For academy hopefuls, football is the fun part
Their respective football seasons are over for the most part. Now comes the tough part.
That's because the football players in question aim to play for one of the three U.S. service academies with Division I football: the Air Force, Army or Navy. At all three, the football is competitive -- Air Force and Navy are bowl-eligible this season, and Army could move to 6-6 with a win over the Midshipmen on Dec. 12 -- but it's just a fraction of a long, grinding, sometimes-intimidating but often-rewarding experience.
That experience starts long before the first day of practice and is more complicated than simply meeting the NCAA's minimum requirements.
As Army director of player personnel John Brock put it: "Our application process is a lot more than just filling out an application, looking at your transcripts and saying, 'Yes, you're in,' or 'No, you're not.'"
"It's hard," said Clayton Cooper, an Air Force wide receiver recruit from Springtown (Springtown, Texas). "It's a lengthy process."
The journey begins as early the spring of a player's junior year, when he first must meet the minimum requirements of the academies (including age, citizenship and even tattoo restrictions), then pass medical exams and a six-part fitness test.
Perhaps the most intimidating -- or at least the most involved -- aspect of any application is the nomination. Typically, it comes from a U.S. senator or representative. Sometimes it comes from the vice president. Because each congressman has a limited number of nominations at each academy, the process is highly competitive.
"It can get quite stressful at times," Navy-bound offensive lineman Thomas Stone of Central Catholic (Melbourne, Fla.) said. "You have to really try to be an all-around person."
"I didn't even apply to any other colleges, but I felt like I had applied to millions because of all the stuff I had to do," added current Navy linebacker Ross Pospisil.
As for grades, test scores and other considerations, the recruiting process often filters out players unable to meet the academies' high standards. For fully qualified players who fail to earn a nomination initially, it's possible to be selected from a waiting list that typically includes athletes and non-athletes.
If players indeed get accepted, offers aren't typically extended until April, more than two months after National Signing Day. Coaches try to keep recruits assured of their status to ensure they're not waiting for something that may not happen, but without an official offer in hand there's always a risk.
"I feel pretty confident," said Michael Cermak, an Army recruit from Heritage (Maryville, Tenn.).
The academies offer prep schools for students who don't earn direct admission, allowing them to acclimate themselves to the rigorous lifestyle. Appointment to the prep school's academy may help the chances of being admitted after graduation but it doesn't guarantee anything.
"It made a big difference," said Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs said. "I think if I would have come here straight out of high school, I wouldn't be here today."
ONCE YOU'RE IN
Think getting accepted sounds tough? Well, things don't get any easier from there.
It starts with basic training, a military-assimilation period that starts mid-summer and lasts several weeks. Air Force recruiting coordinator Charlton Warren, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1999, remembers it being "a little bit of a shock, just to go through the military process."
Still, Warren remembered it only taking a few days to adjust mentally. Physically, Warren said, it's nothing football players can't take.
There's no time for rest even after basic training. A rigid daily schedule takes over upon the start of classes, which themselves are reputedly on an Ivy League level. Add football, and "it's almost more than you can handle," Dobbs said.
After graduation, the sacrifice continues. All grads must serve at least five years of active duty. Not that serving is without its upside.
Everybody knows the depressed economy has even been unkind to graduates of some of the nation's top civilian colleges lately. But that's not the case at Air Force, Army or Navy, where students graduate as officers.
"Not many universities say they can guarantee you a job with a fairly decent salary," Cermak said.
That's not the only reason to go through all the stress. The bond the cadets and midshipmen form is unexplainable. Warren still counts the guys he went through basic training with in 1995 as some of his closest friends.
Then there's the structured environment service academies provide. "Some of the stuff that you gain out of that, like the discipline, it'll stay with you forever," Cooper said.
So will the prestigious degree, which helps with graduate school admission and post-military jobs.
And then there's the sheer challenge of it all, which many service academy candidates find attractive. After all, why else go through such an intense process -- one that starts long before college, and lasts well after it?
"It just sounds exciting to me," said Richard Rainey, an Army recruit from Vista Ridge (Cedar Park, Texas). "I mean, it's very intense -- and I can't wait to get started."
Patrick Dorsey covers high school sports for The Indianapolis Star.
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