Service academies sell discipline, jobs
When Charlton Warren was 17 years old, a recruiter from the Air Force Academy sat in his home in Atlanta, and pitched to him the benefits of the school.
The recruiter talked about the advantage of playing in the Western Athletic Conference, the educational opportunities at the Academy and the opportunity for a guaranteed job and salary after graduation.
Warren grew up in a rough neighborhood in Atlanta, and while he had offers to go to other schools in the area, Warren thought Air Force was the best package deal.
"At the time, I thought it was an opportunity to do something pretty special with my life as opposed to staying around Atlanta and going to other schools down there," Warren said. "At 17, I thought a guaranteed job after I graduated was icing on the cake. Exactly what they told me back then is exactly what I did in the Air Force."
Warren was a three-year letterman at the Academy, spent 10 years working with the military and now sits in kids' homes preaching the benefits of the Air Force Academy as the Falcons' lead recruiting coordinator.
Convincing high school football players that they should play their college ball at a military academy -- especially when the country is at war -- is no simple task. Recruiters from the Army, Navy and Air Force academies face similar obstacles when trying to find both the best football players and the best candidates to enroll in their academies. Not only do the players they're recruiting have to pass both high academic and athletic standards, they also have to serve a five-year military commitment after they graduate, which could include engaging in warfare overseas.
"It's tough when you go and talk to the parents," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "You go into the home like any other recruiter and you sell your positives, but that question will inevitably come up and normally it's [from] the mom. 'Will my son be safe?' 'Will my baby be safe?' You've just got to be honest with people. You look them square in the eye and be honest. This is a military school. They will be in harm's way. Those are the facts."
All three recruiters from the military academies are quick to point out that not every person in the academy is sent to war. Warren never left the country. He was in business and acquisitions and helped develop weapons that were used on airplanes in Afghanistan.
Because of the extraordinary circumstances committing to a military academy entails, academy recruiters are the only college recruiters in the country allowed to contact prospective student-athletes during their junior year of high school. The academies also can send nine recruiters on the road as opposed to seven.
Niumatalolo said while some might see the early recruiting as advantage, it doesn't always work out that way.
"You're kind of like the first girl that they've dated," Niumatalolo said. "They're so enamored by you, but then other people come and you go to the back of the list.
"We don't have any allusions of who we are. We're not trying to break the BCS championship game. If we can go to a bowl game and win the Commander-in-Chief Trophy, for us that's a successful year."
While the competition the academies play -- which usually includes a handful of ranked teams -- is a draw, it's not usually what gets players to sign up. Most are interested in military service to begin with and almost all are interested in the guaranteed job and salary than comes after graduation. Some are interested in the discipline, and some, as one recruiter noted, want to shoot guns and blow stuff up.
Army recruiter Tucker Waugh said for him, selling West Point is not usually about selling the football program, the Army-Navy game or playing Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium. Most of the kids he recruits want the service after the academy.
"Everyone thinks that it's a hard sell during these times to attend a military academy, but I really strongly believe the opposite," Army recruiter Tucker Waugh said. "If you're targeting the right person, this type of educational experience gets easier because you're dealing with great kids who are uniquely interested in what you're selling."
Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com.