NFL scouts have been regular visitors to the Naval Academy campus this season, with 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive tackle Max Lane the object of their affection.
The bulwark of an all-senior line, Lane has been labeled by Navy coach George Chaump "one of the finest offensive linemen in the country. He's big, strong and persistent and has improved tremendously each season."
The pros apparently share Chaump's enthusiasm.
"I haven't kept count, but there have been representatives from at least a dozen NFL teams here watching Max practice and play," offensive line coach Mark Murray said. "Most of the ones I've talked to like him a lot. He's got the classic NFL body, he's athletic, and he can run the 40 in 5.2. He's a perfect pro candidate."
Ah, but there is the catch. No past Navy football star, be it Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, or, more recently, wide receiver Phil McConkey and running back Eddie Meyers, were freed to play professionally before fulfilling their five-year obligation.
Celebrated all-purpose back Napoleon McCallum played a season with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1985, when, after graduating, he was assigned to the nearby USS Peleliu, enabling him to perform his duties during the day and practice with the team and play on Sundays.
He had an excellent rookie season, rushing for 536 yards. But the following year, James Webb, the new Secretary of the Navy, ruled McCallum must fulfill his service commitment before returning to the NFL. Now back with the Raiders, McCallum is a special-teams player.
Meyers, who held Navy's rushing records until McCallum came along, used his accrued leave to engage in six training camps with the Atlanta Falcons before giving up his dream.
McConkey, who holds the Navy record for touchdowns (16), served five years as a helicopter pilot before winning a spot with the New York Giants in 1984. He made the All-Madden team three times for his inspirational play and timely contributions, including a touchdown catch in the 1987 Super Bowl.
Last year, the Green Bay Packers drafted Navy defensive tackle Bob Kuberski, and he impressed everyone in training camp and preseason games. But Kuberski, on temporary duty as a football aide before reporting to Surface Warfare School in Newport, R.I., was told last April he would not receive an exemption.
"I thought I'd get approved because of the big cuts in military personnel," he said. "But I'll just have to wait for a change in policy."
An academy source said Kuberski and Lane could join the NFL in the near future if Congress agrees to a proposal that would grant "alternate service" to graduating athletes.
An exception was made in the case of All-American basketball center David Robinson, the first player selected in the 1987 NBA draft, by the San Antonio Spurs. Robinson, whose 7-1 height prevented him from pursuing career goals in the Navy, was freed of his military obligation after serving two years.
Meanwhile, Lane is not worrying about the issue. "I don't want to get caught up in all that stuff right now," he said before practicing for tomorrow's game against Colgate.
"Sure, it's flattering to have the scouts looking at me. Playing in the NFL has always been in the back of my mind, ever since I began following the careers of John Hannah and Anthony Munoz. But this season I just want to stay focused on playing and going out a winner."
Lane has made giant strides since starring for Norbone High in Missouri, which had 19 players on its football team. He won all-state honors his junior year as a tight end and in his senior year as a tackle.
"Max didn't play that much for us as a plebe," Murray said. "He was big and gangly, but you could see the potential. The big thing is that he worked endless hours to get stronger and quicker. He's extremely durable, never misses a game or practice. He pass blocks and run blocks well. He's got all the tools to make it in the NFL. I just hope he gets the chance."