Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019

Veterans and athletes: what does it mean to represent the army and the navy in professional sports

Former Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, winner of the 1963 Heisman Trophy, made a pass before a Navy game against Tulane this season. (David Grunfeld / The Times-Picayune / Associated Press)

The club graduates from the service academy who subsequently practiced a professional sport is an exclusive group. Although the three institutions focus on athletics, post-graduation military requirements have generally kept students from the US Military Academy, the US Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. United States among the pros. According to, 62 graduates from the military academy played professional football between the army and the navy. According to, only three graduates from the service academy managed to get to the NBA.

But the handful of graduates who have experienced success as professional athletes has had a lasting impact. Prior to the 119th football match between the Army and the Navy Saturday in Philadelphia, some of the most visible alumni of West Point and Annapolis reflected on what it means to represent service academies in professional sport .

Roger Staubach, the Navy quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 and graduated in the middle of the Vietnam War, has complex feelings about his fame in football, as many of his teammates have vowed their career in the army.

After making three tours in Afghanistan, Pittsburgh Steelers Alejandro Villanueva struggles with the burden of representing veterans as an athlete with a platform.

Joe Cardona and Keenan Reynolds, recent Navy and NFL graduates, are still learning to bring their civilian and military identities closer together as their friends and classmates begin their junior officer careers.

And David Robinson, the man nicknamed "the Admiral" at the time when he was living with the San Antonio Spurs, learned long ago that it was there. There is not much better than sport to arouse the good will of the army.

Staubach is looking for an opening during the 1963 season, when the aspirants finished 9-2. Six alignment players then reached the rank of Admiral. (Associated Press)

"Number 67, our teammate"

Roger Staubach had not heard from his old friend and team-mate Tommy Holden for some time the day they finally managed to connect to a walkie-talkie in October 1966, at the height of the monsoon season. Vietnam. The two men decided to try to meet in Danang over the next few weeks. The star quarterback and the guard protecting him on the field were eager to catch up and remember their memories.

After graduating in 1965, Staubach had limited choices regarding his assignment of service, but he could be a logistic supply officer and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Holden, who had graduated a year earlier, was first lieutenant in the Marine Corps. The couple never had a meeting. Holden was shot dead and killed two weeks after planning his lunch.

"The number 67, our teammate," Staubach said during a telephone conversation in October, a few days before the legendary 1963 team that he was directing was honored at a home match of the Navy.

The Navy-winning quarterback, who twice won the Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys, said Holden said that although he had volunteered to serve in Vietnam, he was not "at the heart of the thing ".

Staubach, 76, said he felt tremendous pride and a deep connection with his teammates from the 1963 team, which had gone to 9-2. When they meet, he will also be aware that, if he has made a name for himself in the NFL, six players in this year's lineup have reached the rank of admiral. One of them, Tom Lynch, was Superintendent of the Naval Academy.

"They are both part of my life," said Staubach about his football career and his military career that he completed at Naval Air Station Pensacola. "I played for 11 years with one team and I am extremely proud to have been to the Naval Academy. I feel a bit reluctant because I did not continue to serve as a career. My goals are usually when I start something, I finish something, but I left the navy to do something else. And I do not want to say it negatively, but sometimes I wish it … "

Staubach's voice faded.

"But I am, I am grateful every day for having the opportunity to go to the Naval Academy and I try to contribute as best as I can. Because I'm still a graduate. "

Alejandro Villanueva served three times as a forest ranger in Afghanistan before entering the NFL. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

A reluctant spokesperson

Alejandro Villanueva says he was never going to succeed in the NFL based on his "very average" football performances at the US Military Academy. He therefore thinks it's more accurate to say that he represents the NFL veterans that he represents in the West. Point. Villanueva, former border guard of the army, made three visits to Afghanistan.

"The NFL and football came after my service," said Villanueva, 30. "This bridge did not exist by the time I went to the academy."

However, it is difficult to identify as a representative of the veterans. The 6-foot-9 offensive lineman fell into silence when asked if it was important for the military to have representatives in one of the most visible sports leagues in the world.

"When it comes to me as a spokesperson for all the veterans, I think it's negative," Villanueva said. "One thing I learned very early in my life, not only in West Point, but especially when I arrived in Afghanistan, is that the world is very complicated … and when you want to have a conversation serious, you must humble yourself. and understand your limits. I do not spend a lot of time studying these issues. I can talk about smugglers all day, but it would be very difficult for me to sit down and advocate for policies that would make the Department of Veterans Affairs more effective or the way to end the war in Afghanistan. "

Although her feelings are complicated, Villanueva knows that representing veterans in a visible arena can also be positive. Veterans often tell him how happy they are to have accomplished so much after serving. He is studying for his MBA at Carnegie Mellon University and participated in his first Pro Bowl in 2017.

"There is a shame that many veterans find themselves stuck when they come out of the army and that they are unable to find anything to do," Villanueva said. "So they were inspired by someone like me, and from that aspect, it's the part I see is good."

Bridging the gap

Unlike Villanueva, Keenan Reynolds knows that his public image is that of an NFL player tied to his service academy.

Reynolds, 24, who is part of the Seattle Seahawks' training team, is known as the best quarterback of the Navy since at least Staubach. He and Joe Cardona, the long-time New England Patriots player who also played in the 26-year-old Navy, feel responsible for brightening civilians about the military.

"Part of the reason we 've given this opportunity is to shed light on the army," Reynolds said over the phone last week. "Being [in the NFL] with these guys, when I talk to them about our class schedules and our military schedules – and, by the way, we play high-level football too – they are caught off guard. That's what I'm trying to do: in a way, bridging the gap. "

Reynolds and Cardona are reservists who perform their military duty at the same time as their civilian jobs. Cardona spent about two months this offseason with his unit. Like Reynolds, he feels intensely responsible for the military while in the NFL.

"I have old teammates at the Navy, classmates all over the world, who perform so many essential missions for national security, and I'm on the ground playing a game." said Cardona. "I feel such a responsibility to take back all that I learn about the elite, the top performances and make the most of it while I have this opportunity."

Speaking of what it's like to play for coach Bill Belichick, Cardona said the transition from a service academy to the Patriots was "easy". He could not, however, decide which organization was more secretive about his plan of attack.

Navy basketball legend David Robinson, presented at the 2015 Army-Navy match, sees his public platform as part of his military service. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

"You can serve many different ways"

Strangers talk to David Robinson as if he is part of the family, and he thinks it's because for many years his NBA games have been broadcast on television in the living room.

The graduate of the Naval Academy has long since lost count of the number of people who approached him to tell him that he had gone to a military academy because of him. Robinson, 53, was already in the navy's recruiting equipment even before winning two championships with the San Antonio Spurs. He sees it as part of his military service. He considers it both an honor and a duty to use his platform to represent the military, and he has no conflicting feelings about it.

"We were all called to do something and what I was called to do is in the limelight," he said.

"I do not know if you could get better publicity or awareness. … It's the positive impact between Roger and me. [Staubach] and myself, all the guys who went out and did what they did. This is an incredibly positive thing, and it shows that you can serve in many different ways. "

Learn more about university football coverage:

President Trump will attend a match between the Army and the Navy Saturday in Philadelphia

Liberty hires Hugh Freeze as coach despite his checkered past

Upholded UCF must "look inward," says SEC commissioner

Barry Svrluga: At Michael Locksley, Maryland has a coach who understands the loss

Jerry Brewer: Locksley must let the light in Maryland. He made a good start.


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