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The Best of Both Worlds: How NFL Dreams Can Coincide with Serving Your Country

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 4, 2015

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A military career is a noble endeavor, but playing in the NFL is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

There are those who spend the bulk of their lives in the service of one or the other. A special few possess the talent, drive and fortitude to accomplish both. These select servicemen strike a balance to honor their commitment to the United States while still pursuing their dreams of one day being on an NFL roster.

Once upon a time, the military academies were programs that featured football's best talents.

Iconic stars such as Army's "Mr. Inside," Doc Blanchard, and "Mr. Outside," Glenn Davis, won Heisman Trophies in consecutive seasons between 1945 and 1946. Both were eventually selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

Fourteen years later, the AFL's Boston Patriots drafted Navy's Joe Bellino after he won the 1960 Heisman. Roger Staubach, who captured the 1963 Heisman, followed when the Dallas Cowboys selected the quarterback in the 10th round of the 1964 NFL draft.

Each of these men had one thing in common: He either honored his service commitment directly after graduating or, as in Blanchard's case, never played professional football. 

Today's college football landscape is very different. The military academies are essentially treated as second-class citizens in recruiting and on the field due to minimum service obligations, high academic standards, height/weight requirements and style of play.

But those who choose to attend school and play football at Air Force, Army or Navy do so with full knowledge of what is laid out before them. A commitment to one of the service academies requires more than a standard commitment to any other program from around the nation.

Yet it doesn't prevent the nation's future leaders from pursuing the opportunity of playing in the NFL.

Navy's Joe Cardona at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
Navy's Joe Cardona at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press/Associated Press

The New England Patriots selected Navy long snapper Joe Cardona with the 166th overall pick in the fifth round of this year's NFL draft. Army linebacker Caleb Campbell previously wore the distinction as the last serviceman drafted when the Detroit Lions chose him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft.

In fact, Cardona was the first Midshipman drafted since 1998, when the Green Bay Packers chose offensive lineman Mike Wahle in the second round of the supplemental draft. 

Cardona, though, has to wait for the Navy's official response on whether or not he can play this season or immediately report to his military assignment. 

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson after being drafted, the long snapper felt his situation was a win-win proposition: 

I don't see any downside to it. It's a guaranteed job and a career that a lot of people really aspire to be. It's a really honorable thing to be, to be a Naval officer. I look forward to whatever I do the next two years, whether it's in the NFL or leading sailors and Marines. I'm excited for whatever comes next. Getting the opportunity to play football is a dream come true and I hope it comes to fruition.

The military provides opportunities for exceptional students to delay their minimum service requirements in special cases. But they're rare.

"The possibility of playing professional sports directly out of the Academy is not something we advertise or encourage as part of the recruiting process," Commander Chris Servello, who serves as the Navy's Special Assistant for Public Affairs and Chief of Naval Personnel, wrote in an email. "While it happens on rare occasions (to extraordinary Midshipmen that we are very proud of), the primary reason for attending the Naval Academy is to prepare young men and women for warfighting careers in the Navy or Marine Corps."

The Navy granted Cardona a waiver to participate in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, minicamps and OTAs with the Patriots, but his ultimate fate has yet to be decided.

According to Sporting News' David Steele, "Nothing is official yet, but the Navy is leaning toward Cardona, the Patriots’ fifth-round draft pick last month, continuing at the Naval Academy Prep School at Newport, Rhode Island, his temporary assigned duty after graduation from Annapolis, until his first full assignment on a ship based in Maine."

These locations will allow Cardona to participate with the Patriots during his rookie season while still honoring his military obligation. 

There can be no doubt in this matter, though: A cadet's military requirement remains his foremost priority. He will serve one way or another, but the Department of Defense allows some wiggle room in special cases. 

As a final decision looms for Cardona, multiple players still studying and playing football at the academies will keep a close eye on his situation. One of them is Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who became the NCAA's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback last season with 64 career scores. Reynolds is a dynamic weapon in Navy's option attack, a dark-horse Heisman candidate and talented enough to be considered a legitimate NFL prospect (even if he is forced to switch positions). 

The quarterback sees his former teammate as an inspirational figure.

"I've been keeping track of Joe's situation," Reynolds said. "He's blessed and fortunate to be where he is and play for one of the best organizations in the NFL with the opportunity to play this season. I think it's spectacular. It definitely provides inspiration for guys like myself. I know there are several other military guys trying to play. I think his story is very inspiring.

"For all of the young guys who want to come here, they can look at that and see there is an opportunity for us to serve our country first and still pursue our lifelong dream of playing professional sports."

In the end, each of these young men is dedicated to his country but still dreams of playing football at the highest level. It's a delicate balance that requires the proper preparation and training, while still hoping to receive certain opportunities.

