NFL doors open wider for Army and Navy athletes

A change in DoD policy has made it so there's increased opportunity for Army, Navy athletes to play pro sports

Keenan Reynolds led Navy to four bowl games and four victories over Army. He became just the fourth Midshipman to have his football number retired.

But Reynolds' long-term legacy could be tied just as powerfully to a policy change he helped inspire.

A few weeks after the Ravens picked the former Navy quarterback in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Department of Defense modified its requirement that service academy graduates perform two years of active duty before applying for reserve status.

Going forward, Reynolds and others would be allowed to apply for the reserves immediately after graduation.

Though such exemptions are granted only case by case, the shift opened the doors for future generations of players to attend Navy, Army and Air Force without setting aside their dreams of NFL or other professional sports careers.

With Army and Navy set to renew their rivalry at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, coaches and officials from both academies said they do not expect a seismic change in the types of athletes they recruit. The lofty academic requirements and the day-to-day rigors of academy life will still dissuade most high school stars with pro dreams.

But the path from Army-Navy to playing on Sunday is smoother than it was in the days of Roger Staubach or Napoleon McCallum.

"I don't think this is something that's going to open the world up," Army athletic director Boo Corrigan said. "But will it open it up to some? Absolutely."

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said the policy change, combined with Navy's success in the American Athletic Conference, has "definitely helped" with recruiting.

But as much as he enjoys winning, he doesn't want the mission of Navy's program to change substantially.

"If we were like Ohio State, with 15 guys a year going to the NFL, I don't think that would be right," Niumatalolo said. "That's not what these guys signed up for. They came here to serve our country. But if it's something where there's one guy every couple of years, I think it's great exposure."

It's not as if he's suddenly pitching NFL dreams to every potential Midshipman.

"We're up front with them," Niumatalolo said. "We tell them it's all case by case. We don't guarantee them, 'Hey, if you come here, you'll go to the NFL.' Because we'd be lying."

Army coach Jeff Monken, whose team is headed to a bowl game for just the second time in 20 years, said he hopes to see Army-Navy alumni make the NFL more regularly.

"We've got good players, and they've got good players," he said. "I think it can only help the academies and only help the armed services."

Corrigan said the new policy is a natural evolution given the greater academic diversity at the academies, which didn't even offer majors a few generations ago.

"There are so many different paths through West Point and through the Naval Academy that now this becomes a separate path," he said. "At the end of the day, what are you talking about? Maybe a cadet every couple of years potentially getting to that point? Certainly you don't take that off the table in recruiting. But there's something different about these young men and women who come to the academies that maybe makes them want to serve."

He added that those singular athletes — Corrigan pointed to Army women's basketball star Kelsey Minato, who tried out for the WNBA this year — help a wider swath of people see the academies as viable options.

"Part of our challenge is letting people know they can do this," he said. "And if they see someone like Kelsey or Keenan who goes through and is a regular person, that you don't need to be superman or superwoman, the whole thing becomes more relatable. And how does anyone lose in that situation?"

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus advocated for the change precisely because he saw Reynolds as an ideal face for his branch of service.

"If Keenan's playing for the Ravens, and he's going out recruiting for the Navy and making appearances for us, that's a great way for him to serve," Mabus told radio host Dan Patrick in a May interview.

Though the academies have produced dozens of elite athletes over the years, their service requirements have generally impeded those stars from entering the pros in anything like a normal fashion.

Staubach won the Heisman Trophy at Navy in 1963. But he did not play for the Dallas Cowboys until 1969, when he was a 27-year-old rookie. In the interim, the future Hall of Fame selection served a one-year tour in Vietnam among other Navy duties.

McCallum earned All-America honors twice as Navy's star tailback in the 1980s and was picked in the fourth round of the 1986 draft by the Los Angeles Raiders. He played his rookie year for the Raiders while also serving active duty as a supply officer in nearby Long Beach, Calif.

But McCallum had to put his pro career on hold for three seasons after that as his Navy duties took him out to sea. He returned to the Raiders for five seasons starting in 1990, but was no longer as productive a player.

The rules became less strict over time as the Department of Defense moved to a two-year active duty requirement before athletes could apply for reserve status on a case-by-case basis.

The language of the policy made clear the value the Department of Defense saw in sending athletes to the pros. It said exemptions would be considered "when there is a strong expectation their professional sports activity will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs."

Navy basketball superstar David Robinson, for example, joined the San Antonio Spurs two years after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 draft. He went on to the Hall of Fame carrying the nickname "The Admiral."

Reynolds' former Navy teammate, long snapper Joe Cardona, was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft by the New England Patriots. Cardona opted to balance playing for the Patriots with serving active duty at the Naval Preparatory Academy in Rhode Island. He was allowed to switch to reserve duty this year at the same time Reynolds was cleared to pursue the NFL.

It's unclear whether Reynolds' precedent will actually lead to a more regular flow of academy players to the NFL. But those playing in Saturday's game said they're pleased pro scouts are at least looking.

"It was only a good thing for Keenan to get drafted," said Navy receiver Jamir Tillman, whose father played for the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars. "It's great that the scouts are realizing we have really good talent here."

Like most Midshipmen, however, Tillman came to Annapolis with more than the game on his mind. He doesn't expect that to change for those who follow.

"A lot of it for me was just that it would give me so much opportunity beyond football," he said.

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