Geraud Sanders envisions himself as an Air Force pilot.
He also harbors ambitions of trying his hand as an NFL receiver, following the path to the pros of his father, Glen, and uncles Matthew Reed and Darrell Wren.
When the Department of Defense announces its new plan for service academy athletes, he could find himself with the opportunity to do both.
President Donald Trump has asked for that new plan to be finished in the next two months, and the terminology of “deferring” service that he has used indicates that for the first time athletes will be given time after graduation to try professional sports before then serving on active duty.
“I won’t be looking to avoid any service commitment, and I don’t think my teammates will be as well because we talk about it a lot,” Sanders said. “We would just like that opportunity to go and showcase our talent and see how that goes, then come back and serve our country.”
The concept of lag time between the academy and active duty would be a new wrinkle in the ongoing evolution of the policy. For the most part, athletes have been required to serve two years on active duty before applying to serve out the rest of their five-year commitment on Reserve status while playing professionally. For a short time, that two-year active-duty requirement was waived and players could go straight to reserves if a pro opportunity was available to them.
It would seem likely that stipulations would be added to the new policy, as the idea of sending a Hall of Famer such as Annapolis graduate David Robinson to his active duty commitment after a 20-year pro career would be unlikely.
Air Force football players see no reason why they couldn’t be as valuable as officers two to three years after graduation — the average NFL career is 3.3 years — than they would if that military career began immediately.
“At the academy they teach you to adjust to pretty much anything and everything on the fly,” tight end Kade Waguespack said. “They change things on you constantly, so you’re ready for anything.”
Defensive back Jeremy Fejedelem, whose brother Clayton plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, said the transition back to military life would be no different than riding a bike.
“There might be like a month adjustment period, but I think you’d pick it up pretty quick — you’d get right back on it,” he said.
If the argument is that a gap would diminish the skills, then football coach Troy Calhoun said the World Class Athlete Program, which allows athletes to train for the Olympics during a set time period before returning to traditional military jobs, shouldn’t be allowed to continue.
“If we don’t think that, then we sure in the heck shouldn’t do it with a boxer, we shouldn’t do it with the World Class Athlete Program with a pole vaulter or a marathon runner,” Calhoun said. “If that’s the logic. If your logic is that your skills are going to diminish then just hack the World Class Athlete Program.”
The plan that is allowing long snapper Austin Cutting to play immediately for the Minnesota Vikings — or any other team, should he be cut — is a departure from any of these other models. He is essentially serving in similar manner to those in the WCAP, where he’ll be allowed to play football while on active duty and serve as a recruiter.
Perhaps that will be the arrangement the Trump administration will soon announce. Or maybe deferred service time will be the new norm.
Many have spoken out on social media to say nothing short of fulfilling the full service commitment should be accepted for graduates, as anything else wastes taxpayer money spent on their education (estimated around $500,000) and misses the point of the institutions that exist to bolster their branches of the military.
Those in support of tearing down barriers for graduates to turn pro argue that the benefits in recruiting, talent and the exposure that more competitive teams and high-profile individuals would bring would counterbalance the costs of the few who made it professionally.
As he awaits the decision and prepares for his senior year at the Air Force Academy, the first-team all-Mountain West preseason pick Fejedelem makes no secret of his ambition to play at the next level. And many at Air Force seem to share his opinion.
“That’s got to be a goal for anyone in college football,” he said. “What are you playing for if you’re not trying to go to the highest level? I love this game. It would be a blessing to be able to do what my brother is doing right now and go to the league. But there are so many other options. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t.”