For the last four summers, Eddie Meyers has done something he's had no obligation to do -- attend the Atlanta Falcons' preseason training camp. It's another obligation, though, that has kept him from playing during the National Football League regular season.
A 1982 graduate of the Naval Academy, Meyers owes five years of active duty to the Marine Corps. He has used military leave to come to training camp, but this year something changed: he requested an extended six-month leave to delay his obligation and allow him to play in the NFL. He offered to make up the time at the end of his military commitment in May 1987.
Meyers, speaking by telephone from the Falcons' camp in Suwanee, Ga., said he decided to ask for the exception after he saw an adjustment made for another Naval Academy player, Napoleon McCallum. McCallum returns this fall for a fifth season as the only Academy player ever red-shirted.
"After the McCallum thing, I said, 'Well, maybe their thinking has changed,' " Meyers said.
It hasn't. The Marine Corps has denied Meyers' request, so he will be packing up and leaving camp Aug. 25 and making the drive back to Camp Pendleton in California, where he is a supply officer and a first lieutenant.
"His request was denied because of his obligation to the U.S. military, which he incurred as a result of his four-year education at taxpayers' expense at the U.S. Naval Academy," said Maj. Anthony Rothfork, a spokesman in the Marine Corps public affairs department.
"The fact that he was drafted by a pro team does not warrant an exception to this obligation," Rothfork said.
Meyers was not heavily recruited out of his school in Pemberton, N.J. In fact, Navy was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship -- and a free education with the usual five-year, post-graduation military obligation.
He developed into an excellent football player. After setting Academy records for single-game rushing, single-season rushing, and career rushing, Meyers was signed as a free agent by the Falcons in 1982.
Atlanta still includes the 5-foot-9, 205-pound running back on its roster, with an asterisk. "We'd obviously like to have him as soon as possible, but we weren't counting on having him until 1987," said Falcons spokesman Bob Dickinson.
"We don't cut another running back because we have Eddie," Dickinson said. "We realize he's an automatic cut every year. Mr. LeBaron (Atlanta owner Eddie), being an old marine himself, kind of understands.
"Our contention is that the by the time he's 28 (he's 26 now), he won't have had the banging on his legs that most 28-year-old running backs would have."
Meyers agrees. "My legs are still fresh and by 1987, if I keep going the way I am now, I'm going to have a better body that I did when I came out of college."
Previously, Meyers suggested that for every year he delayed his commitment, he would serve double the time in addition to his original five years.
A friend and former high school teacher enlisted the help of Sen. Bill Bradley (R-N.J.) -- to no avail. "We received letters from a former teacher of Eddie, and we advised the Marine Corps March 7," said Liz Pettengill, a spokeswoman for Bradley. "They wrote us saying they denied his request because there was no precedent."
As far as the Marines are concerned, the issue is clear and simple.
"When he went to the Academy, he signed a contract," Rothfork said. "That's it. His primary responsibility now is to serve as a supply officer in the U.S. Marine Corps."