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Army's Cole Christiansen asked the White House for help. Now he’s hoping to make it in the NFL

By LARRY RUBAMA | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot | Published: April 29, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Cole Christiansen had dreams playing in the NFL of one day.

But when the former Nansemond-Suffolk Academy standout decided to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, he knew those dreams would have to wait. Graduates of service academies are obligated to serve in the armed forced for a minimum five years as commissioned officers immediately following graduation.

Christiansen and his West Point teammates helped changed that rule with a visit to the White House two years ago. The team was there to receive the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, an award given each season to the regular-season champion of the three military institutions: Army, Navy and Air Force.

While the team was in the Oval Office, they informed President Donald Trump that the NFL was not an immediate option for them because of the obligation.

“He didn’t even know that Cadets couldn’t go play,” Christiansen said. “He said, ‘You know what, I’m going to sign an executive order to eliminate that from happening.’ And sure enough, he comes walking into the locker room (after the 2019 Army-Navy game) as I presented him a jersey, and he said, ‘I did it for you boys, didn’t I?’ And I said, ‘You sure did.’ And here we are. Legislation passed and we’re good to go.”

The provision President Trump helped sign into policy in November allows service secretaries to nominate exceptionally talented graduated athletes to delay their commissioning and subsequent service obligations to pursue employment as professional sports athletes.

That set the stage for Christiansen and teammates Elijah Riley and Connor Slomka to receive offers as undrafted free agents from NFL teams on Saturday. Christiansen received an offer from the Los Angeles Chargers, while Riley signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and Slomka with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“We were so pumped,” said Christiansen, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker. “I mean, as of like two years ago, this was something that we weren’t able to do. … When we first got to West Point, none of us anticipated this happening. It’s real special to share this with them.”

Army athletic director Mike Buddie said in a statement they were “extremely proud” of what Christiansen, Riley and Slomka were able to accomplish.

“They have all earned this opportunity through their hard work and determination while representing the Corps of Cadets on the gridiron,” he said in a statement. “After spending 47 months training to serve our country, I am thrilled for them to have this opportunity to continue their playing careers, and am convinced this will only make them better officers when that time comes.”

Christiansen said watching the draft last week was stressful.

“It was an arduous three days to get through the draft, not knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “(The Chargers) were communicating with me and telling me to hang in there and that it was going to happen. As soon as the draft ended, they called and we started negotiating a contract. I was so excited. Now I’m a Charger.”

Lew Johnston coached Christiansen at Nansemond-Suffolk. He was one of many people who thought West Point would be perfect for Christiansen because of his character, leadership skills, grades and talent.

He thinks those same qualities will help him earn a spot on the Chargers.

“He just has those intangibles,” he said about Christiansen, who was a two-time all-state player in high school. “If you want to make the team, you have to be willing to play special teams. And he’ll have no problem with that because he’s the ultimate team player.”

Christiansen, a two-time captain, led Army with 112 tackles to go along with 2½ sacks and two forced fumbles. He was a semifinalist for the 2019 Lott IMPACT Trophy, recognizing a player for his integrity, maturity, performance, academics, community and tenacity. He played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and was a two-time first-team All-Independent selection.

Christiansen had nothing but praise for West Point. He said the experience taught him how to lead, to survive and to handle adversity in stressful situations.

“It was more than I could ever ask for,” he said. “It was difficult, and I wanted it to be when I went there. It pushed me, but it gave me more than I could ever dream of. … I’m thankful for that. And right now, I’m going to apply to the team that I’m going to.”

Now he’s ready to see what he can do at the next level.

“It’s unbelievable, but I’m not done yet; I still have to make the team,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome that a little kid from Suffolk is in the NFL. Now we’re training harder than we’ve ever trained, so I can go up there and earn my spot.”

©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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