Sometimes Napoleon McCallum wonders what he was thinking about. Fresh out of high school, he imagined that, if he chose to, he'd somehow be able to get out of his active duty commitment upon graduation from the Naval Academy. Chalk it up to naivete'.
Most times since then, McCallum has been quite happy as a Midshipman. His future is bright -- a future that, at least for five years, will include serving the Navy as an officer, not playing professional football for big money.
"As far as the long term is concerned, he is going to be a successful person," said Roger Staubach, the most famous football-playing Midshipman, who made big money with the Dallas Cowboys after coming out of the service.
"I'm in business now," said Staubach, "and everybody I meet who's an Academy graduate is a successful person. As far as life is concerned, he's going to be successful. Obviously, it's going to be more difficult five years down the line to try to play professional football."
At the moment, that's what McCallum wants to do. But one thing is certain: he'll have to wait until he fulfills his service obligation. There is no move afoot in the Navy to make an exception for McCallum, or to change the rules so any athlete with pro potential might be able to shorten or delay his active duty commitment.
"I don't think that's on the horizon," said Capt. J.O. Coppedge, the Naval Academy athletic director.
"I think the Navy is satisfied and the members of the Congress are satisfied that a five-year obligation for a Naval Academy education is appropriate."
But that doesn't change opinions, especially those held by former Naval Academy athletes. Many -- but not all -- of these believe some accommodation should be made to allow so-called "blue-chip" athletes to capitalize on the big money available to pro athletes.
Those favoring reform include the thoughtful Staubach, who calls himself "a big believer in the Naval Academy" and says he'd do it all again today.
But he added: "I would like to see some type of adjustment." While Staubach was one of those rare exceptions who could miss so many seasons and still succeed brilliantly as a pro football player, Eddie Meyers might be a more typical example. A 1982 graduate, Meyers set Academy records for single-game rushing, single-season rushing and career rushing.
For the last three summers, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound running back has used military leave from the Marine Corps to attend training camp with the Atlanta Falcons, with whom he signed as a free agent in 1982. The Falcons include him on their all-time roster with an asterisk and the notation, "Not eligible until 1987."
They like him for his low center of gravity, extremely strong legs, massive upper body strength -- and his unsinkable determination.
"He's got the intangibles to withstand the pressures and rigors of training camp," said Steve Crosby, who formerly coached the Falcons' running backs and is now with Cleveland. "Physically, he's well-conditioned and strong. He's got the right plan. He comes to camp, he trains well. That gives him his best opportunity."
But Crosby added, "But whether he can get it done, still remains a mystery."
After being commissioned in the Marine Corps, Meyers looked into the possibility of delaying his military obligation. He suggested, to no avail, that for every year he delayed his commitment he would serve double the time on top of his original five years. If he were to survive the average pro running back's career, about five years, he was prepared to serve 15 years in the military.
Meyers, on duty in Okinawa and unavailable for comment, is like a number of top Navy athletes -- little heralded coming out of high school, they never dreamed of a pro career, but developed into top college athletes at the Academy. Basketball star David Robinson is the best current example at Annapolis. As for Meyers, when he came out of Pemberton (N.J.) High, he had no scholarship offers. With the pros, he has to prove himself again.
"When he reaches the point when he's able to play, he has an age problem," said Crosby. "He'll be 28. If the year he's eligible to play the team brings in a player from the draft and they have a closeness of ability, then most teams are going to keep the younger guy. The older guy has to be a really good player, heads and tails above the other guy."
One ex-Midshipman who has beaten the odds is Phil McConkey, wide receiver and captain of the '78 team. When McConkey entered the Academy, he was a 135-pounder no major college football team wanted. Last season, after serving five years in the Navy, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound McConkey made the Giants as a kick returner and backup receiver, excelling as a return man until his season was ended when he broke four ribs in the 14th game. Giants General Manager George Young calls McConkey "a phenomenon" whose chances of making the squad when he reported last summer were "probably 20-80."
But McConkey had worked out for more than two years, and taken leave to attend the 1983 Giants training camp, preparing for his opportunity. Initially, on graduating from the Academy, he hadn't considered pro ball. He knew of Staubach, of course. "He may not have been a generation ago, but he was far enough removed that I couldn't relate to that situation. For me, there wasn't much hope for that. I resolved to get on with life's work."
