Year One of the Great Running Back Experiment officially ended Tuesday, when the Atlanta Falcons placed Eddie Meyers on military leave.
Meyers, the subject of the experiment, broke a number of Naval Academy rushing records before he graduated last spring. Now he is Lt. Meyers, USMC, not RB Meyers, NFL.
It will be another year now before he plays football again and it will be five years (1987) before he can play in the dreamed-of National Football League, at the age of 28.
"Knowing myself, I don't think it's such a longshot. I think it can be done," Meyers said. "It's a long-term goal, but sometimes you've got to set long-term goals."
And sometimes, a long-term goal is the only kind of goal you can set. Such is the case with Meyers, who is committed to the Marine Corps for the next five years. At best, the Falcons, who signed him as a free agent last month, will have him only four weeks a year, as he will try to take his annual leave at the start of training camp.
Having completed his first training-camp vacation over the weekend, he has returned to Annapolis, preparing for the new season as a graduate assistant coach, working primarily with the junior varsity. He will report to Quantico, Va., in January for basic training and then, he hopes, back to Suwanee and the Falcons next July.
It's certain the Falcons want him back. They've already seen enough of his running instincts, his strength and his quickness to know he could play in the NFL. But, despite Meyers' protestations, it's a longshot at best.
In the past two decades, only one player from America's three largest service academies has made it in pro football. That was, of course, Roger Staubach, who served four years after his career at Annapolis and then became the Dallas Cowboys' quarterback.
Presently, the Cowboys are waiting patiently for Leamon Hall, a former Army quarterback. Hall has been attending training camp during his leaves and will be able to join the Cowboys for good next summer. He will be an assistant coach at West Point this season.
However, Hall's and Staubach's situations are not the same as Meyers.'
First, both were able to play on competitive service teams, an advantage Meyers will not have with the Marines. But even more importantly, both Hall and Staubach were quarterbacks.
"I think it would be easier for a quarterback," said Eddie LeBaron, the Falcons' executive vice president, who was the quarterback of the Washington Redskins in the '50s after a decorated Marine career in Korea.
"A quarterback can always be throwing and can run to stay in shape. I would think a running back would need people jumping on his back. But, unless he's involved in some sort of conflict, he wouldn't have the injuries a running back in this league would have after playing five years."
Meyers is optimistic: "It's been proven that chronological age doesn't deteriorate your physcial performance until you get up in your 30s. If I maintain myself I should be at my height physically when I'm 28. I've got to maintain my legs, though. That's one of the problems Joe Bellino had. He lost his legs. He lost one or two steps, and that can really hurt you."
Bellino was the Navy halfback who won the 1960 Heisman Trophy. After his four years of service, he played for the Boston Patriots, but had only moderate success during three years as a wide receiver and kick returner.
Meyers said he can maintain his legs as long as he stays on land: "I can run and ride my bike. I'll try to develop a program of my own."
LeBaron said: "It'll probably just be a question of how hard a worker he is," meaning there really should not be any question at all, for Meyers has already proven that he is an uncommon physical specimen dedicated to training.
"He may be the strongest player, for his size, we've ever had," said Falcons Coach Leeman Bennett after the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Meyers bench-pressed 420 pounds the first day of camp. Bennett also likes Meyers' running style. "He's excellent at picking his holes," he said. "He's smart."
Meyers, who broke game, season and career rushing records at Navy, likely would have been drafted if it were not for his military commitment. The Falcons had him rated among the top dozen tailbacks in the draft.
But because the Falcons drafted three tailbacks, Meyers worked at fullback his first year in camp. He admits he was hurt by his lack of blocking experience as an I-formation tailback at Navy. "I feel more comfortable at tailback," he said. "I think fullback will help me in the long run, though. I can always come back (in future camps) and play tailback."
Meyers also hopes he gets to play more in exhibition games in other summers than he did in this one. With the Falcons' deepest at running back, they have looked at players who can help them immediately in their first two exhbitions. Meyers did not play against Minnesota and carried twice against Baltimore last week. He gained seven yards on a play nullified by a penalty and two yards on the other carry.
"I would liked to have played more, but I realize my time will come," he says. "I'm pretty patient."