Preparation

Prioritization is important for any NFL prospect. It's even more so for a cadet, who must prepare properly for the amount of work he's expected to complete on a daily basis.

A typical day for a football player from the military academies isn't like a typical day for most Division I football players. Cadets carry heavy class workloads. They must complete their military obligations. And all of this comes before they even get an opportunity to get out on the practice field. 

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo remains blown away by what he sees from his players on an everyday basis. 

"I'm amazed by these guys," the coach said. "I had a great time at the University of Hawaii. I loved going to school there. I then think of the classes that these guys take. At most schools, a player takes 12 credits during the season and maybe 15 during the offseason. They have two classes one day and three the next or whatever. At a lot of colleges, guys are taking online courses. They're not even on campus. They take these courses and show up for practice.

"Our guys are taking real courses like chemistry and electrical engineering and a total of 18 to 21 credits per semester. I see some of the course loads they're taking and think to myself, 'Holy smokes.' I won't talk bad about my school, but I wasn't taking the same courses as these guys.

"It's hard enough just to play D-I football by itself. That in itself has changed over the last few years. Before, when I played or back into the 1990s, you'd get your manual and go home. You'd work out wherever you were at. Coach would give you your workout, and you'd just go home. You're not going home anymore. Everybody trains on campus. They're here pretty much year-round. They're training hard. Besides going to school, D-I football is a grind. Our players add the military side of it. I have no clue how they do it.

"Then you have the guys trying to train and get to the next level. I have no clue how they do it. There isn't enough hours in a day to accomplish all of it."

Niumatalolo is currently in his second stint as a coach for Navy. 

The native Hawaiian originally served as an assistant coach from 1995 to 1998. He returned as offensive coordinator on Paul Johnson's staff in 2002. Once Johnson accepted his current position with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in 2007, Niumatalolo took over as the program's head coach. 

During his seven full seasons as the team's head coach, the Midshipmen are 57-34 overall. Not only has Navy been successful on the field, but Niumatalolo has also helped guide former players such as Kyle Eckel and Eric Kettani, who eventually found their ways to the NFL.

But Navy's coach explained that the process is very different for those players compared to their counterparts.

"It's not like most places," Niumatalolo said. "If a guy is getting ready for the [NFL] combine, they drop out for their second semester. They may graduate later. They don't come to school during the spring semester to do certain things or go to a special training facility.

"In our building, it's always been the same. They'll work out on their own. When pro teams come by to see them or work them out, we accommodate them. Really, the other part of it doesn't change. They're still going to school. They're still working to graduate. Our help in the process is to let these guys know who they are and what kind of people they are. And we let them do their own evaluation process. As for the other side of it, it's a little different because they still stay in school while taking a full course load."

Despite this disadvantage throughout the draft process, there are those who still strive to overcome the odds and be the best officers and football players they can be. These men must go above and beyond when proper preparation for their military obligations turns into a desire to train for the NFL. 

Training

Every morning during the football season, Army fullback Larry Dixon rose from bed at 5:20 a.m. to get treatment, before the sun had yet to rise and shine on West Point's beautiful campus.

After Dixon's treatment, football was the furthest thing from his mind. Last year's leading rusher for Army then spent four-and-a-half hours between 7:30 a.m. and noon going to classes. Once classes were complete and after the cadets ate lunch, Dixon sometimes needed to attend military briefs.

By 2 p.m., the punishing runner attended the football team's walkthrough. For the next five hours, the team held meetings and practice.

Dixon said he then did homework from 8:30 p.m. until nearly 11 p.m. every night before going to bed. 

This was his daily routine, and thoughts of the NFL never really entered his mind despite rushing for 1,102 yards as a senior. The possibility of playing at the next level didn't become an option for him until he was asked to participate in this year's East-West Shrine Game.

Former Army fullback Larry Dixon carries the ball against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Former Army fullback Larry Dixon carries the ball against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.Elsa/Getty Images

“I didn't believe it until I went to the East-West Shrine Game and got to talk to NFL scouts," Dixon said. "That's the first time they approached me in all seriousness. I wasn't talked too much about before then, but it was an opportunity to play against guys that were going to the next level. Then I started to believe in the possibility."

Before that point, the NFL was never discussed within the program.

“It's something you wonder about, but there is no real conversation," Dixon said. "If you're a competitor, you want to compete at the highest level that you can. It's just the want inside of you to keep doing it."

The running back, who majored in economics, felt scouts were more interested in the process than in his actual performance at the time. NFL teams weren't exactly sure of Dixon's requirements to the military.

