Published: July 15, 2013
Cameron Michael can quickly explain why he departed the Air Force Academy. Yes, he realizes he had a multitude of reasons to remain.
He was destined to become a star of the basketball team. He had earned the admiration of coach Dave Pilipovich, and his teammates, especially Tre' Coggins and DeLovell Earls, begged him to stay by their sides.
He departed anyway.
"It turned out to be basketball vs. the military," he said. "It was a hard decision. I loved playing for Coach P. The basketball was so good.
"But there was a lot of unnecessary stress, and just a little bit too much on my plate. I was getting overwhelmed on a daily basis. I really didn't want to do the military. I was looking at three years of basketball vs. eight years of military service."
Michael's departure after his freshman season exposes, once again, the challenge of constructing a winning team at the academy. When Michael talks about eight years of military service, he means three more years a cadet along with five years of service in the Air Force. He could not, he decided, take on that challenge.
An Air Force coach must find legitimate Division I athletes who also can survive, and maybe even thrive, amid the school's exhausting academic and military demands. This is a daunting, if not quite impossible, task.
A wise Air Force coach practices honesty when chasing recruits. A coach should say: You will face endless, stringent academic and military requirements. You will rise at first light. You will endure excruciating basic training.
Michael has no complaints.
"It wasn't unfair," Michael said. "I didn't come in blind at all. The coaches told me what I was going to face."
Michael's departure reminds me of Anthony Schlegel's Air Force exit of early 2003. Schlegel, a middle linebacker, collected 118 tackles as a sophomore and was destined to become one of the Falcons all-time greatest, meanest defenders.
But Schlegel, like Michael, was miserable at the academy. Schlegel, a non-conformist exiled in a land of conformity, struggled with Air Force's long list of rules. He developed a deep admiration and affection for Fisher DeBerry and defensive coordinator Richard Bell, but decided to depart after spending most of his Sunday afternoons alone in his dorm room saddled with confinement, a punishment for his rebellious ways.
"When football is the only thing that makes you happy, there's something wrong," Schlegel told me a few weeks after he withdrew from Air Force.
He later starred for Ohio State before playing two seasons in the NFL.
Schlegel had 26 schools chasing him as soon as he announced he was leaving Air Force. Michael has no such luxury. He's listened to vague promises from an assortment of D-I programs, but the timing of his decision hurt his chances. Teams are already set for the 2013-'14 season.
He will probably play at a junior college, and is considering Eastern Wyoming and Florida's Polk College.
You might wonder why I'm writing about a player who averaged 4.1 points for the Falcons.
Michael has big-time offensive gifts. He can launch from anywhere inside 25 feet. He lacks ballhandling and defending expertise, but a player can learn those skills.
He can shoot. He knew how to collect points in a hurry. Those skills can't be learned. He would have become a star - maybe a big one - in Pilipovich's up-tempo offense.
When Schlegel took his last trip to the academy, he stopped to see DeBerry and Bell and hugged both men. This tough guy who excelled at delivering vicious hits broke down when he stepped into his truck to drive away.
Michael's departure wasn't quite so emotional.
It's still sad.