Life goes beyond the field for service academy recruits

Coaches Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Stan Brock (Army) and Ken Niumatalolo (Navy) have to take a different approach to recruiting. AP Photos

Troy Calhoun recruits integrity. He's looking for a few good student-athletes who will proudly wear the Air Force Academy uniform.

That's not always easy for Calhoun, the second-year head football coach and AFA class of 1989.

He isn't alone. Fellow United States service academy brethren, Army and Navy, have the same recruiting criteria despite competing Division I-A, the highest level of college football. In total, there are five United States service academies, including the Merchant Marine and Coast Guard.

Finding prospects with the desirable balance of academics and athleticism is "the most testing job," said Calhoun, who led the Falcons to a 9-4 record last season and a berth in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.

"All the service academies look for special young people," said Calhoun, who grew up in Roseburg, Ore., and has coached in the NFL with the Houston Texans and the Denver Broncos. "Our kids know there are no free passes here."

High school coaches are well aware of the service academy demands and rewards.

Bill McGregor, head coach at national powerhouse DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., has sent 20 players to service academies during his 26-year tenure, including two this year -- running back Ashby Christian (Navy) and tight end Joe Collura (Air Force). He also has three players at Army.

"It's a heck of a challenge," McGregor said of the military commitment. "They have to be willing to sacrifice four years after graduation, but when they do graduate they are different people and go onto successful careers."

Collura, whose uncle Sal graduated from the AFA in 1979 and flew F-16 fighter jets, will attend neighboring Air Force Academy Prep School in Colorado Springs, Colo., before "heading up the hill."

"It's like a redshirt year," Collura said. "I'll get a taste of military life, get bigger and faster and academically situated. My family is very supportive of the Air Force. I've wanted to go there for a while.

"My coaches at DeMatha were tough, stressing discipline and a strong work ethic. Those are the same demands you need at Air Force."

Christian, an explosive running back who rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his final two seasons at DeMatha, chose Annapolis "because I wanted to give back to our country."

It's that attitude Calhoun relishes.

"I can tell within five minutes if [a recruit is] Academy material or not," he said. "We're looking for Ivy League caliber students but really, what separate most kids are their leadership qualities. You'll find they have a strong parent, one who has a tremendous impact on their lives. Usually you'll find they are responsible, driven and focused."

Traditionally, Air Force has found success mining prospects from states such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Ohio and Georgia. The Falcons' staff subscribes to numerous recruiting services to identify potential players. They pare down the list from more than a thousand before hitting the recruiting trail in May.

"We log a lot of flight hours," Calhoun said. "Only four players on our two-deep chart are from the Mountain Time Zone."

Key selling points include a strong conference (Mountain West), academics and esprit de corps. Air Force opens the books for a recruiting year the day after national signing day in February, so candidates can get started with congressional appointments.

After the initial contact with a prospect, it takes 10-12 phone conversations for "recruits to understand what the Air Force Academy is about," Calhoun said.

West Point covets the same student-athlete.

Army Recruiting Coordinator Tucker Waugh opts for the "best available athlete" with a few stipulations. The prospect must meet West Point's strict academic requirements and have a desire for a military career.

"Our prospects have high character and are usually high achievers," said Waugh, who is in his second stint with Army after spending two seasons at Stanford. "You're always looking for players who want to be coached, officer material and players you can develop a personal relationship with."

Coach Rich Reichert of St. Anthony's (South Huntington, N.Y.), a regular stop for the service academies, has two former players on the Army roster, including starting linebacker Frank Scappaticci.

"We [the service academies] all work hard finding the right kids. At a longitude and latitude someday these kids will be on the same team, defending the United States."

--Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun

"Frank wasn't highly recruited (out of high school) but has found a home," Reichert said. "He wasn't big in stature for most Division I-A schools but he has a big heart and wanted the military."

Like all service academies, Army does not offer athletic scholarships -- a student is given free tuition in exchange for their post-graduate service commitment -- and usually brings in a freshman class with 30 potential players, most of whom attended the United States Military Academy Prep School in Fort Monmouth, N.J. Navy and Air Force also have prep schools.

Army's current roster features nearly 80 players who attended the USMAPC.
"Once you target your prospects, you develop a relationship. They understand what you're selling," Waugh said.

Waugh found last month's recruiting tour favorable partly because three former Army players will attend to NFL training camps, including Detroit Lions safety Caleb Campbell, the school's first draft pick since 1997.

Campbell and free agent signees Owen Tolson (New York Giants) and Mike Viti (Buffalo Bills) will participate in Army's Alternative Service Option, which adds a new wrinkle to recruiting. Under guidelines of the program, players are allowed to play professional football while assigned to recruiting stations for two years as long as they remain under contract.

Should a player retain his professional contract following two years, he will be offered the option of exchanging the remaining three years of their active-duty commitment in exchange for six years in the U.S. Army Reserves.

Waugh could not comment on the option program, but said, "We had a noticeable increase in recruiting interest this spring."

Campbell, who graduated last month, was branched as an air defense artilleryman. He was likely ticketed as a platoon leader and would have been deployed to the Kuwait or Iraq.

"I initially came to the Academy knowing that I wanted to be an officer in the United States Army," Campbell said. "That's why I came to the Academy, and playing Division I football was just extra. Coach [Bobby] Ross told me my sophomore year that if I continued to play like I was playing I would have an opportunity to make it to the NFL."

Viti, a punishing fullback, is honored the Bills signed him and knows it will positively impact future recruiting. He said his four years at West Point shaped his time management skills and sharpened his focus and determination.

"I think one thing people neglect to realize is that 90 percent of our time has been dedicated to being a cadet and a soldier, and only 5 to 10 percent of that time has been dedicated to being a football player," Viti said. "Speaking for Caleb and myself, we have huge upswings. When we're able to focus on professional football as a career, our potential will go through the roof and we'll be able to show what type of football players we are."

Air Force had three players -- wide receiver Chad Hall and linebackers John Rabold and Drew Fowler -- invited to NFL camps this spring. Calhoun sees the trend growing.

"The Department of Defense will no doubt allow players across the academies a chance to play in the NFL as long as they fulfill their military obligations," he said.

Senior Eric Kettani of Navy hopes to follow the same route. He is one of the featured runners in the Midshipmen's triple-option offense.

Kettani, a fullback from Lake Catholic (Mentor, Ohio), fielded offers from West Virginia, Indiana and several Mid-American Conference schools following his senior season during which he was the named the Cleveland Plain Dealer Defensive Player of the Year.

Last month Kettani attended a flight school in Brunswick, Maine. He is taking classes this summer and preparing for the upcoming season.

He admits the transition to military life was initially bumpy.

"After three years I have no regrets," Kettani said. "My first year was brutal. I didn't know if I'd make it. It's up at 6:30, classes, practice and study. It left me with around six hours of sleep.

"As a sophomore things came together. I got over the hump. Football really helped; it was a huge factor."

Calhoun's staff occasionally crosses paths on the road with Army and Navy coaches. Though they recruit the same kids, the respect is mutual.

"We [the service academies] all work hard finding the right kids," Calhoun said. "At a longitude and latitude someday these kids will be on the same team, defending the United States."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.