"What I got from those scouts was slight interest, and really, they wanted to understand the process," Dixon said. "I think a lot of scouts really don't know how this military process works. What we get is a lot of questions about the military."

Because of these obstacles, prospects never really make full commitments to specifically train for professional careers. Yet some still try to do so to the best of their abilities. 

Obstacles

Mandatory service requirements await every cadet upon graduation, but players can still try to make the most out of the opportunities in front of them.

Trent Steelman is now on the other side of the process. He was a four-year starting quarterback at Army. He participated in the East-West Shrine Game. The former Black Knights star even signed a free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013.

But it wasn't his time.

Former Army quarterback Trent Steelman throws an option lateral.
Former Army quarterback Trent Steelman throws an option lateral.Mike Groll/Associated Press

As Reynolds prepares for his senior year and Dixon waits for an opportunity from a team after his recent graduation, Steelman has already been there. After two years of service, the former maintenance platoon leader is now attempting to show NFL teams he can still play.

During his senior year, the quarterback found time to prepare for his NFL opportunity. Steelman discussed exactly what he did prior to leaving West Point while still pursing that dream.

"If you want to make time, you'll make the time," the quarterback said. "If you want to find the time, you'll find the time. Obviously, it's different than most D-I programs, where it's all football. You really don't have to worry about class or preparing for the military.

"I made time. I found two or three hours in the day dedicated solely to becoming a better football player. After that, it was all academics to finish my last semester as I prepared myself to be an officer in the Army.

"Once I got done with the East-West Shrine Game, I started to prepare for my pro day. I would wake up around 6, when we would then have our morning formations. I'd then go through my school day, which started at 7:30, until 3 in the afternoon. After that was when I had some down time. I'd go out to the weight room to work with my strength coach. I'd spend a couple hours in the weight room or out running, whatever he had planned for that day. I'd also take an hour to study film of slot receivers, because I was making that transition.

"Between a couple hours in the weight room or on the field and another hour in the film room, I was working on the little things I never worked on before. After that, it was all academics. Usually, I went to bed around 10."

Despite his preparation and opportunity with the Ravens, Steelman wasn't able to continue his pursuit of the NFL dream before he honored his Army commitment.

It's something Steelman, who is currently placed on Individual Ready Reserves until 2023, felt was taken away from him. He admitted he was upset by the decision, though he also said it was something that turned out to be the best for him.

"Initially, I didn't quite understand it. I think any person would be lying to themselves if they weren't upset or disappointed with an opportunity they weren't able to fulfill at that moment.

"Once I got into the Army, I was able to take control as a maintenance platoon leader. It was the most humbling experience of my life. I wouldn't change that time for anything in the world.

"I'm a faith-driven person. I believe that was the plan God had for me to put that on hold, go serve my country and meet some of the most selfless people you'll meet during your entire life. I took away a lot from it. If I do get another [NFL] opportunity, the experience will serve me well on the field.

"I didn't even mention the physical standpoint. It gave me time to work on the position I had never played before. It was good for me. Any normal human being, though, in that exact moment, would be upset, mad or disappointed. I just didn't understand at that time."

The former quarterback made his comeback at the NFL's veteran combine in March. He's since worked out for multiple teams and has been placed on their emergency lists as the next man up in case of potential injuries.

The process isn't simply about individuals, though. It's difficult for NFL teams not to hold it against prospects from the academies, knowing full well that they might not get to use them in the near future.

"I think at first," Steelman said when asked if NFL organizations hold a player's military obligation against him. "Absolutely. There have been very few players to come out of our school, and it's always questionable when dealing with the military and the government. That's another side of things. Like this year, though, the Navy player who was drafted, I still think they're working on that entire situation. It's a different ball game when you're dealing with the government, because you do have that obligation, and they pay for your schooling."

Talent eventually rises to the top, and organizations are willing to give exceptional players chances to prove themselves. It then falls on the player to impress despite some of the obstacles in his way.

Dream Lives On

Each and every young man who committed to the service academies is destined to defend the United States of America. This was his initial and most important calling.

But every football player—even those at Air Force, Army and Navy—also dreams of playing in the NFL.

"It's been a dream of mine since Day 1," Reynolds said. "I think any competitive football player has that dream. Everyone wants to play professionally, but my No. 1 obligation is serving my country."

And that's the difference.

To play in the NFL is a special accomplishment. Only 1,952 men will have the pleasure of being on an NFL team's active roster or practice squad at any given time this fall. The best of the best play on Sundays.

It doesn't mean every football player is destined to be the best on the field of play. Some are destined to be the best by leading a battalion onto the battlefield. It takes a rare breed of person to do both.

"I think it can be balanced," Reynolds said. "It's not the most impossible thing in the world."

All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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