in line, and got his body back in shape to play major college football. Roughly 4,500 miles away from his brutal Alaska upbringing, Singleton was studying at an institute of higher learning and was finally working towards the rest of his new life. Just as he was getting settled in out on the Flats, an abrupt change brought about a critical reevaluation.
"I end up going to Georgia Tech, I walked on the football team. I thought everything was going good, I was redshirting. I come back for spring practice and Chan Gailey was then the head coach," Singleton explained. "He calls me in the office and says 'Zerbin Singleton, you're not big enough, strong enough or fast enough to play D-I football. Maybe you should try something else'. I felt like that was my sign from God that it was time to move on. So that's when I went to the Naval Academy."
From seeing his mother incarcerated, to moving across the globe, to being hit by a drunk driver, to being cut from his first college football team, Singleton ultimately made it to Annapolis -- hardly the typical acension to the U.S. Naval Academy. It was a dramatic transition from Georgia Tech, different from anything he had ever seen. The physical and scholastic requirements aside, first-year Midshipmen have to deal with a draining class hierarchy system. There were rigid rules and regulations, a process of paying one's dues that all future officers go through. Singleton found reassurance on campus from those around him.
"They did serve as my family while I was there at the academy, especially the football team," he stated of his peers. "I knew just about everybody on the football team. We had that intimate bond, nothing had to be said. We knew what the other person was thinking, we knew what he was feeling. Everyone was is in that common circumstance."
In addition to his academic and athletic achievement, Singleton's high school and college years saw him reunite with his father. For a young man who grew up without one, having his dad in his life gave Singleton extra motivation and affirmed his efforts as he worked diligently towards a new beginning. With the past behind them, the two saw their relationship grow to a place neither thought it would ever get. The younger Singleton remembers many calls he made to his father; one he received, however, he will never forget.
"When I was born my father wasn't there. Around 15 or 16, I got a chance to meet him and we started to grow. I didn't hold any grudges. I started to build a strong foundation with my father. Around Christmas I called him and he didn't answer the phone and didn't return the call," Singleton reflected. "On January 3rd, 2005, I get a call from his wife telling me he committed suicide. It hurt pretty badly, because I had just started to build this relationship. I knew if I still wanted to go far in my life, I had to keep my faith, keep my positive attitude and continue to reach for my goals."
Tragedies kept coming like the wind and rain of an ominous storm. As they did, Singleton clung to the only shelter he had left.
"The biggest thing is just my faith in God. I know that I can do all things through Christ. I had family there to help me out," he acknowledged. "If you really want something bad enough, you will do whatever it takes."
Singleton would push through, excelling on the football field along the way. He scored his first career touchdown in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Boston College in 2006. As a senior, he would rush for 484 yards and nine touchdowns, topping the 100-yard mark against both North Texas and Northern Illinois. Perhaps most memorably, Singleton would score the Midshipmen's first touchdown in their historic 46-44 overtime triumph at Notre Dame. The victory halted the Irish's NCAA record 43 game win streak in the series.
"I love football, I have been playing football since third grade. Football, as far as teamwork, such as perseverance, it's 4th and inches. Are you going to get those inches? It's a battle in the trenches. Just like it is in the Marine Corps, it's the same thing in football," explained Singleton. "The brotherhood that we build at the Naval Academy I feel like is stronger than any other program. We have a bond that others just don't have. Being at the academy, playing football also gave me the ability to take out aggression when things weren't always going right in the hall or grades weren't going right or I just needed to hit something...I love playing football."
He finished his career at the Naval Academy with well-deserved national-acclaim, prestigious campus credentials and a perspective on life only suffering can forge. Through trials and tribulations, Singleton emerged a Marine Corps officer.
"I started on the football team my last two years. I won the Disney Spirit Award as well as the Orange Bowl Courage Award. I was Brigade Commander of the Naval Academy, which is the highest ranking position there. I was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps, where I became the first male in my family to graduate from college. Went on as a Marine Corps officer, got my training, got my wings and now I'm a 46 helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps," he beamed.
A captain, Singleton is now living his childhood dream of flying for a living. He currently flies the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight, a transport craft in use since 1964. Introduced in the Vietnam War, the 46, much like one of its pilots, has seen and overcome a lot. Singleton, having graduated at the right time, is actually the last trained pilot on these helicopters. Though adversity constantly tried to intervene, he is now doing what he saw himself doing nearly two decades ago.
"The first thing is you have to have goals and they have to be visible. Write down those goals, put them on your phone, on your desktop. Keep those goals so when times do get hard, you have something to look for and something that you know you are reaching for. If you have that in your heart and that's what you really want to do, you will do whatever it takes," he detailed. "For me, it's my faith that keeps my grounded and helps me reach those things. Then it's my family and also my friends."
Singleton's story is one still being written. His military career ahead of him, he also still hopes to one day be an astronaut -- another childhood fascination. He stands today as a testament to the human spirit, the quintessential example of how nothing should keep you from reaching for the stars. He believes, he may even be more than that.
"I feel like you can't have a testimony without a test. This is my test," he added. "Hopefully God is using me as a guiding light for other people to let them know that it doesn't matter what you face in life you can overcome it and be what God intended you to be."
Defined by his fight, but also by his faith, Singleton credits one person in particular for his steadfast beliefs.
"Although she didn't always make the strongest decisions, my mom laid a strong foundation. She taught me how to pray and that was the main thing that got me through most of my life."
After being addicted to drugs for most of his life, Singleton's mother has been clean for four consecutive years and is "doing great". For all that mom taught son, Zerbin's example has been reciprocated with the person he loves most.
Singleton's story is an unfathomable one. Its basic theme, though, is no novel tone. Man has always been captivated by the heavens. From Alaska to Georgia, from hell and back, Singleton has constantly looked to the skies. Living the life he, not misfortune, decided, Singleton's head is completely in the clouds. His heart is firmly there too.