Veterans and athletes: What it means to represent Army and Navy in pro sports
By AVA WALLACE | The Washington Post | Published: December 7, 2018
The club of service academy graduates who have gone on to play professional sports is an exclusive one. Despite all three institutions' emphasis on athletics, post-graduation military requirements have generally kept students at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy out of the pros. Only 77 service academy graduates have played professional football, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com — 62 between Army and Navy. According to Basketball-Reference.com, just three service academy graduates have made it to the NBA.
But the handful of graduates who have had success as professional athletes have made a lasting impact. Before the 119th Army-Navy football game on Saturday in Philadelphia, some of the most visible alumni from West Point and Annapolis reflected on what it means to represent the service academies in professional sports.
Roger Staubach, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Navy who graduated in the midst of the Vietnam War, has complex feelings about finding fame in football when many of his teammates dedicated their careers to the military.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Alejandro Villanueva wrestles with the weight of representing veterans as an athlete with a platform who also served three tours in Afghanistan.
Joe Cardona and Keenan Reynolds, two recent graduates of Navy playing in the NFL, are still learning how to bridge their civilian and military identifies while their friends and classmates start lives as junior officers.
And David Robinson, the man dubbed "the Admiral" during his days with the San Antonio Spurs who, as a longtime service academy poster-boy, learned long ago that there are few things as good as sports to drum up goodwill for the military.
Roger Staubach hadn't heard from his old friend and teammate Tommy Holden in quite some time by the day they finally managed to connect over walkie-talkie in October 1966, during the height of the fall monsoon season in Vietnam. The pair decided they would try to meet for lunch in Danang sometime in the coming weeks, the star quarterback and the guard who protected him on the field both eager to catch up and reminisce.
Staubach had limited choices for his service assignment after he graduated in Annapolis in 1965 because of partial colorblindness, but he could be a logistics supply officer, and he volunteered to serve in Vietnam.
Holden, who had graduated a year earlier, was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps. The pair never had their reunion; Holden was shot and killed two weeks after they made lunch plans.
"Number 67, our teammate," Staubach, said in a phone conversation in October, a few days before the legendary 1963 team he led was honored at a Navy home game.
The decorated Navy quarterback, who went on to win two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, brought up Holden to emphasize that even though he volunteered to serve in Vietnam, he wasn't "in the thick of it."
Staubach, 76, feels immense pride and a deep connection with his teammates on the 1963 team that went 9-2. When they get together, he's also keenly aware that while he made his name in the NFL, six players on that roster achieved the rank of admiral. One, Tom Lynch, went on to be superintendent of the Naval Academy.
"I feel both, they're both a part of my life," Staubach said of his football career and his military career, which he finished at Pensacola Naval Air Station. "I played 11 years with one team, and I'm extremely proud to have gone to the Naval Academy. I feel a little reluctant because I didn't stay in the service as a career. My goals are usually when I start something I finish something, but I left the Navy to do something else, and I don't want to put it in a negative way, but sometimes I wish..."
Staubach's voice trailed off.
"But I am, I am thankful every day for the chance to go to the Naval Academy, and I try to contribute the best I can. Because I'm still a graduate."
Alejandro Villanueva contends he was never going to make it in the NFL based on his self-described "very average" football performance at the U.S. Military Academy, so he thinks it's more accurate to say he represents veterans in the NFL than that he represents West Point. A former Army Ranger, Villanueva served three tours in Afghanistan.
"The NFL and football came after my service," said Villanueva, 30. "That bridge was nonexistent in the time that I went to the academy."
There's something tricky, though, about identifying as a representative of veterans. The 6-foot-9 offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers fell quiet when asked whether it's important that the military has representatives in one of the most visible sports leagues on Earth.
"When it comes to me being a spokesman for all veterans, I think that's negative," Villanueva said. "One thing that I learned very early in my life, not only at West Point but especially when I first showed up in Afghanistan, is that the world is very complicated...and when you want to have a serious conversation, you have to humble yourself and understand your limitations. I don't dedicate a lot of my time to studying these issues. I can talk about pass rushers all day, but it would be very difficult for me to sit down and advocate for policies that would make Veterans Affairs a better organization, or how to end the war in Afghanistan."
Complicated though his feelings may be, Villanueva knows there representing veterans in a visible arena can be positive, too.
He often hears from veterans how happy they are that he's achieved as much as he has after serving — the West Point graduate is studying toward an MBA at Carnegie Mellon and played in his first Pro Bowl in 2017.
"There's a stigma that a lot of veterans get stuck when they get out of the military and they're unable to find something to do," Villanueva said. "So they receive some inspiration from someone like myself, and from that aspect - that's the part that I can see is good."
Unlike Villanueva, Keenan Reynolds knows his public image in the as an NFL player is tied to his service academy.
Reynolds, 24, who is on the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad, is known for being the best Navy quarterback at least since Staubach. Both he and Joe Cardona, 26, the long snapper in New England who also played at Navy, feel it's their responsibility to enlighten civilians on the military in whatever ways they can.
"Part of the reason I was given this opportunity is to shed light on the military," Reynolds said on the phone last week. "Being [in the NFL], with these guys, when I tell them about our class schedules and military schedules and oh, by the way — we play high-level football too, they're taken aback. That's what I try to do, kind of bridge the gap."
Reynolds and Cardona are both reservists serving their military time concurrently with their civilian jobs. Cardona spent about two months this past offseason with his unit.
Like Reynolds, he intensely feels a responsibility to the military while he's playing in the NFL.
"I have former teammates at Navy, classmates everywhere in the world, doing so many different missions that are vital to national security, and I'm on the field playing a game," Cardona said. "I feel such a responsibility to take back anything I learn about elite, high-level performance and get the most out of it while I have this opportunity."
In speaking about what it's like to play for Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose father was an assistant coach at Navy, Cardona said the transition from a service academy to the Patriots was "easy." He couldn't decide which organization was more secretive about their plans of attack.
Strangers talk to David Robinson as if he were part of the family, and he thinks it's because for so many years his NBA games played on TVs in people's living rooms.
The Naval Academy graduate has long since lost count of how many people have approached him to say they went to a service academy because of him. Robinson, 53, was featured in Navy recruiting materials even before he won two championships with the San Antonio Spurs, and he looks at that as part of his military service. He feels it's both an honor and his duty to use his platform to represent the military well, and he harbors no conflicted feelings about it.
"All of us were called to do something, and what I was called to do was in the public limelight," said Robinson.
"I don't know that you could get better publicity or better outreach...That's just been such the positive impact between Roger [Staubach] and myself, all the guys that have gotten out there and done what they've done. It's an incredibly positive thing, and it just shows that you can serve in a lot of different ways."
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) is the sole member of the team to stand in the open for the national anthem while his teammates remained in the tunnel before a game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.
ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS
David Robinson, center, a former NBA star with the San Antonio Spurs and Hall of Famer, meets Sgt. Evan Dow, right, and Spc. Kevin Ryland, Training Support Company, 32nd Medical Brigade, during the Celebrate America's Military kick-off luncheon at the Exposition Hall on the grounds of the Freeman Coliseum on Nov. 1, 2010.
ESTHER GARCIA/U.S. ARMY