He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but sea voyages made him ill. Motion sickness ended any Navy career objectives, but not McConkey's obligation -- he still had to finish his five years although he appealed for an early out. Meanwhile, Navy connections -- Giants assistant coach Tom Bresnahan, a former Navy assistant, and longtime Navy football assistant Steve Belichick -- recommended him to the Giants.
McConkey believes the number of top quality athletes who could benefit from some relief from the five-year commitment to be "very minimal." He thinks that a wider visibility for Naval Academy athletes in professional sports would attract better athletes to Annapolis, "generating better athletic teams and that all goes along with having a successful institution. Look what the basketball team has done this year."
Similarly, a small group of retired, Washington-area naval officers who played sports at the Academy believes flexibility for "blue-chip" athletes is warranted. One of the group, who did not wish to be identified, calls Naval Academy athletics "big business" that is supported, with the exception of basketball, by football. While Navy can spring major upsets -- like beating South Carolina last year -- football players are sometimes required, he believes, to "play out of their depth" against opponents who afford big paydays but not much hope of winning. "The system is hard on players," he said.
An adjustment in the five-year commitment, he said, would attract more top athletes, giving the teams, particularly football, a better chance to win in all of their games. Winning is important, he said. It helps keep money coming in to the athletic department. On a personal level, "You like to look back on your victories."
He suggested that a top athlete, upon graduation, be able to go on "active naval reserve, with emphasis on active," instead of active duty. When no longer under contract to a pro team, he could fulfill his five years.
"If this was in effect when Staubach went through," he said, Staubach today might still be in the service, perhaps as a coach at the Academy.
Staubach fairly bursts with pride over the Academy. As for the commitment, he said, "I've always believed once you start something in life you should finish it. If you're always looking for a way out of things in life, it can become disease."
Staubach said he was not disappointed by not being able to turn pro immediately after leaving the Academy -- though he might have had reason to be. "The situation then was similar to the way it is now," he said. "We had the AFL then and there was competition. Namath came out my senior year -- he got all the bucks."
But Staubach said, "My mind was set. I was psychologically prepared. I did miss playing football when I graduated. As each year went by, the dream became more of a reality. When I got out, I was really ready to play . . . .
"I would like to see an athlete be able to participate in a professional program and still fulfill his obligation, but that's hard. It's not an easy thing."
He said any change would apply only to "a handful of exceptions," and offers praise for McCallum for staying at the Academy rather than transferring after his sophomore year, and Robinson, who has indicated he will stay but could not be interviewed, a spokesman said, because of a heavy academic load. "I'm proud of what they're doing," Staubach said.
In the cases of both Robinson and McCallum, the decision took serious thought. Leo Williams, former Navy all-America high jumper who has been stationed at the Academy, has seen both athletes make up their minds and, like Staubach, thinks they have chosen correctly.
"Unless you've been through it," Williams said, "you can't imagine what goes through an individual's mind -- how much he's put into it."
Williams favors keeping the commitment as it is. "I don't think there should be a change," he said. The mission of the school "should be to put out line officers."
McCallum will graduate after the football season, this one being what the Academy calls a "stretch-out," an unprecedented fifth year of football eligibility. Injured early last season, he's thankful for the opportunity.
"When I first came here," he said, "I had an impression you could, after four years, if you didn't want to go into the service, pay back all the schooling and get off scot-free. In my first year, I learned that wasn't so."
After two years, he weighed transferring. "If something really big had come up, I might have left."
Now, said McCallum, he's looking forward to his last months at the Academy. He's using the extra time to get a double major. He thinks the football team will do well. Although he doesn't bring it up, he's a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Not surprisingly, he thinks athletes should have some option to immediate military service. "If an athlete isn't good enough to make the pros, he can go into the service and be a great officer," he said.
Years ago, Athletic Director Coppedge said, he suggested a plan he thought was "equitable" -- shortening an athlete's service obligation. "The idea didn't get very far," he said.
Nor would a similar one now. "I don't think so with the climate we're in now," Coppedge said.