Veterans and athletes: what it means to represent the army and the navy in professional sports


Former Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, winner of the 1963 Heisman trophy, prior to a Navy game at Tulane at the start of this season. (David Grunfeld / The Times-Picayune via Associated Press)

The club of academic service graduates who have continued to practice professional sports is exclusive. Despite the emphasis of all three institutions on athletics, postgraduate military requirements have generally kept students away from the United States Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy. and the United States Air Force Academy. Only 77 graduates of the service academy played professional football, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com – 62 between army and navy. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only three academic service graduates have arrived at the NBA.

But the handful of graduates who have been successful as professional athletes have had a lasting impact. Before the 119th Army-Navy football match on Saturday in Philadelphia, some of West Point's and Annapolis's most visible alumni reflected on what it means to represent service academies in professional sports.

Roger Staubach, the quarterback winner of the Navy Heisman Trophy who graduated in the middle of the Vietnam War, has complex feelings about football fame when many of his teammates have dedicated their careers to the military.

Alejandro Villanueva of Pittsburgh Steelers battles with the weight of representing veterans as an athlete with a platform that has also served on three tours in Afghanistan.

Joe Cardona and Keenan Reynolds, two Navy graduates who play in the NFL, are still learning how to connect their civil and military identifiers while their friends and classmates begin to live as minor officers.

And David Robinson, the man nicknamed "the Admiral" during his days with the San Antonio Spurs who, long ago, as a child of the Academy of Services, has learned that there are few good things like sports to increase goodwill for the military.


Staubach during the 1963 season, when the Midship Midshipers finished 9-2. Six roster players have reached the rank of admiral. (Associated Press)

"Number 67, our teammate"

Roger Staubach had not heard his old friend and teammate Tommy Holden for quite some time since the day they finally got to connect to the walkie-talkie in October 1966, during peak of the autumn monsoon season in Vietnam. The couple decided that they would try to meet for lunch in Danang in the coming weeks, the quarterback and the guard who protected him on the field, both eager to recover and remember.

Staubach had limited choices for his service assignment after graduating from Annapolis in 1965 due to partial partiality, but he could be a logistics officer, and volunteered to serve in Vietnam.

Holden, who had graduated a year before, was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps. The couple never had their meeting; Holden was shot and killed two weeks after preparing lunch plans.

"Number 67, our teammate," Staubach said in a telephone conversation in October, just days before the legendary 1963 team he led was honored in a Navy home game.

The decorated Navy quarterback, who continued to win two Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys, raised Holden to point out that even though he volunteered to serve in Vietnam, he was not "in the middle of it".

Staubach, 76, feels immense pride and a deep connection with his teammates in 1963 who went 9-2. When they reunite, he is also deeply aware of the fact that while he has made himself known in the NFL, six players of that roster have obtained the rank of admiral. One, Tom Lynch, became superintendent of the Naval Academy.

"I feel both, they are both part of my life," said Staubach of his football career and his military career, which he concluded at Pensacola Naval Air Station. "I played 11 years with a team and I am extremely proud to have gone to the Naval Academy, I feel a little reluctant because I did not stay in the service as a career, usually my goals when I start something I finish something, but I left the Navy to do something else, and I do not want to put it in a negative way, but sometimes I would like … "

Staubach's voice died out.

"But I am, I am grateful every day for the opportunity to go to the Naval Academy, and I try to contribute the best I can because I am still a graduate."


Alejandro Villanueva has served three tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger before joining the NFL. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

A reluctant spokesperson

Alejandro Villanueva claims he could never do it in the NFL based on his "very average" football performance at the US Military Academy, so he thinks it's more accurate to say that he represents the NFL veterans than they represent West Point. Former ranger of the army, Villanueva has served three tours in Afghanistan.

"The NFL and football came after my service," said Villanueva, 30. "That bridge was non-existent when I went to the academy."

There is something complicated, however, in the identification of a veterans representative. The offensive lineman of 6 feet by 9 for the Pittsburgh Steelers is calm when asked if it is important for the military to have representatives in one of the most visible leagues on earth.

"When it comes to being a spokesman for all the veterans, I think it's negative," Villanueva said. "One thing I learned very early in my life, not just in West Point, but especially when I showed up in Afghanistan, is that the world is very complicated … and when you want to have a serious conversation, you have to humiliate yourself and understand I do not spend much of my time studying these problems.I can talk about pass rushers all day, but it would be very difficult for me to sit down and defend policies that could make veterans' business a better organization, or how to pose end the war in Afghanistan ".

Complicated even if his feelings may be, Villanueva knows that even veterans who represent in a visible arena can be positive.

He often hears from the veterans how happy they are with what he did after serving – the West Point graduate is studying an MBA at Carnegie Mellon and has played in his first Pro Bowl in 2017.

"There is a stigma that many veterans get stuck when they leave the army and they can not find something to do," Villanueva said. "So they receive inspiration from someone like me, and from this aspect – this is the part I can see is good".

Bridge the gap

Unlike Villanueva, Keenan Reynolds knows his public image as an NFL player is tied to his service academy.

Reynolds, 24, who is part of the Seattle Seahawks practice team, is known for being the best Navy quarterback at least from Staubach. Both he and Joe Cardona, 26, the great New England snapper who also played at Navy, feel that it is their responsibility to enlighten civilians on the army in any way possible.

"Part of the reason I was given this opportunity is to shed light on the military," Reynolds said on the phone last week. "To be [in the NFL]with these guys, when I talk about our class schedules and military schedules and, oh, by the way, we also play high-level football, they are caught off guard. This is what I try to do, kind of closing the gap. "

Reynolds and Cardona are both reservists who serve their military time concurrently with their civil works. Cardona spent about two months in this offseason with his unit.

Like Reynolds, he feels intensely a responsibility towards the army while he is playing in the NFL.

"I have former teammates of Navy, classmates around the world, who perform so many different missions that are vital for national security, and are on the field playing a game," said Cardona. "I feel such a responsibility in resuming everything I learn about the elite, on high-level performance and getting the most out of it while I have this opportunity."

Speaking of what it means to play for the Patriots coach, Bill Belichick, whose father was a vice-coach of Navy, Cardona said that the transition from a Patriots Service Academy was "easy". He could not decide which organization was more secretive about their attack plans.


The naval basketball legend David Robinson, who participates in the Army-Navy 2015 game, sees his public platform as part of his military service. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

& # 39; You can serve in many different ways & # 39;

The strangers talk to David Robinson as if he were part of the family, and he thinks it has been for so many years that his NBA games have played on TV in people's living rooms.

The graduate of the Naval Academy has long lost count of how many people have approached him to say they have gone into a service academy because of him. Robinson, 53, has been featured in the Navy recruitment material even before winning two championships with the San Antonio Spurs, and considers him as part of his military service. He feels it is both an honor and his duty to use his platform to represent the military well, and he has no mixed feelings about it.

"All of us have been called to do something, and what I was called upon to do was in the spotlight," Robinson said.

"I do not know you could get better publicity or better awareness … This was just the positive impact between Roger [Staubach] and me, all the guys who went out and did what they did. It's an incredibly positive thing, and it simply shows that you can serve in many different ways. "

To learn more about college football coverage:

President Trump will be present at the Army-Navy match on Saturday in Philadelphia

Reportedly, Liberty will take over Hugh Freeze as a football coach despite his chess record

The snubbed UCF must "look inside", says the SEC Commissioner

Barry Svrluga: At Michael Locksley, Maryland has a coach who understands the loss

Jerry Brewer: Locksley has to let light into Maryland. He had a good start.

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