Eisenberg: A Cautionary Tale For Ravens' Keenan Reynolds


Like a lot of memories from back in the day, this one was a little hazy. I searched my house for the newspaper clipping that would confirm it, but alas, the clipping didn't turn up, proving definitively that I have amassed too much junk in my basement and attic.

Fortunately, an online search was more fruitful, producing a copy of the article that, yes, I did write when the Baltimore Sun sent me across the country 30 years ago to profile Napoleon McCallum, the running back who played in the NFL after starring at the Naval Academy.

Since the Ravens selected Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft last month, with designs on turning him into a receiver/returner, I've been thinking about my memorable experience with McCallum.

Reynolds is living out pretty much the same story. Like McCallum years ago, he must tread the finest of lines to play in the NFL.

Academy graduates are bound to a five-year service obligation, and some in the military are against the idea of exceptions. That puts a prospective pro athlete in a delicate situation. McCallum told me years ago he received hate mail when he played for the Los Angeles Raiders while also fulfilling his service obligation as a supply officer.

What I recalled (and re-reading my article confirmed) was McCallum didn't actually receive permission from the Navy to play after being drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986. But the Navy did allow him to exercise a stipulation permitting off-duty employment. Basically, he played for the Raiders in his spare time.

His schedule was exhausting. McCallum rose before dawn and worked a nine-hour shift as a supply officer in Long Beach, Cal., before speeding up the highway to attend an afternoon practice at the Raiders' facility in El Segundo.

"I was really worn down,' McCallum told an interviewer in 2010. "My wife drove me back and forth so I could sleep in the car."

After an impressive rookie season in 1986, though, McCallum's window of opportunity abruptly closed. A new Secretary of the Navy, less amenable to pro athletes, took over. McCallum was reassigned. After three years away from football, he returned to the Raiders in 1990 and spent five years with the team, primarily as a backup, until an injury ended his career.

As Reynolds enters the NFL, he certainly can use McCallum's example as a cautionary tale. Enjoy your opportunity. It can be fleeting. Anything can happen.

Yet it's clear times have changed. It seems the authorities are on board with Reynolds getting a chance. The Secretary of the Navy has approved him to play for the Ravens in 2016 while fulfilling his military obligation in the Navy Reserve. The Secretary of Defense still needs to sign off, but that is expected.

Reynolds is still taking some heat, just as McCallum did years ago. Check out the comments posted at the bottom of any online article about him. He is alternately praised for pursuing his dream and castigated for "wasting" his taxpayer-funded education designed to produce an officer.

He is going to need a thick skin. But I'm sure he knew that.

Military protocol is hardly my area of expertise, so I'm hesitant to comment on the Navy's decision. Building a strong military is obviously more important than anyone's football career. But if the Navy family wants to enjoy having a winning team, which it seemingly does, that team is likely to churn out a few pro-caliber players, like Reynolds. Giving them a chance to play in the NFL helps bring in more players of that caliber.

Reynolds' pro football journey is just beginning, of course. Regardless of what happens off the field, he still has to prove himself on the field and earn a spot on the Ravens' roster. That is hardly assured. The competition for jobs is fierce.

But the Ravens drafted him because of what he did at Navy in open space with the ball in his hand. If he shows the same spark, he'll get his chance.

As for how he melds his football and military obligations, I'm sure he'll figure it out. A 28-hour day would help. I keep recalling the image McCallum painted for me years ago, of him catching naps while his wife zooms up and down the freeway, ferrying him to his commitments. It's a busy life.

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