Top NFL Players From Service Academies
Who are the best-armed service members to play pro football.
Air Force has a few good ones.
In the United States, there are five military service academies open to undergraduate students. Located in West Point, New York, the United States Military Academy (USMA) trains cadets to join the military following their graduation; located in Annapolis, Maryland, the United States Naval Academy (USNA) trains students to enter the Navy; and located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) trains attendees to join the Airforce.
While there are two other academies, the United States Coast Guard Academy and the United States Merchant Marine Academy, these schools are smaller than their counterparts and, for this reason, are Division III schools in terms of the National Collegiate Association of Athletics (NCAA).
However, the USMA, USNA, and USAFA are all Division I schools. This means they compete at the highest level of collegiate athletics in a variety of sports for both men and women. In particular, their football programs enjoy a high level of competition. While none of these three academies have turned out winning football teams since the 1960s, they have created star athletes that went on to enjoy fruitful careers in the NFL, many of whom served the US military before.
Service Academies in the NCAA
The Army Black Knights football team of USMA was once an elite squad. In fact, three players from USMA have taken the Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to a single, extraordinary football athlete annually: Doc Blanchard, Glenn Davis, and Pete Dawkins. Unfortunately for their football program, these trophies were awarded in the years 1945, 1946, and 1958 respectively.
USMA’s era of top football competition ended by the 1960s. The Academy’s only national championship titles came back in 1944, 1945, and 1946, a time when NCAA Division I competition was much less competitive given the lack of collegiate structure and proliferation of athletics in general.
Moving to USNA, their record reads similarly to that of the USMA. Their two Heisman Trophy recipients were Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach in the years 1960 and 1963. Unlike USMA, USNA has only received a national championship once, and it was nearly one century ago in 1926.
However, unlike their military counterpart, the Naval Academy has produced quite a few notable players from their Midshipmen football program. In fact, the College Football Hall of Fame is full of USNA players and coaches, with nineteen players inducted as recently as 2002 with running back Napoleon McCallum and again in 2004 with coach George Welsh.
Moving west to Colorado Springs where USAFA is located, the Falcons football program has fared less well than its Naval and Military counterparts. However, they did post one highly impressive 1985 season, in which they started off with ten straight wins. Soon, they were listed as the second-ranked NCAA football team in the nation. Unfortunately, a loss to BYU at a pivotal point barred the team from playing for the national championship that year.
However, in terms of the Falcon’s current season, front nose tackle Mosese Fifita may find a place on a defensive line in the NFL. The Cleveland Browns certainly need help building a deeper defensive line, and the Green Bay Packers are also in the market for an off-ball linebacker and an interior defensive line. But before Fifita ends up in AFC future betting odds, he may become an undrafted free agent—after all, moving from the USAFA, or any of the military academies, to the NFL hasn’t been a historically easy jump for young players.
Top Players from Service Academies – NFL
Moving from a US Service Academy to a major sports league doesn’t happen often, though it isn’t because collegiate athletes from these schools aren’t elite competitors. In fact, it’s policy that a graduate from any of the academies listed above must enter into the service for which they were educated.
However, as of May 6th, 2019, President Donald Trump made a statement to the West Point Black Knights football squad as they enjoyed an audience in the White House Rose Garden. He declared that football players from the Division I academies would be eligible to enter a professional sports league prior to serving their country on the battlefield.
While this declaration left some scratching their heads, wondering why pro football and the US Army need to overlap at all, it does allow for top players to stay in their respective academy. It’s become normal for many premier football players to switch universities so that they’ll be eligible for the major leagues after their graduation.
For example, take NFL legend Phil McConkey who was once a football player for the USNA Shipmen, but had to wait until he ended his service with the US Navy before he could be eligible for an NFL career. Following his release, New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells took a chance with the 27-year-old rookie—and the only reason Parcells took a chance on McConkey was given that Steve Belichick tipped him off about the Shipmen’s promise. In total, McConkey spent six seasons with the NFL, and managed to catch a touchdown pass that helped the Giants defeat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl in 1986.
Mike Wahle is another standout football athlete from USNA. While a three-sport athlete in high school, Wahle entered the Naval Academy as a wide receiver on the football field. However, it was his passion and talent for football that prevented him from graduating from the USNA.
Unfortunately for Wahle, no such Trump-decree enabled him to defer his service to the US Army until after a pro career. For this reason, Wahle forewent his senior year at USNA to be recruited by the Green Bay Packers in 1998. From there, he went on to enjoy a fruitful, ten-year career with the NFL, going on to play for teams like the Carolina Panthers and then the Seattle Seahawks.
And, to round out the list, one top USAFA player aside from Mosese Fifita listed above, is Chad Hennings. As a defensive tackle, Hennings would go on to win the Outland Trophy at USAFA in 1987 for his performance as top interior lineman. Like McConkey, Hennings served his four years in his respective army field before being recruited as a 27-year-old rookie. Fortunately for Hennings, he went on to win three Super Bowls before retiring in 2000.