Most college football players bulk up in the weight room and chow down at the Bobby Flay-approved training table. Jordan Eason slimmed down in the woods and survived on ants and worms.
Many college football players spend the summer training for the season and acing some crib course. Eason just returned from four weeks of studying Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro.
Most college kids get around town on four wheels, two wheels or two feet. Eason has learned to fly a glider and recently hopped a lift in a T-38 Talon supersonic trainer.
A 2008 Smithfield High graduate, Eason is a rising junior offensive lineman at the Air Force Academy. Neither of his parents — father Merrill Eason is a Conference USA football official — served in the military, and he never envisioned himself saluting and marching, but Eason has embraced not only routine academy life but also its myriad extracurriculars.
"You're not picking a school," he said from his Colorado Spring quarters. "You're picking a lifestyle for the next 10 years."
Indeed, Air Force cadets are obligated to five years of military service upon graduation. Add the year Eason spent at the academy's prep school, and you get a decade.
Eason was a four-year starter at Smithfield and an All-Bay Rivers District selection. Norfolk State offered him a full scholarship, and East Carolina encouraged him to walk on. Then, out of the blue, Air Force offensive coordinator and line coach Clay Hendrix called.
Eason had never heard of the academy, but the more he learned, the more he liked. And listening to then-Smithfield coach Chris Fraser, you realize why it was an ideal match.
"He played every snap," said Fraser, now at Maury High. "Never missed a practice, never was late to a practice. He was just one of those guys who you knew, like clockwork, you could count on."
That reliability and toughness have served Eason well on and off the field at Air Force.
Start with combat survival training, a rite of passage for cadets the summer after freshman year. Eason described the ordeal as follows:
In groups of five, cadets are dumped in the mountainous woods of Saylor Park for nine days. Each has a single MRE (meal ready to eat) and a coat — yes, it can get a bit nippy in the Colorado hills during the summer.
Five days are spent scavenging whatever nourishment — plants, insects, worms — is available. Four days are reserved for evasion techniques — hide-and-seek with serious consequences.
But that's not all. Then comes resistance training, what to do if captured by the enemy and coerced for information.
"It's one of the hardest programs at the academy," Eason said. "But I think as a future officer it's important to know."
And what might the coercion program entail?
"I'm not really allowed to tell you that because it's classified," Eason said. "You can let your imagination go. They're not going to take it too far, but they want to make it realistic."
The twin ordeals cost Eason 32 pounds, hardly ideal for a left guard already considered light at 255. But he restored much of the weight and became a vital cog in a line that helped Air Force finish No. 2 nationally in rushing en route to a 9-4 record.
"He's bright, a good student and a darned good football player," Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said. "He has that leadership aptitude."
Air Force defeated Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl and, most important, reclaimed the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy with victories over Army and Navy. Eason backed up senior Tyler Schonsheck, but since the falcons run a no-huddle offense, they rotate linemen every other play.
"Because we're so small, we try to wear other teams' big guys down," said Eason, who projects as a starter this season.
Eason also plays on special teams, most notably as the wedge blocker on kickoff returns.
"That's just my personality," he said. "I like running full speed and hitting people. Some people say you have to have a few screws loose to do that, but I love it."
The academy waives athletes from its height-and-weight requirements, but not from its fitness test. So while a lineman may go 300 pounds, good luck then doing seven pull-ups, 50 push-ups and running 1.5 miles in about 11 minutes.
"The coaches like us smaller," Eason said. "We may not bench-press the house … but we can move, that's for sure."
Eason has been moving non-stop this summer. He spent three weeks at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif., in professional development training that included the T-38 ride.
Although less than one percent of candidates are chosen, Eason would prefer an Office of Special Investigation (OSI) assignment to flight duty — he learned to handle a glider last summer during Global Engagement.
He's majoring in foreign studies with a concentration in South America — hence, three weeks in Rio studying Portuguese at the Bridge Brazil school, part of the academy's Cadet Summer Language Immersion Program.
"It's probably one of the best gigs the Air Force has given me so far," Eason said, "besides playing football."
Among the trip's highlights: a soccer match between Flamengo and Corinthians that sparked — big surprise here — rioting among fans.
Eason had no exposure to Portuguese until the basic-training foreign language aptitude test. Those who performed best on the exam were nudged toward Arabic and Chinese, according to Eason, the middle-of-the-packers to German and Portuguese.
"I just fell in love with it," Eason said. "I wish I could major in Portuguese."
As part of the academy's Leadership Laboratory, Eason is finishing his summer back in combat survival training — as an instructor instead of student.
"He was the one young man, he would literally jump through a wall … for you without asking why," Fraser said. "I'm not surprised he excels at that type of training."
At any time in his/her first two years at the academy, a cadet may withdraw free of the five-year service commitment.
"The moment you walk into the first class of your junior year," Eason said, "you're obligated."
Eason will not flinch when he makes that walk next month. The military obligation is a privilege and more than fair exchange for adventures past, present and to come.
"He absolutely belongs at the Air Force Academy," Calhoun said. "He's going to be an exceptional officer."