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Players from Army and Navy like a new rule that would defer military service to allow them to continue as pros

Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia Dec. 8, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Dana Clarke)
December 12, 2019

It always has been difficult for service academy athletes to succeed in professional sports because of the five-year military commitment that they must serve immediately after graduation. Some have succeeded such as Roger Staubach (Navy), Chad Hennings (Air Force) and Alejandro Villanueva (Army) in football.

However, a new initiative has been put in place by the U.S. Department of Defense that will allow athletes at the academies to play professional sports after they graduate and delay their active-duty service. The program was put in place last month by Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the request of President Trump.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo called the new plan “awesome.”

“It’s not like we’re Alabama, going to be turning out 10 draft choices a year,” he said at last week’s Army-Navy luncheon. “Maybe one every five years or whatever, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But they’re still serving. I think that’s the thing. They defer their service and they’re serving in other ways. But it’s not that they’re getting out of the service.

“So I think it’s a win-win for everybody. You have young men, young women, if you have an opportunity to go to the next level, do that. You still get a chance to serve your country and fulfill that part of it. I think it’s a win-win.”

The Midshipmen will take on Army on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in the 120th all-time meeting of the rivals. Navy has the most likely NFL candidate on the field in senior quarterback Malcolm Perry, who is one of the FBS leaders with 1,500 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.

“My thoughts? I think it’s awesome,” Perry said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for service academy athletes. I think if the opportunity presented itself to me, I would definitely take that on. I think that’s something that I’d be interested in. I think it’s awesome to allow student athletes to fulfill a dream while also fulfilling the service that they signed up for. I think it’s the best of both worlds.”

Under the new guidelines, athletes must be approved for the program by the defense secretary, and their waiver must be reviewed every year. After their pro careers are over, they must fulfill their military obligations or repay the cost of their education.

The administration of President Obama put a policy in place in 2016 for Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens. But after one season, the policy was rescinded by the Trump administration.

However, Trump said he reconsidered his stance last May when he welcomed Army to the White House to receive the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy for defeating Navy and Air Force the previous season.

Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and linebacker Cole Christiansen were on the White House visit, and said they liked having that choice.

“A lot of guys and girls who play at the academies have that dream,” Hopkins said. “But that’s not really been the focus for a lot of guys in that locker room. We knew what we signed up for and that’s kind of it. If you’re blessed and you’re lucky enough to get that opportunity, I’m glad that they’ve done that. But we know what we’re strapped in to do and that’s kind of the focus for us.”

Said Christiansen, “I really want to go serve and lead soldiers. If the opportunity presents itself to go play again, football’s my passion so I’d absolutely pursue it. But if it doesn’t, then I’m more than willing and excited to go be in the Army and lead.”


© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer