The Department of Defense’s abrupt about-face on its pro policy left Air Force’s top football recruits puzzled over the timing but undeterred in their commitment.
The Gazette contacted five three-star recruits from a touted class that signed in February, months after the D.O.D. ruled that service academy graduates could immediately pursue professional sports. The recruits shared nearly identical opinions that they committed to the academy knowing a service commitment would be part of the package. But they were also dismayed at the timing of a decision that was announced just before Air Force receiver Jalen Robinette expected to hear his name called in the NFL draft.
“I thought the timing was just horrible, how they let Robinette work out for this whole year with the idea of going to the pros,” said receiver David Cormier, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound multisport star from Albuquerque, who has drawn comparisons to Robinette. “It was there, that’s what they let him think. And then like the day of draft or the day before, they change it? I thought the timing was bad.”
But Cormier, in a refrain echoed by other recruits, said the shift won’t change his plans.
“I knew what I was getting myself into,” he said. “If I was focused on the pros then I would have gone to another school that had offered me. I like what Air Force has to offer. I’m not saying I don’t want to (play professionally), and I’m going to strive every day to be that good, but it just doesn’t affect me that much.”
The policy has been a hot topic among the current crop of recruits, many of whom are connected through a group message. But it has clearly not caused panic among Air Force coaches, who have not reached out to the recruits to discuss the change.
“I haven’t heard of anybody wanting to bail yet,” said Brandon Gooding, an outside linebacker from Ventura, Calif. “It doesn’t change (my decision) at all. The reason I joined was to serve after.”
At 6-7, 315 pounds, Cody Kanouse of Gig Harbor, Wash., has a body that’s certainly big enough for the NFL. But he said he’d be fine delaying that opportunity should it present itself.
“They told me from the beginning that I have to serve when I graduate,” said Kanouse, an offensive tackle who chose Air Force over Washington State when he pulled out a Falcons hat during a signing day ceremony. “That’s something I take pride in. It’s not only me being part of a football team and being part of a culture of a school, it’s being part of a group of people that get to go do something that great. Doing something bigger than myself besides just football.”
When news of the decision broke, the impact on the incoming talent was instantly raised. Senior basketball player Hayden Graham tweeted on Saturday, “AF Recruiting is about to take a major hit.”
Within hours Saturday, basketball recruit Matt Weir announced on social media that he was decommitting. But Weir was at the prep school and a source indicated he had a taste of the military life and decided it wasn’t for him. This is often the case for recruits both at the prep school and at the academy and is part of the reason Air Force brings in recruiting classes far larger than their Mountain West peers.
JoJo Falo from San Diego chose Air Force over offers from eight other Mountain West programs, all of which would have provided an easier path both when it comes to education and professional football. But the 6-2, 295-pound defensive lineman said he chose the certainty of future opportunities over the path of least resistance.
“When I took my visit they kept preaching to us that we have a future if football doesn’t work out,” Falo said. “The 100 percent job rate coming out of the academy caught my eye. Robinette has a future beyond football if that doesn’t work out.”
And the timing?
“That’s the part I thought was kind of weird, but everything happens for a reason.”
Defensive back Robert Black IV from Covington, Ga., said the timing “raised an eyebrow.”
“I can't say what's best for the country or Air Force, but the timing of the policy change was bad in my opinion, not the policy itself,” Black wrote in a message to The Gazette. “At the end of the day I'm still excited to come and play football, attend the academy, and ultimately serve. And if the opportunity to play in the league presents itself, I would love to pursue that as that would be a dream come true. I mean if a few cadets made it to the league and could help bring more exposure to the academy and the football program I see that as a positive.”