Catching up with ... former Navy star Napoleon McCallum

Napoleon McCallum on the Army-Navy game: "It was just two brawlers throwing punches at each other."

In four football games against Army, Napoleon McCallum rushed for 489 yards, scored two touchdowns and never lost. But that's not what sticks with the former Navy All American.

"I remember hurting," said McCallum, 53. "I was always in pain after Army. I got hit so hard and had to fight for every yard. They stepped up their game, and we did, too. It was just two brawlers throwing punches at each other."

He expects the same on Saturday, when the two schools play for the 127th time at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I'll be there in spirit," said McCallum, community development director for the Las Vegas Sands Corp. in Nevada.

More than 30 years ago, McCallum — a celebrated running back — led Navy to three straight wins over Army. (As a freshman in 1981, he played briefly in a 3-3 tie). The next year, he ran for 88 yards and a touchdown in a 24-7 win. Then, in 1983, McCallum exploded, rushing for 182 yards and a score in a 42-13 rout of the Black Knights in the first Army-Navy game played in the Rose Bowl (Calif.).

"That was awesome," said McCallum, also a star kick returner. "We'd gotten some intel that Army really wanted to pile on me and knock me out, so we ran a trick play at the start."

McCallum took the opening kickoff, ran five yards and gave the ball to Eric Wallace, who raced 95 yards for a touchdown. But McCallum still got drilled.

"Eric came a little late for the ball, so I had about five guys on me while handing off," he said. "But with half of the Army team (surrounding) me, there was no way he wouldn't score."

That capped his junior year when McCallum, a slashing, blue-collar workhorse, led the nation in all-purpose yardage (2,385) — rushing, receiving and kick returning. He was sixth in the 1983 Heisman Trophy vote, prompting Navy to promote his senior year. It churned out posters of McCallum dressed as John Paul Jones with the caption, "I have not yet begun to run." Hardly. As a junior, he'd carried the ball eight straight times in a win over Syracuse. To beat Princeton, McCallum ran 32 times in the first half, tying an NCAA record, for 213 yards.

Navy coach Gary Tranquill simply called him "The Big Guy."

McCallum's secret?

"I didn't run pretty," he said. "I leaned into people and spun off them, using their bodies to keep my balance while moving forward. I just needed a crack to slither through. I made myself small when I needed to, and big when I had to run over them with the determination of a fullback.

"I looked awkward but my legs were strong, and that was most important."

Injury struck in the second game of his senior year against Virginia. McCallum broke his left leg on a sweep. Out for the season, he watched from the sidelines as Army trampled the Midshipmen, 28-11. Red-shirted by Navy – a first for the Academy – he returned, set most of his 23 school records and carried the team to a 17-7 victory over the Black Knights.

"That was my greatest moment at Navy," said McCallum, who rushed 41 times for 219 yards — more than the entire Army team — and was carried off the field by jublilant players and fans. He failed to win the Heisman as Navy struggled to finish 4-7. But they retired his jersey, the third player so honored alongside past Heisman winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach. And McCallum got to meet then-President Ronald Reagan at the White House, one-on-one, where they talked — what else? — football.

Picked in the fourth round of the 1986 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Raiders, he received permission to play on weekends — another unprecedented move by the Navy — while serving his five-year military commitment in California. But after one season in the pros, during which he rushed for 536 yards, McCallum was transferred to a ship in the Indian Ocean where he "did a lot of working out and dreaming." He returned to the Raiders in 1990 and played five more years, mostly as a kick returner, before an ugly knee injury ended his career.

Enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002, he suited up in a flag football game for inductees. McCallum caught a touchdown pass from Dan Marino against defender Ronnie Lott, both Pro Football Hall of Famers. "And I did it with my bad leg," he said.

Now, he lives in Henderson, Nev., with his wife and four daughters, coaches his 11-year-old's soccer team and toils to try and bring the Raiders to Las Vegas.

"A lot of people are coming together to make this happen," McCallum said. "I think the chances are pretty good."

In hindsight, what would he change? Only his intended major at the Academy. He entered, hoping to become a pilot.

"I didn't consider that they have to fly over water, and I'm no swimmer," he said. "Navy was the only place where I got a 'C' in physical eduction."

Though many of his Navy records have been surpassed, McCallum remains the school's single-season rushing leader (1,587 yards), and his career all-purpose mark (7,172 yards) is best by more than a mile.

"Doesn't seem like that long ago," he said of his playing days. "Now, any time I walk onto the field for a pre-game ceremony, I wish the punter would kick me one ball, just to see if I can still catch it."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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