Napoleon McCallum was bored one summer day, what with waiting to become a football star, waiting to become an officer in the United States Navy and waiting to become a rich businessman, so he built a plane.
He took this plane, a homemade remote control glider with a six-foot wing span, out to Hospital Point, a big field on the U.S. Naval Academy campus. He let the plane go and stood there watching it fly for a full minute -- Napoleon McCallum, emperor of the skies.
"People must think I'm crazy," he says.
McCallum, who recently made a Sports Illustrated photographer take cover from a dive bombing run at the camera, has a weird passion for his sophisticated new toy. It is a welcome distraction from the fame he has achieved as Navy's most famous and curious football star, and from the Navy itself, which will have claimed him for 10 years by the time he is done with it.
McCallum built his plane as something to do over the summer between his senior year and his senior year. Thanks to the great good will of the Pentagon (which let him come back) and a stroke of luck (he wanted to come back), McCallum has returned for an unprecedented fifth year to play football before he embarks on another five years in the real Navy as part of his service commitment.
McCallum became the first redshirt in the history of the Academy when he was given an extra year of eligibility in January for something called "medical hardship" after he broke his ankle in the second game of last season. His reasons for returning for a fifth year are simple. The holder of 17 Navy records, he was the sixth-place finisher in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1983, when he ran for 1,587 yards and 10 touchdowns on 331 carries.
"I had a real nice junior year," he said, "and I wanted that senior year."
What McCallum also has let himself in for is a year of limbo. His formal Naval dress and the intermediate nature of the upperclass midshipman were already wearisome before he appealed for another year. The conditions of his extra season are that he take a second degree in physical sciences to add to the one he already has in applied science, which he worked toward in summer school when he wasn't crashing his toy plane or dreaming of being a fighter pilot on the banks of the Severn River.
"No one wants to be a midshipman for long," he said. "It's a stage, a phase that you go through before you become an officer. When you're a freshman, you look forward to wearing the uniform. But five years of it is a long time. I get out of it as much as I can."
If there seems to be some reluctance mixed with pride in his Naval career, it is not the first time. The first came as a sophomore when, aware of his football potential for the first time and hesitant to commit to the five-year service requirement, he seriously considered transferring to a conventional four-year college. But his parents, Napoleon and Virginia, objected, and he considered it only briefly when few schools came calling. He said he never got to the visiting stage, something he regrets now.
"I would have been smarter to research it a little more," he said. "I never really called around to see what other places were offering. I'm not saying I should have left, but I should have looked into it more. It's just a good habit to get into."
Part of McCallum's initial decision to stay at the Academy was a surprising skepticism about his talent. He was not highly recruited out of Milford High School near Cincinnati, and all but one of the four schools that showed interest wanted to make him a defensive back. He is still not comfortable with the idea of being a Heisman Trophy contender in what is shaping up as the year of the running back with Bo Jackson at Auburn, Allen Pinkett at Notre Dame and Keith Byars at Ohio State, among others.
"I see myself on television, and I don't look like the other players," he said. "I don't fit the uniform. I'm a little more used to it now that I've met some of the other players around the country, and they aren't that different. But I still think I look kind of clumsy."
The first sign of the brilliance McCallum would achieve his junior year came in 1982, when he led the team in rushing as a sophomore with 739 yards on 165 carries. But he was a hesitant runner who had yet to reach his full 6 feet 2, 215 pounds. He was reliable, averaging 4.5 yards a carry, and multifaceted, returning punts and kickoffs, but a doubtful all-America.
"When he was a sophomore he was skinny, about 190 pounds," Navy Coach Gary Tranquill said. "He wasn't real sure of himself yet. He had some great games, but the consistency wasn't there yet. By his junior year, he had had some individual success, and he had great self-confidence. He knew how good he could be then."
Navy's reliance on McCallum's all-purpose talents reached a peak his junior year when he had games like the one against Syracuse in which he set a school record for most all-purpose plays with 47. His average of 216.8 all-purpose yards a game is the fifth-highest in NCAA history, and that was with defenses stacked against him.
The Midshipmen relied on him so heavily that the backfield may have actually, though reluctantly, profited from the loss of McCallum last season by acquiring depth and experience. Sophomore quarterback Bill Byrne was forced to develop rapidly, as was junior Mike Smith, McCallum's projected backup. There is a pick of experienced fullbacks in sophomore Chuck Smith, the fastest of the backs, and junior John Berner, a blocking back who started 10 games last year. One change this season may be that McCallum won't be forced to carry the ball as often as he did his junior year, when he averaged about 30 carries a game.
"It will probably be between 20 and 30 times a game," Tranquill said. "We'll try to get the ball to him as much as we can, whether we hand it to him or throw it to him. If we hand it off 20 times, throw him six or seven passes and he returns six or seven punts, he'll handle the ball more than 35 times. That's a lot."
Despite McCallum's game-breaking ability, the unprecedented decision to allow him to return to the Academy could have been an unpopular one among the protocol-conscious brigade. But although there has been some negative reaction in other branches of the military, at the Academy instead there appears to have been general rejoicing, if some confusion as to why a midshipman would subject himself to one more year of The Life.
"I love it," Byrne said. "Nap had his Heisman year taken away from him. Maybe Doug Flutie was meant to win it last year. We figured if he wanted another shot, he should have it. There is absolutely no jealousy."
One indication of just how extraordinary McCallum's case was -- "There's no telling how high up it went," Tranquill said when the decision was announced -- is the predicament of Meyers. A friend of McCallum's, Meyers was inspired by the decision and decided to appeal his own case. A Marine Corps supply officer,, Meyers spends his leaves with the Atlanta Falcons. He requested a sixth-month leave of absence in order to play football, offering to make up the time at the end of his service requirement. He was turned down.
McCallum's appeal began with another midshipman, who pointed out that Maryland quarterback Frank Reich had taken graduate courses in order to stay in school for his final year of eligibility, even though he already had matriculated. McCallum took the idea to Tranquill, who took the idea to Athletic Director Bo Coppedge.
"It was a shot in the dark," McCallum said. "I asked Coach Tranquill about it, and he saw Capt. Coppedge and then I saw Capt. Coppedge. He saw a lot of people.
"Then I saw (Academy Superintendent) Adm. (Charles) Larson. He asked me how I felt, did I want to do it, and I said yeah. And then he said he had to see some people."
McCallum was not alone in contemplating his return to the Academy. The idea also had occurred to Tranquill, although he did not approach McCallum with it.
"To tell you the truth, as soon he broke his ankle it entered my mind," Tranquill said. "I talked about it with some of the assistant coaches, just in terms of 'wouldn't it be nice?' But we had to get on with the season, so it wasn't a priority."
When McCallum finally graduates to the service, he will probably follow Meyers' plan, attending training camp when he can. He is still not convinced, however, that pro football will be his calling. Like Meyers, he intends to go into the suppply corps, as training for a career in business.
"I want to manage a lot of money and materials," he said. "It opens you up to more ifI decided to go civilian . . . I've got five years of the Navy left; football is down the line. Right now I love to play. At the end of five years I'll see if I want another five years of getting banged around."
In the meantime, McCallum has built another plane, this one an engine-powered four-footer that requires less repair work. The other apparently falls in the water quite a lot -- but the new one, you should see it bank a turn.