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David Ramsey: Air Force football great Chad Hennings wonders about Jalen Robinette's rapid road to NFL

April 27, 2017 Updated: April 28, 2017 at 6:52 am
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Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette gathers in a 26 yard touchdown reception from Nate Romine in the first quarter against Morgan Stateat Falcon Stadium Saturday, September 5, 2015 in the opening game of the 2015 season. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Chad Hennings could have been a first-round pick in the 1988 NFL draft. He collected 24 sacks as a senior for Air Force. He was 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds but still could move at rapid speed. He ran a stunning 4.65 (hand-timed) 40.

Instead, Hennings spent four years crammed into cockpits of A-10 jets (the only ones large enough for his frame). He flew 45 combat missions over southern Iraq and northern Turkey, providing protection for Kurdish rebels/refugees.  He was based in England as he waited for his second chance in football.

He arrived in the NFL in 1992 as a 26-year-old rookie for the Dallas Cowboys. Despite his long sabbatical from football, he played nine seasons, started 72 games and collected 27.5 sacks and three Super Bowl rings.

This week, Air Force receiver Jalen Robinette is preparing for a vastly less complicated, and exciting, route to the NFL. Robinette, who graduates in May, could be playing in NFL stadiums in September, thanks to a new Department of Defense philosophy.

“You know, I’m torn,” Hennings said Thursday morning.

“I think Jalen should get an opportunity to play at some time, whether that’s immediate, right away, I don’t know, but my point is there needs to be a service component there in some way. I would encourage leadership not to go down that slippery slope of pulling away from the Air Force Academy’s mission, and that’s to make officers to serve in the United States Air Force.”

Hennings is at peace with his life as a pilot and life as a football player. At the 1993 Super Bowl, he declined to ponder the what-ifs of his football career.

"If I dwelled on that," Hennings said, "I'd have to see a therapist."

He was a better wrestler than football lineman at his small Iowa high school, a lightly recruited athlete who eventually played in Super Bowls. He’s thankful for his unlikely ride.

His path, he said Thursday, “worked out great for me.”

But he wonders how changes will alter his alma mater.

“If you want to go play professional football, you typically go to school where you have that opportunity, where you think it’s an option,” Hennings said. “You come to Air Force to become an officer and serve your country and make the commitment.”

Chris Gizzi, a marauding Air Force linebacker, might have played for the Denver Broncos in 1998, less than a year after being named the Mountain West’s top defensive player. After graduating in December, Gizzi collected Air Force leave so he could compete at the Broncos preseason camp, where he impressed coach Mike Shanahan.  

Fisher DeBerry, Air Force’s coach, remembers a dozen calls from Shanahan, who wanted Gizzi wearing Bronco orange. Shanahan did not want to wait for Gizzi to complete his military commitment.

Gizzi did not play for the 1998 Broncos. He served 21/2 years before embarking on an injury-shortened two-season career with the Green Bay Packers. He’s now the Packers strength and conditioning coach.

While driving home from work in Green Bay, Gizzi talked about Robinette’s much faster route to the NFL.

“Man,” Gizzi said, “I’m excited for him and for Air Force and just for all the armed services. I’m rooting for him unless he plays for the Bears or something. Seriously, I’m fully supportive of his venture to go to the next level. I think he’s going to be great.”

Gizzi declines to complain about his wait. He laughed when thinking back to Shanahan’s distressed phone calls to DeBerry.

“Every coach wants what he wants now, not after breakfast,” Gizzi said. “It never hurts to ask.  It just wasn’t in the cards. I had to wait two years. If I could have gone straight to the NFL, that would have been cool, but if the Air Force needed a guy to stay in two years, I trust the Air Force.

“You don’t complain about it. You take that next challenge.   I think that’s what the academy teaches all of us. That’s what that place is about. It’s about being part of something bigger than yourself.”

Robinette, a 6-3, 220-pound wide receiver, led the nation with 27.5 yards per catch while pushing the Falcons to a 10-3 record. He’s expected to be drafted between the second and fifth rounds of this week’s NFL draft. 

A 2016 policy change by the Department of defense opened the door for Robinette for his rapid arrival in the NFL. After signing an NFL contract, Robinette will defer five years of active duty and serve in the Air Force reserve during his football offseason.