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TCA football player Cole Palmer signed a letter of intent to play football at the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. Friends, family and TCA faculty break into applause after Palmer signs. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

From Cole Palmer’s backyard in north Colorado Springs, he can read “Air Force” painted on the west bleachers at Falcon Stadium.

His high school is so close to the academy that his father’s attempt to photograph a game with a drone was nixed by Air Force’s no-fly-zone restrictions.

Yet for all that proximity, The Classical Academy outside linebacker said he never really understood what Air Force had to offer until a whirlwind recruiting courtship began last Friday.

Less than a week later, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior was signing as one of at least 22 three-star recruits in what has the look of a banner crop for coach Troy Calhoun’s team (Air Force cannot release information on its recruiting classes or comment on signees.)

“Seeing Air Force my whole life, I never really understood how awesome it was until I was actually able to go on a visit,” Palmer said. “Seeing how they work, they’re such a well-oiled machine, and seeing their facilities … seeing that brotherhood and just kind of how they all play and they’re for each other, I kind of felt at home there. I was like, all right, that’s where my heart is. It honestly wasn’t a hard decision after spending a few hours there.”

Palmer had committed to UNLV in June. After the Rebels changed coaches, Palmer changed his mind in late December without an alternate plan. Through TCA coach Justin Rich’s connections at Colorado State, he had an opportunity to walk on with the Rams.

Then, Air Force called.

Defensive coordinator John Rudzinski contacted Palmer at 10 a.m. Friday to say he was on the way to TCA. By 2 p.m., Cole and his father, Scott, were at the academy meeting with coaches. Calhoun invited Cole to stay as part of an official visit weekend.

“I woke up the next morning and he had a pro-and-con list taped to my bedroom door,” Scott Palmer said. “I read the list and said, ‘Well, I guess he’s going to Air Force.’

“It’s a dream come true. Everybody’s freaking out.”

Plenty went into the decision. Palmer’s grandfather and great-grandfather served in the Army, with his great-grandfather taking part in the World War II D-Day invasion. The family visited those beaches last summer.

“That Normandy trip changed him a little bit,” Scott said. “He got it. He got country. He got service.”

Rich, a former college assistant, said he always levels with visiting coaches when they ask about prospects. Though in recent years the 2A school has produced NFL kicker Daniel Carlson and his brother, Anders, now kicking at Auburn, Rich generally doesn’t have Division 1 caliber players to promote. With Palmer, he told coaches he had an athlete with the talent to go D1 and also a student who bought into the charter school’s mission of developing character and valuing responsibility more than rights.

“He can turn that (aggression) on and off,” Rich said. “He’s a great competitor. He’s very competitive. He can run a 4.6 40, he can change directions and is very smart and loves his teammates. All that’s a good combination.”

Rich played Palmer at linebacker on defense and at guard on offense, valuing the athletic ability he brought to the line. Palmer’s brother, sophomore Cade, was the beneficiary, running for 1,355 yards this past season with a large chunk of that behind Cole’s pulling blocks.

Now, Cole hopes to have a chance to see some of his brother’s games over the next two years.

“Now that I’m just staying across the street, it’s going to be awesome to watch him,” he said.

Palmer said Air Force’s “smash-mouth, go-for-it style” appealed to him, as did the program's success in an 11-2 season that ended with a No. 22 national ranking as well as the possibility of joining the Space Force or studying business.

He never knew he had all that in his backyard.

“On top of that, being able to serve is such an honor,” he said. “It’s all kind of magical.”