Pats' Eckel tries to shape up before he ships out

Pro Football

September 01, 2005|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Kyle Eckel is caught between war and peace, between the belly series and blitz pickups.

On one hand, he's an ensign in the Navy, temporarily assigned to a job in Newport, R.I., scheduled to report full time to a ship in Norfolk, Va., come January.

On the other, he's a rookie fullback with the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, learning a new role while fighting for a second career.

"He seems like a really neat person to be around," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said at a news conference last week. "He has a love for playing football, but also a love for serving his country.

"It's very admirable, and I think everybody really looks up to him for that."

Eckel, 23, is a perfect fit in New England: the proverbial patriot playing on the NFL's quintessential team.

Better than that, he appears to be the kind of unique talent Patriots coach Bill Belichick likes to nurture.

On the second day of the NFL draft, after it became obvious that Eckel's military commitment was going to render him undraftable, the Patriots and Detroit Lions both pushed hard to sign the former Navy star runner as a free agent.

The decision, Eckel's agent suggested, came down to the type of players the Patriots prefer.

"They're sort of made up of a bunch of guys who aren't marquee players, but become marquee players," said Jim Kennedy, Eckel's Philadelphia representative. "Kyle seemed like Patriot material."

So far, so good. Eckel made it through this week's mandatory roster cut to 65. He'll make one last push for a roster spot in tonight's preseason game against the New York Giants, then await Saturday night's final cuts to 53.

Beyond that, Eckel's NFL future is tied up in Navy policy, red tape and, most important, the war against terrorism.

Under the current Navy policy, Eckel must serve at least two years of active duty service before he's "eligible for release from active duty to participate in activities with potential recruiting or public affairs benefit to the Navy or Marine Corps."

In March, in fact, a request for such a release, submitted by the Naval Academy on Eckel's behalf, was rejected by William A. Navas Jr., assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs.

"Due to the fact that this nation is in a time of war ... I believe it is inappropriate to change the [Department of the Navy] policy at this time," Navas wrote to Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's superintendent, on March 1.

"There is no doubt [Midshipman] Eckel has great potential to provide value to the Navy's public affairs program. However, because we are in the midst of a national emergency, it is not in the best interest of the Navy, U.S. Naval Academy, or the individual to expand the current policy that requires at least two years of service in the Fleet."

This much seems certain: If Eckel makes the opening day roster, he should be able to play with the Patriots at least until January, when he's due to report to Norfolk.

For now, he is a surface warfare officer in training, temporarily assigned to the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport as an assistant to the athletic director.

Even if Eckel is cut Saturday night, he likely would wind up on the Patriots' practice squad and work with the team.

"As it stands, it's the same way it's always been, the original five-year commitment," Eckel said of his military status. "After that, if an NFL career happens to pop up, it could be two years active, six [on] reserve. That's where it is."

Kennedy said the Patriots have been accommodating.

"Kyle had to check in at Newport a couple times, twice since camp started," the agent said. "He drives down and back [the same day]. I think he would do whatever it takes."

Eckel, 5 feet 11 and 240 pounds, has made the most of his appearances in three preseason games. He has rushed 10 times for 46 yards and two touchdowns.

At Navy, he rushed for 2,311 yards the past two seasons as a battering fullback in coach Paul Johnson's option offense. In New England, he'd be more of a conventional blocking fullback who plays in short yardage situations and on special teams.

How does he rate himself as a first-time blocker? "I'm learning," Eckel said. "It's hard to criticize myself there. I've got a lot of work to do."

While Eckel awaits his fate in New England, his heart will be in Baltimore on Saturday when Navy meets Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium.

"It's an opportunity for them; nobody gives Navy credit," he said. "The saying we have is you're still part of that team [after graduating]. It's called the `Brotherhood' and it doesn't just stop after you graduate. Being apart from it now, I realize how special it was."

Interestingly, Eckel finished last in his class academically. That earned him the dubious "Anchor" award, which is a bag of $1 bills collected from each of his classmates.

"Kyle's improving," said Belichick, whose father, Steve, was an assistant coach at Navy for 33 years. "He's doing some things he's never really done before. He's coming from a place as a primary ball carrier and that's not really his role here. So he has a lot of adjustments to make to his game."

College Football 2005

A look at the biggest national stories, including the increased use of instant replay, plus season previews for Maryland, Navy, Morgan State, Towson and other state schools. Section F

Starting again: Steve Spurrier is back on the sideline at South Carolina. Page 3C

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