For 22 months, a group of former Air Force football players have bided their time.
On Monday, the program’s all-time leading receiver Jalen Robinette, All-American safety Weston Steelhammer and defensive standouts Jacob Onyechi and Ryan Watson will look to seize their chance to show NFL scouts how they’ve used that unexpected interval and make a case for continuing the career they all previewed in 2017.
“I just want to go out there and look good, just run, jump and catch and be clean,” Robinette said.
Added Onyechi, “I know my biggest promotion is going to be how I’m able to perform.”
This group has been here before. In 2017, they headlined Pro Day at the academy during a brief window when the Department of Defense had eased restrictions and allowed service academy graduates to immediately pursue professional sports. Scouts filed into the Holaday Athletic Center and Air Force’s weight room to test the group.
But then, just as the draft began, word came from Washington D.C. that the old policy requiring grads to serve at least two years on active duty was reinstated.
Those four players found their way into NFL mini-camps as undrafted rookies, but that’s as far as the pro football flirtation was allowed to go as they instead scattered to bases to serve as officers.
But on Monday, the process starts up again. This time there should be no barriers.
“We have to do our part in showing the guys we’re still in shape,” Steelhammer said. “And then hopefully we’ll get a chance like we did two years ago and throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.”
Past Air Force football players like Bryce Fisher, Ben Garland, Chad Hall and Steve Russ served two years before finding their way into the NFL, so there is precedent for this situation.
The players won’t be eligible for the NFL Draft but can be signed as free agents.
By the letter of the rules, the players must have a signed professional contract in order to shift from active duty to reserve status. But each case is handled individually. And if it’s a new league like the AAF or XFL that comes calling, there’s no telling what decision might come down.
“I think it’s more gray than black and white, honestly,” said Steelhammer, who has been in Colorado Springs for nearly two weeks to prepare for Pro Day. “I’m excited about it, and I know the other guys are too.
“The big thing for me is I’m not going to close the door until it’s closed for me. Everything happens for a reason, I’m a big believer in that. I’m going to give it a shot and take it step by step.”
The players have tried to see the positive in their situation. They know their bodies are fully rested and recovered from their playing days at this point, and their training has maybe been even more extensive without the demands of the academy lifestyle. They also feel they’ve matured during their two years as officers – Onyechi in Florida, Robinette in Nevada, Steelhammer in Texas and Watson in Ohio – and can bring a different level of perspective and hunger to football as a result of being away.
But as Watson noted, the times and measurements gathered Monday will only be the beginning.
“When you’re away for two years you wonder if working out is going to be enough,” Watson said.
“There’s so much more to football than just being in shape. If it was just being in shape the CrossFit guys would be great NFL players, the body builders, the world strong men… but there’s so much more to it.”
Players from CSU-Pueblo will also be there Monday, as will quarterback Arion Worthman and longsnapper Austin Cutting from this year’s graduating group of Falcons.
But eyes will primarily be on the group that has waited and prepared for this chance again, knowing this might be their best – and last – chance to pursue a dream.
“It will be a good chance to show them I’m in shape, still committed to it, and then from there just pick up where I left off,” Watson said.