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A Memorial Day Salute To Service Academy Football Players

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Pablo Beltran enters his third season as Navy's starting punter. Photo courtesy of Navy Athletics.
Pablo Beltran enters his third season as Navy's starting punter. Photo courtesy of Navy Athletics.

Nobody in the NFL is talking about Pablo Beltran.

To be fair, it is in part because he’s a rising junior, though plenty of third-year players are popping up on the super-early 2014 draft rankings.

It’s primarily because he’s a punter, and punters don’t make a lot of draft boards. Only two punters were drafted in 2013, both in the fifth round. And neither was Ryan Allen, the Louisiana Tech punter who won back-to-back Ray Guy Awards and still couldn’t get a sniff until the Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent.

But it’s also because Pablo Beltran plays at Navy.

That’s some serious triple-decker stigma to overcome: an underclassman punter from a service academy. Guests of the witness protection program have higher profiles in the eyes of the NFL.

Beltran doesn’t mind, nor would he if he actually had time to give it any thought.  You see, Beltran’s been a bit busy since the end of the spring semester. He and about 30 of his football teammates just spent two weeks going through Marine Corps training.

That’s right. As a reward for finishing all your final exams, you get to go to Quanitco, VA, for a full week of full-day classroom sessions, followed by another week of trials both physical and psychological, like the Leadership Reaction Course and lugging a fully loaded rucksack through a 4.5-mile endurance course in the woods.

And you know how Beltran felt about that whole raw deal? “It was awesome,” he said, a day after returning home from Virginia, only a few days before he’d have to report back to Annapolis for a month of summer school and weapons training.

Awesome.

I came home from college one year after my Calculus 101 final and stayed curled up in a fetal position until Flag Day. Guys like Beltran just keep looking for the next obstacle course wall to scale.

Take the football players at Air Force, who might spend one of their three summer periods learning to jump out of planes with a parachute or enduring combat survival training or participating in Operation Air Force. That’s when they get shipped somewhere in the world to shadow someone in their intended career field. A civil engineer major, for instance, would spend three weeks with a civil engineering squadron.

And what did you do with your summer vacation?

Then they all return to campus in time for summer camp – which is what football’s grueling preseason must feel like to them. Or, as Beltran calls it, “our escape.”

Let’s be perfectly clear. The student-athletes who play football at our nation’s service academies are no more or less tough than football players elsewhere. They’re just different. Whereas football players elsewhere have the kind of measurables that intrigue the NFL, service academy football players are more the immeasurables type. They go to college to play football, not to become football players.

Beltran had his chance to play at a big-time college program.  He was recruited by Oklahoma State and Baylor when he was growing up in Humble, TX (of course he’s from Humble; where else could produce a guy who makes a point of crediting his long-snapper, Joe Cardona, as the best in the country?) But he visited the Naval Academy, at the urging of his mother, and was struck immediately by the special nature of the place.

“It would be great to go to Alabama or Oklahoma State. But in 30 years, I’d hate to have had to look back and regret the decision not to go here,” said Beltran.

When a football player makes the decision to play at a service academy, he does so knowing that his football career likely will end at graduation. Army, Navy and Air Force have had a combined 28 players drafted. In 77 years.

Army defensive back Caleb Campbell was the most recent, going to Detroit in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Air Force hasn’t had a player drafted since 1999, Navy since 1998. Central Michigan has had more left tackles drafted in the first round in the past seven years than the total number of service academy prospects taken since the start of the millenium, from any position, at any point in the draft.

This is not to disparage the caliber of football player found at military service academies. Quite the contrary.

Memorial Day is the opportunity to remember and honor the servicemen and servicewomen who have died defending our country. It also seems like an appropriate time to acknowledge the future leaders of America’s military, specifically those from the college football community.

Their names are not likely to come up during any conversation centering on individual awards. And as draft prospects, they are largely a contingent of unknown soldiers, sailors and airmen. Even Beltran, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound punter who averaged nearly 44 yards a boot last year, whose career could wind up comparing favorably to the two punters selected in the 2013 draft, is a longshot to be drafted when his day comes.

But we mention them today, during a weekend when our troops are foremost on our minds. And we salute them not as football prospects with the potential to be drafted into NFL career but for their unique and honorable and impressive commitment. And for being, in Beltran’s words, “a bunch of tough suckers.”