COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Former Air Force linebacker Alex Means will participate in an NFL minicamp this weekend with the Carolina Panthers, the first step in a professional climb fraught with potential complications.
"It's going to feel like home," said Means, who dropped the phone when his agent informed him of the invitation. "I've always felt at home wearing a helmet on a football field.
"I love this game and it's going to be a part of my life for the rest of my life. So I'm ready to get back on it."
Since graduating last year Means has served as a graduate assistant with the Falcons' football team. In that role he has watched hundreds of hours of film, broken down opponents and helped with the creation of the playbook.
He has also continued to work out, hoping his chance would present itself. He attended Air Force's pro day workout, earning an invitation to a regional workout in Seattle where the 6-foot-5, 240-pound outside linebacker ran a personal best 4.75 seconds in the 40-yard dash to go with a 32?-inch vertical leap and a 10 foot, 1 inch broad jump.
His agent had also sent film to professional teams.
Carolina was one of two teams to contact him, inviting him to the four-practice camp that begins in Charlotte on Thursday. He did not say which other team was in the mix, but indicated it might become the fallback plan should the minicamp not lead to future opportunities with the Panthers.
Means said that he will not be paid, other than reimbursement for travel, meals and hotel during his stay. Even if he were compensated, he doesn't feel this opportunity qualifies him to call himself a professional.
"The day I play in an NFL game is the day I'll say I'm a professional football player," he said. "I don't get paid, and that's fine. I get a shot, a way to get in front of the coaches and show them what other teams are missing out on, hopefully."
The complications will arise if Means is given future chances in football.
His next military assignment will be at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., where he will serve as a logistics officer.
"I'm looking forward to that, getting into something that's more military than the G.A. life," Means said. "I get to go actually do my job, which I'm excited about. I get to serve my country."
But, the call of the NFL would be impossible to ignore. Other graduates like Chad Hall and Ben Garland served two years of active duty before serving out the remainder of their five-year commitment in reserves as they pursued professional football careers.
"I came to college to serve my country, so my primary duty is to serve my country for my five-year commitment and maybe beyond," Means said. "The fact that I get to live out both of my dreams of playing in the NFL and serving my country is a blessing. It's amazing. Not many people have gotten to experience even one of their dreams. So, my plan is to serve my commitment. But if the Air Force is willing to let me leave after two years if I apply — if it comes to that, if a team wants to sign me — I would be very grateful and fortunate to have them do that. It would be incredible."
The physical window for most athletes to pursue an opportunity as a pro is often small, but there are no available options to defer the service time with the Air Force.
"It's not that it's frustrating, it's just the way it is," Means said. "I knew that coming here. I never expected to play in the NFL. I really love football and I wanted to play college football, but I was also wanting to serve my country. And at the Air Force Academy I got to do both, and I had a great time doing it. Because of the Air Force I am where I am in life.
"In a perfect world I wish I could go play in the NFL for two or three years or however long that career lasted, and then I could go serve 20 years and serve my country after that. That would be incredible."
Ultimately, all of this is out of Means' hands. He can't control how an NFL team will evaluate his potential and he can't control what the Air Force will do with his career.
"I just abide by their rules," Means said. "I do what they tell me I can and can't do and I'll just keep chasing both dreams. I'll see what happens."