Syracuse University Magazine

American Hero, Hollywood Star

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Navy SEAL Rorke Denver proves to be a true team player

By Rick Burton

If you’re a fan of shoot-’em-up flicks, chances are you saw all the mayhem and destruction in Act of Valor and know the 2012 film used real, active-duty Navy SEALs as both actors and stuntmen. But since the Navy SEALs can’t be listed in the film credits for security reasons, you wouldn’t have known this R-rated action thriller prominently features Naval Res. Lieutenant Commander Rorke Denver ’96, a member of two national championship Orange lacrosse teams. 

Nonetheless, Denver was a key contributor to the movie, serving as an advisor, playing a key heroic character known as Lieutenant Rorke, and even assisting in the movie’s pre-release promotion. “I initially got called by my commanding officer to meet with some Hollywood guys a few years back,” says Denver, who was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” (for valorous action in combat). “When directors Mike ‘Mouse’ McCoy and Scott Waugh first came down to San Diego and approached the SEALs about making a movie, I was one of the guys they talked to. And like all good SEALs, we’re pretty secretive and we said, ‘No.’ We weren’t interested in being in a movie about our group.”

But McCoy and Waugh kept after the Navy, the Department of Defense, and the Pentagon, and eventually the SEAL executive officers relented. After what passed for a form of rigorous auditions with 16 hand-picked men, Denver—a 6-foot-1 former long-stick and close defenseman who served as tri-captain in his senior year for the Orange—was selected as one of eight SEALs to star in a flick about special-ops commandos fighting and chasing after assorted terrorists, drug mules, and villains.

So how did a nice SU lacrosse player who used to eat pizza at Johnny’s and live at Skytop end up in an elite military unit and then a Hollywood action flick? “My senior year, like most students staring at the end of their college time, I wasn’t sure what to do,” says Denver, an honorable mention All-American in 1996. “There wasn’t really any pro lacrosse to consider. But my dad, brother, and I were always sharing books and one that had really touched me was Winston Churchill’s autobiography, My Early Life, which was about all the military adventures that eventually led him to the political arena. That struck me down to the core that military service was what I wanted.”

From there, the journey led through a series of increasingly demanding ordeals because Denver wanted to learn if he was tough enough to fight with the most elite “Brotherhood” in the military. He was. Denver spent 13 1/2 years on active duty before recently making the transition to active reserves. Asked whether his time as a SEAL was an abrupt juxtaposition from his experiences with the outwardly laid-back coaching style employed by one of his early mentors—SU legend Roy “Slugger” Simmons Jr. ’59—Denver laughed. “Slugger’s laid-back persona is a cover for a pretty tough guy,” says the California native and former water polo player. “His father was a boxing coach and I’ve heard the story told that SU’s Jim Brown [’57], arguably one of the toughest football and lacrosse players of all time, said, ‘There’s no one I was afraid to fight, but the one guy I wouldn’t want to get into it with was Roy Simmons.’ Slugger—check out his nickname—always wanted combative teams and he recruited those kinds of guys. If you played for SU, you charged at the gun.”

That aggressiveness was learned in part at SU and in part from Denver’s disciplinarian father, Tom Denver ’66, who was an SU rower (his mom, Deanna Drake Denver, is also a member of the Class of ’66). Simmons sees aggressiveness and more among Denver’s attributes. “I’d say Rorke was probably the best conditioned athlete I ever had,” Simmons says. “I never saw anyone run harder. He could put it into another gear. And I say that because my goal for SU was that we would be the best conditioned team in the fourth quarter. I would put the team through difficult practices, run them hard, and when we finished, while the other guys headed for the locker room, Rorke would go out and run for another 45 minutes.”   

Like his former coach, Denver has an unassuming and laid-back persona that belies his fierce competitive intensity and high expectations. So, did Act of Valor live up to his expectations? “We’re pleased with the portrayal,” says Denver, who, along with his duties as an active reservist, gives speaking engagements on leadership and training and is working on a book about his experiences. “To do $70 million at the box office, before the DVD release in June, with no real Hollywood stars, is pretty good. I think this movie surprised the experts.”

Perhaps, but the co-directors worked extra hard for authenticity. They wanted SEALs playing themselves, rather than untrained actors running around waving weapons. The trade-off of true knowledge over thespian chops meant soldiers in gunfights, parachute drops, and submarine rescues could all be filmed during real SEAL training exercises amid live fire and live rounds. “When it came to actually architect the battle scenes,” McCoy told Entertainment Weekly in February, “the SEALs did all the operational planning. They would say, ‘Hey, bro, we would do it like this, we would say it like this.’ We would disregard [the script] and do things how they were really done.” 

Although it was two-and-a-half years in the making, largely because the SEALs in the movie would get shipped off on active-duty missions, the film honors what Denver repeatedly calls the “Brotherhood” or “Team Guys.” “We knew gunfights and that kind of stuff would get people to buy tickets,” Denver says. “But our real reason for doing this movie was love of country and love of ‘The Team.’”

How fitting that a true team player in college, a winner at the highest level for his university and country, would also end up on “The Team” protecting the United States and, in his free time, when the Navy could spare him, starring in a movie about acts of valor.



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During his days as an SU lacrosse player, Rorke Denver was known for his competitive spirit and stamina. 

Photo courtesy of SU Athletics



Denver_on-set.jpgWhile filming Act of Valor, Denver (pictured with co-director Scott Waugh) and his fellow Navy SEALS gave authenticity to the movie by doing the operational planning for the battle scenes.

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Denver adjusts his gear on the set.

Film photos courtesy of Relativity Media ©2012