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Seismic policy shift frees Air Force Academy grads to pursue pro sports without 2-year commitment

July 11, 2016 Updated: January 13, 2017 at 7:12 pm
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Air Force Academy football players line up for drills Thursday, July 31, 2014 for the first day of football practice for the 2014 season. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

A policy shift will allow service academy athletes to pursue professional sports immediately after graduation instead of waiting for two years, a move that could have a seismic impact at Air Force.

"It's huge," two Falcons football assistants said Monday.

"It immediately levels the playing field," said another.

A September 2015 Department of Defense Pro Sports Policy acquired by The Gazette stated that a service academy graduate would not be eligible to be placed on reserve status for the purpose of pursuing pro sports until serving 24 months on active duty.

A new policy provided by the Air Force Academy on Monday, reflecting changes made in May 2016, states that a "service member can request to be tendered an appointment in the reserve upon graduation and satisfy their commissioned service obligation in the Ready Reserve."

Athletic director Jim Knowlton said that, though graduates can apply to serve on reserve status instead of active duty, the decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis by the Air Force. Also, the policy would require a secured contract or binding commitment by a professional sports team, so it's not as if a second lieutenant would be able to opt out on a whim.

Still, the change is immense. Throughout their existence, service academies have competed with recruits who largely understood a pro sports career would not be an option - notwithstanding the rare exceptions like Air Force's Chad Hennings and Navy's David Robinson. And while the odds of a pro sports career might be remote, the prospect of a required two-year commitment weeded out a high percentage of high-caliber athletes.

Now cadet-athletes will be able to pursue both - thanks to Keenan Reynolds.

Reynolds concluded a record-breaking career as Navy's quarterback last season and went in the fifth round of the NFL draft to the Baltimore Ravens. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus immediately said "we can work something out" for Reynolds to play in the NFL.

"Go get 'em," Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told Reynolds during the Naval Academy's graduation ceremony, and the DoD-wide policy change quickly followed.

"Keenan Reynolds may end up being the greatest thing to happen to Air Force baseball," Falcons baseball coach Mike Kazlausky said.

Kazlausky, an Air Force grad who served 20 years before retiring as a major, prefers players who want to follow his career path. He enthusiastically offered the story of recent graduate Trent Monaghan, a pitcher who told the St. Louis Cardinals "thanks, but no thanks" when they inquired about drafting him in the 31st round last month.

"He said, 'I came to serve. I came to fight,'" Kazlausky said. "That's what gets me excited."

But Kazlausky also has no issues telling recruits they have options.

"Hopefully they can do both," he said. "It's not that kids want to get out of their ability to serve. They all want to serve, that's why they came here."

Kazlausky will have a close view of one of the biggest cases to test this new policy.

Pitcher Griffin Jax was taken in the third round of last month's MLB draft. The Minnesota Twins gave Jax - who graduates in May 2017 - a $645,000 signing bonus and sent him to their minor league team in Elizabethtown, Tenn., to pitch during his three weeks of summer vacation before returning for his senior year.

Then there's former Falcons tight end Garrett Griffin, who graduated in May a few weeks after signing with the New Orleans Saints. Griffin, who is working out at home in Kansas, reports to training camp with the Saints on July 20. At this point he hasn't been told if he must then report to Wyoming for his assignment in missile maintenance on active duty as scheduled Aug. 1.

Griffin said an ideal scenario for him would be to play football in the fall and spend the rest of the year visiting high schools and recruiting for the Air Force.

"I'm happy to do whatever," he said. "It would be awesome to pursue the NFL stuff, but at the same time I know why I went to the academy and it wasn't to play in the NFL - that was just something that happened. If I go to my duty station on Aug. 1, I'm happy with that."

Falcons football coach Troy Calhoun was silent on the topic of a shift in the Pro Sports Policy. He said only that his staff would be equipped to answer questions from recruits if they are raised.

Calhoun's assistants, speaking off the record as they were not authorized to publicly comment, said the shift has been a focus on the recruiting trail. Coaches remain careful not to sugarcoat the cadet experience, and they are not suddenly recklessly aiming for top athletes who would be unlikely to finish four years at the academy, but they said rival teams routinely use the two-year commitment against Air Force when talking to recruits.

One of those recruits is Alabama native Ted Wages, a 6-foot-4 defensive end with a 3.9 grade-point average who is an Eagle Scout and his class president. Wages said his college choice isn't predicated upon the best path the NFL, but he said it's nice to know the door is open.

"I think it's going to help tremendously," said Wages, who holds offers from Air Force and Army. "In the past I'm sure there have been recruits that have looked at the academies and loved it but really wanted to play in the NFL and they thought there was just no way they could do that. Now, with there being a remote chance - but still a chance - I'm sure it will help them get higher-profile guys that maybe they wouldn't have if there wasn't that chance like a couple years ago."

There will inevitably be pushback from those who don't feel time spent in the reserves is an adequate return on investment for putting a cadet through the taxpayer-funded academy, where an education is valued around $400,000.

"(Service academies) exist to instill young men and women with a mindset of selfless service to the country," wrote retired Army Lt. Col. Tom Slear in a Washington Post editorial last month. "There is no other justification for the significant public expense that supports them.

"Professional football, on the other hand, is about service to oneself. It has its place, but not for academy graduates who haven't fulfilled their obligations to their fellow citizens. Each time one of them leaves early, the ethos diminishes a bit, and the taxpayers are cheated."

Knowlton - also a decorated Army veteran who has spent time running athletic departments at West Point and Air Force - didn't see it that way.

"My view is we recruit cadets to come to the academy to develop over four years as leaders of character and then go out and serve our nation in the Air Force," the Falcons athletic director said. "There are many different ways that cadets can serve our nation."

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