Military graduates opt for NFL fame Navy's McCoy joins ranks of academy men signing pro contracts

August 03, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

When Chris McCoy graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy 10 weeks ago, he closed the book on a year of highs (his record-setting performances as a quarterback on the football field) and lows (an end-of-the-year mini-scandal over his inappropriate fling with a female freshman).

With that chapter behind him, McCoy reports this week to the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., to begin paying back his free, four-year Annapolis education.

The bill: half a decade in the Navy.

But McCoy aspires to play football, not war games. While his 907 classmates prepare for a Navy career of five years or more, McCoy has his sights on two years.

McCoy signed a contract with the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League. He trained the past two weeks with the Packers and was in Japan with the team for a preseason game yesterday. He hopes to join the team full time in 2000.

Not long ago, McCoy's dream of an abbreviated Navy tour would have been a fantasy. When Roger Staubach graduated from the academy in 1965, he spent four years in the Navy -- including one in Vietnam -- before joining the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.

But today, while it is still rare, athletes from Navy, West Point and the Air Force Academy are slipping out of their military obligations and into lucrative professional sports careers, predominantly in the NFL.

Waivers for athletes were banned in 1987 by Navy Secretary James Webb, who was angered by a Navy plan that let academy graduate Napoleon McCallum play football on Sundays with the then-Los Angeles Raiders and a similar arrangement offered to Navy basketball star David Robinson.

But in recent years, the Pentagon has been allowing athletes to serve two years in the military instead of five. In some cases, the two years are followed by six years of part-time duty in the reserves. In other cases, players voluntarily resign and are no longer officers. It requires approval of the Army, Navy or Air Force secretary and is open to all officers, not just athletes. Computer experts dreaming of a Microsoft job can make use of the same policy.

"Anyone can ask," said Capt. Craig Quigley, spokesman for Navy Secretary John H. Dalton.

Between 1987 and 1997, 101 Naval Academy graduates left the Navy before completing their five-year commitments. Most were not athletes and most left during a downsizing effort from 1992 to 1994. Some were aspiring ministers or conscientious objectors or pregnant.

But the early release policy has become a boon for footballers, who in recent years have discovered it as an escape hatch to an otherwise unattainable goal.

"It's not just football players who are eligible, it just seems to be that those are the people who are exercising that option," said academy Athletic Director Jack Lengyel.

Navy, Army and Air Force officials at the Pentagon downplayed the waivers -- which they said are rare, and handled on a case-by-case basis -- leaving others to support or criticize them.

"I'm surprised that they're giving these special considerations to football players," said West Point graduate Louis Font, a lawyer in Boston who specializes in military law. "I've represented people who tried to get out and it's virtually impossible."

McCoy's quest comes on the heels of sexual misconduct charges against him and three classmates. All but McCoy were recommended for expulsion, prompting allegations of preferential treatment.

In a recent interview at an Annapolis coffee shop, McCoy declined to discuss the preferential-treatment allegations -- which the academy denied -- and instead talked of his dream: the NFL by 2000.

"The Navy basically told me I have to do a good job in the Navy during that [two-year] period, and they'll see then," said the soft-spoken 23-year-old as he sipped Earl Grey tea and picked at his cheesecake.

Even two years is a long time to wait in a young man's sport. But McCoy, with a handsome smile, said he is optimistic. He has reason to be.

This year, McCoy and Navy teammate Dave Viger were signed by pro teams. Jim Kubiak, a 1995 graduate, has been released from active duty and is trying out for the Indianapolis Colts. And 1993 grad Bob Kuberski, who threatened to sue the Navy when it was reluctant to release him, is in his third NFL year as a starter with Green Bay.

Last year, the Air Force released Steve Russ after two years; he's now a Denver Bronco. In June 1996, Air Force graduate Dan Palmer was released from active duty and is now a San Diego Charger. Army grad Joel Davis completed a two-year Army career and will play this year for the Cincinnati Bengals. Five other service academy alumni signed by NFL teams last year could begin playing next year, including Army quarterback Ron McAda.

"It's great for the NFL," said Hadley Engelhard, an Atlanta-based agent who represents two West Point graduates and has lobbied for more leniency for military athletes.

'A different era in football'

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