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NIU ‘Hoosier’ trades basketball uniform for combat fatigues

Ally Lehman, who just completed her career as a star basketball player at Northern Illinois University, was one of only 10 women selected from ROTC this year for a commission in the U.S. Army Infantry. | Provided photo

Ally Lehman wants to make history.

She’s off to a good start.

The Northern Illinois University senior walked off a stage in DeKalb last week with a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry.

Lehman was one of only 10 women to be picked this year for infantry duty from among thousands nationwide who completed the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.

Her selection puts her on a path to some day lead troops into combat.


Also making Lehman unique is that she was the star guard on NIU’s women’s basketball team, leading the Huskies in scoring, rebounding and assists.

I guess that makes her a student-athlete-soldier, the first to graduate from NIU’s ROTC program and a rare triple-double for any campus.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot who spoke at the commissioning ceremony, took Lehman aside afterward for a chat.

“She told me don’t take spit from anyone,” Lehman said, not using exactly that word. “Then she said take care of your men and don’t be intimidated by what others say.”

A video of their meeting captured Lehman telling Duckworth: “Thanks for paving the way for me.”

“We’re in it together, you know,” answered Duckworth, who also received her first officer commission through NIU’s ROTC program and later lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

I caught up with Lehman on Tuesday while she was hiking in Brown County, Indiana, not far from her hometown of Nineveh.

One of Nineveh’s claims to fame is that its old school building was one of the locations used for filming “Hoosiers,” the classic movie about small-town Indiana basketball.

Second Lt. Ally Lehman talks with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., after Duckworth gave the keynote address at the 2017 NIU ROTC Commissioning Ceremony in Altgeld Hall on the Northern Illinois University campus in DeKalb on May 12, 2017. | Provided photo

Lehman had expected to be going to Fort Benning, Georgia, to begin her Infantry Officer Basic Leadership Course next week.

But her security clearance wasn’t completed in time, and now she won’t report until September.

“It was a huge disappointment to me at first,” said Lehman, who had “trained up” in preparation. “I was in really good shape.”

But Lehman said she is happy for the first opportunity to spend extended time with her family since leaving home four years ago to tackle the rigors of major college athletics.

Moving to DeKalb put Lehman into her first real contact with kids from the Chicago area, who she told me weren’t that different from what she was accustomed to in rural Indiana.

That’s as long as you don’t count the fact they teased her for having an accent, weren’t interested in playing paintball in their spare time and, most perplexing of all, had never seen “Hoosiers.”

Lehman said she cleared up the “Hoosiers” problem right away, making sure her teammates watched and appreciated it.

Getting friends interested in paintball proved to be a bigger obstacle.

“They were afraid of welts,” Lehman said dismissively.

As far as the accent, Lehman categorically denies ever having one.

Ally Lehman had expected to be going to Fort Benning, Georgia, to begin her Infantry Officer Basic Leadership Course next week. But her security clearance wasn’t completed in time, and now she won’t report until September. | Provided photo

Part of what interested me about Lehman’s story was having had an NIU roommate myself many years ago who was in ROTC, and seeing the type of commitment required to perform at a high level in both the classroom and the military.

The idea of adding a major college sport on top of that is mind-boggling, even factoring in some synergy from the physical training required for both.

Lehman shrugged it off as “time management.” But it’s more than that.

The statistic that jumps out from her basketball career is that the wiry 5-foot-8-inch guard averaged more than 10 rebound per game over her last two seasons, which speaks to a certain hard-nosed determination.

Lehman said she was offered an opportunity to get out of her military contract if she wanted to try professional basketball, but she decided to stick with it.

“I think it is a time we need more females to break down barriers, to be an example to others,” she said.

“The Army thinks I’m capable of it. That’s the coolest part.”

I doubt anyone will outwork her.