- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2021

When Phil McConkey was growing up in Buffalo, New York, he had two dreams: Become a pilot and score a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

But despite playing for one of the top high school teams in the state as a wide receiver and defensive back, the 145-pound McConkey didn’t receive any scholarship offers to play football at a high college level because of his size. That seemingly diminished his chances at accomplishing both dreams.

“So I figured, at least at the Naval Academy, I’ll get a shot at one of ‘em,” McConkey said Tuesday in a phone call.

He attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, played football and went on to become a pilot.

And when his active-duty service ended, he became a 27-year-old rookie for the New York Giants. He accomplished his second dream during Super Bowl XXI, catching a deflected pass for a touchdown in New York’s win against the Denver Broncos.

McConkey considers himself fortunate that his NFL window was still open, that he was able to still compete at the highest level. But he doesn’t think it necessarily has to be in that order.

And as he read about Cameron Kinley’s situation, learning more about the recent Naval Academy graduate who signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he said he felt “heartbroken.” Kinley wasn’t granted a waiver to delay his commission so he could pursue his NFL dream before serving in the Navy.

Kinley, who captained the football team and served as class president — a rare occurrence at the Naval Academy — had his request to defer his active-duty service denied by acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker. Harker didn’t provide a reason. He also didn’t forward the request to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who has the authority to grant exceptions to immediate active service.

“If you want any guy to represent the country on behalf of the Navy and do it the right way, this is the guy,” Ryan Williams-Jenkins, a former Naval Academy graduate and Kinley’s agent, told the Washington Times. “So the fact that there’s been a denial, it doesn’t sit well with us or make sense.”

In a statement, Capt. Jereal Dorsey — special assistant for public affairs for the Secretary of the Navy — said the mission of the Naval Academy “is to develop young men and women to commission as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps.” Capt. Dorsey added that “exceptions to that commitment to serve have been rightfully rare.”

But the situation is especially confusing for Kinley and Williams-Jenkins because the United States Military Academy and the Air Force Academy have forwarded their requests for a waiver to the Secretary of Defense for review. There’s also recent precedence for players receiving exemptions to immediate service requirements.

In 2019, then-President Trump issued a directive to the Department of Defense to allow athletes at military academies to defer their service obligations until their professional sports careers finish. Malcolm Perry, a Naval Academy graduate, was approved for deferral and drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 2020 draft. Elijah Riley from Army signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent.

And this year, four players from Air Force and Army have signed with NFL teams: Jon Rhattigan (Seahawks), Nolan Laufenberg (Broncos), George Silvanic (Rams) and Parker Ferguson (Jets).

“While I acknowledge that these men are from different branches of the armed services,” Kinley said in a statement, “it puzzles me as to why I am the only person to be denied this opportunity.”

Kinley’s not alone in his puzzlement.

From a purely football perspective, prospective recruits could look at Kinley’s situation and choose Army or Air Force — Navy’s main rivals — because of the chance to play in the NFL before serving. But beyond that, McConkey — now the president and a partner at Academy Securities after a six-year NFL career — said the spotlight on Kinley if he made the active roster would also reflect positively on the Naval Academy.

“If he’s playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the same team as Tom Brady, the attention brought to him I think is so positive,” McConkey said. “His value to our nation and the Navy is great if he can be on that stage and shine such a positive light on not only himself, but the Naval Academy.”

Joe Cardona, a Naval Academy graduate and the long snapper for the New England Patriots, noted how the average career length in the NFL is just under three years. There’s a short window for players to make their mark.

The exception policy now in place wasn’t around when Cardona was drafted in 2015, so he became “probably the busiest rookie in the NFL,” he said Tuesday, playing for the Patriots while also serving as a command duty officer at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island. Since then, Cardona has maintained his place in the reserves.

But he hopes Kinley has the chance to receive a waiver to play in the NFL — an experience that will only make Kinley and others better officers, Cardona said.

“For a lot of these guys that are getting the opportunity to play football, even if it’s a short window, they’ll be able to be an asset due to that unique experience,” Cardona said. “That’s something they’ll see throughout their career, and the sailors, Marines, soldiers, airmen around them will also notice that there’s a difference in those graduates that have been a part of a professional sports organization.”

Williams-Jenkins said he and Kinley have requested a formal written reason as to why Kinley’s request for delayed active service was denied. They haven’t received a response yet. Williams-Jenkins hopes Harker, the acting Secretary of the Navy, reverses course and allows Kinley to pursue his NFL dream before serving his country.

“It’s a very simple process, very logical process, that’s just not being acted on at this moment,” Williams-Jenkins said.

When McConkey graduated from the Naval Academy in 1979, he didn’t have the opportunity to defer his service. He sometimes wonders how his NFL career might’ve progressed if he could’ve played football immediately, but he quickly bats those thoughts away, more than content with how he accomplished both dreams: becoming a pilot and a Super Bowl champion.

But he also knows the opportunity for a 22-year-old to enter the league is better than a 27-year-old, as he did in 1984. So McConkey doesn’t want to see Kinley miss out on the first of his two dreams, either.

“These are really special cases. It’s not like the floodgates opened,” McConkey said. “And what I think a kid like this could do for the Naval Academy, for the Navy, for our country, the upside is great if he was on a stage like that.”

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