By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005
The NFL was the furthest thing from Robert McCune's mind as he stood in a monsoon on a roof in South Korea. On that harrowing 1998 day, McCune and a few other soldiers watched helplessly as several people were swept away below.
McCune had been asleep when the heavy rain flooded his barracks at Camp Casey. After McCune awoke, he was unable to open the door, apparently because of rising water. McCune climbed through a window to get to the roof, where he joined other soldiers. For about two hours, the men -- clad in rain gear -- waited until the storm tapered off.
"I wasn't thinking about the NFL at all. Not then," McCune recalled yesterday after the Washington Redskins' final practice of rookie camp. "I was like, 'Man, this is crazy. I've never seen that much rain in my life.' "
Because of a three-year stint in the Army, followed by a three-year commitment to the National Guard while at the University of Louisville, McCune, 26, has experienced situations foreign to the Redskins' other rookies: He spent April 1998 to April 1999 in South Korea as a petroleum specialist, supplying fuel for an infantry unit. A six-month assignment on a peacekeeping unit in Kuwait followed.
Despite McCune's age, the Redskins used their fifth-round choice (154th overall) on the linebacker. "A lot of people probably backed off because of his age," said Coach Joe Gibbs, "but for us, he's a value."
The Redskins liked McCune's mix of speed and strength. At 6 feet, 243 pounds, he had the most impressive physique among the 70 players at camp. He hopes to fit in at a position, middle linebacker, that has been in flux since Antonio Pierce departed in March for the New York Giants. The Redskins also drafted linebacker Jared Newberry in the sixth round out of Stanford. And Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, didn't rule out any of the rookies being part of the solution.
"I'm anxious to see [McCune] play in live conditions," Williams said. "He's got a good frame, and he has shown toughness. The thing he's going to have to work hard on is all the mental gymnastics that a middle linebacker in our system has to have. That will come with experience and time."
Perhaps one advantage McCune -- a corporal -- has over other rookies is not being intimidated by Williams's military-style approach. "It's really kind of comical," Williams said, "[to think] that I can put more stress [on him] than he's been under."
During his military stint, McCune was assigned to posts in Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky and California. McCune said that those experiences helped during the rookie camp. "There's not too many similarities," McCune said of Army life, "but coming into a new environment is just like changing over to a new station, meeting new guys and coming together and trying to learn what to do."
McCune used his GI bill to pay for his first semester at Louisville in 2000, where he was a football walk-on before receiving a scholarship. As a redshirt freshman in 2001, McCune was named special teams player of the year.
McCune didn't envision playing in the NFL until after becoming a starter in 2003, and drawing attention after leading the team with 143 tackles (83 solo).
McCune's nickname is the "the Hammer," which has nothing to do with his chiseled frame. McCune -- who has bench pressed 535 pounds and squatted 565 -- was given the nickname as a high school track star. Teammates noticed his head constantly jerking back and forth. "They called me Hammerhead," McCune said, smiling, "and they just shortened it to 'the Hammer.' "
McCune was a power-lifting champion during his junior and senior years at LeFlore High School in Mobile, Ala. But he was best known for his track exploits; he finished third in the state 100-meter dash. McCune was disappointed that he didn't get scholarship offers from Division I-A football programs and turned down offers from smaller schools such as Alabama State and Grambling. He had a plan: Enlist in the Army, then use money from the GI bill toward a Division I-A college before joining the football team as a walk-on.
In the Army, McCune killed time by complementing its rigorous exercise regimen. In the desert in Kuwait, McCune picked up rocks to use as dumbbells. McCune kept one rock, despite its sharp edges, for three months because of its ideal weight. When other soldiers teased McCune for his maniacal workouts, he told them of his goal to play college football.
After completing active duty, McCune ended up at Louisville partly because his cousin, Tiger Jones, recommended the school after receiving a scholarship out of high school. Only hours after drafting McCune, the Redskins signed Jones as an undrafted free agent wideout. "I was just like, 'Wow, here we go again,' " McCune said yesterday.
One benefit of McCune's Army commitment is that it allowed the cousins to be on the same Louisville team for five years. Both graduated in December -- McCune with a degree in education. "I got a lot of Army stories," Jones said, causing McCune to laugh.
After yesterday's practice, the two stood next to each other as Jones recalled why Louisville became interested in the freshman who happened to be a veteran.
"I knew he wanted to play football all the while, so I just told the coaches about him," Jones said yesterday. "They told me to bring him in, and they took a look at him. And it didn't take much to see why."