He's no Staubach

Eckel isn't example for winning culture of Mids

On Navy football

December 03, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Kyle Eckel returns to the neighborhood tonight as a member of the New England Patriots. For four years, Eckel was one of the best to ever wear a Navy uniform - a football uniform, most in Annapolis would be quick to clarify. When it comes to the uniform of a Naval officer, well, that's a different matter altogether.

It's not often Naval Academy graduates find careers in professional sports - Eckel is only the 12th to reach the NFL - so it's inevitable that announcers might reference athletic ancestors such as Roger Staubach and David Robinson.

But Eckel isn't like Robinson, and he's not like Staubach.

Eckel graduated last in his class in 2005 - "the anchor man," according to Navy tradition. While at the academy, he made it clear he was a player-in-training, not an officer-in-training. The Boston Globe reported last month that he was recommended for expulsion at least twice.

"He was just there for the wrong reasons," Marine 1st Lt. Eric Scherrer told the Globe. Scherrer served on the school conduct board that recommended Eckel's dismissal. "He was there to play football, and nothing else seemed to matter to him."

When Staubach graduated, he fulfilled his military obligations. He went to Vietnam. He didn't begin his NFL career until five years later.

Eckel was kicked out of the Navy last year for reasons neither Eckel nor the Navy will divulge. The discharge allowed him to pursue a football career without honoring his service commitment.

With the Patriots this year, he has rushed for two touchdowns and has been a key component of the special teams. His early success and his fledging football career highlight a changing culture at the Naval Academy and cast an intriguing spotlight on the conflict service academies face when they recruit athletes.

The bigger mission of the academies is a unique one. While traditional colleges have long coddled star athletes, at places like the Naval Academy, a midshipmen's spot on a sports team was not a ticket to preferential treatment.

With Navy's recent success under coach Paul Johnson, the academy grounds are finally awash in a winning culture. The vast majority of Navy football players have every intention of serving their country. But that very culture has also bred Mids like Eckel.

Though certainly everyone associated with Navy is celebrating wins over Notre Dame and Army, the recent success has also prompted frank discussion about the role football plays at the academy and whether the sport is keeping with the bigger mission of growing future officers to the best of its abilities.

Last spring, Jason Tomlinson, who was Navy's leading receiver for three straight seasons, opted out of graduation. "I came to realize during my senior year that the military just was not for me," he told Annapolis' The Capital.

"I did not think it would be fair to the men I would be serving alongside and leading to go into this with reservations and misgivings," he said. "My heart wasn't in it."

You don't want to simplify the heavy decisions faced by these young men, which is why we'll shift the burden of responsibility onto the academy and its administration. They're well aware the football team's success boosts spirits and morale on bases around the world. There is measurable value to fielding a winning team and to recruiting talented athletes such as Eckel and Tomlinson.

Navy's success has bred this culture. For four years of a young player's life, the academy is willing to put football first. Should it be any surprise athletes might graduate and then put football ahead of military duty?

There was an effort made more than 30 years ago to excuse athletes from their military commitment if a career in pro sports was a possibility, according to the book Sea Change at Annapolis. The thinking goes that a pro athlete would bring publicity to the school, thus broadening the base and quality of applicants. (The plan was scrapped because of gender equity concerns.)

In Eckel's case, one could argue he could have done more good for Navy as a public-relations vehicle than he ever could as a Naval officer. But that's the internal question: publicity vs. principle. Which master does the football team serve?

It's not entirely fair to blame football players for wanting to play football. But, in a perfect world, Navy's success wouldn't hinge on football players who happen to be midshipmen. They'd topple Notre Dame, beat Army, play in a bowl - all on the backs of midshipmen who happened to play football.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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