Times Staff Writer

You’d think the football would be better here, what with a killer booster club and the institution’s record of finding jobs for all its grads. Who wouldn’t want to play the game here? Some of the players get paid $450 a month, up-front as can be. Also, clothes are free and they’re pretty nice.

Hey, NCAA! Are you listening?

Of course, there is a downside to playing for the U.S. Naval Academy, and we’re not talking about the mandatory study period--7:30-11 p.m.--either. The downside is that the draft awaiting the graduates is not exactly the NFL’s.

Which brings us to Napoleon McCallum, the greatest Naval carrier since the Hornet. When he graduates this year, McCallum won’t sign with the Jets for $1 million. He’s already under contract--those boosters have it in writing; they’re tough--so all he will gets is a promotion to ensign and a raise to about $1,600 a month.

Poor Nap. He could have done without the commission and taken the $1 million instead. How much brass does a guy need?

The idea that a football player, or anyone else at the academy, has to spend at least five years after graduation in the armed services is considered enough of a downside that neither the NCAA nor many top-flight athletes pay much attention to the fabled perks at Navy. Pay away, is the NCAA’s sanction. It’s the last money they’ll ever get for toting a football.


Since most of the athletes are not pro prospects to begin with, this five-year payback is not much of a hardship. Every once in a while, though, a guy like McCallum comes along and shows this military obligation to be what it is--pretty inflexible.

McCallum, surprising even himself, was the nation’s leading all-purpose runner two seasons ago, finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. He figures to fare even better this year, after sitting out last season in a historic--for the academy--redshirt year.

So look at him good. Because he made a hard decision, as did Navy, and this may be the last you see of him with a football, for a while certainly. And as Ram running back Eric Dickerson said, during their photo session for a recent Sports Illustrated cover: “That’s a shame.”

As Roger Staubach and athletes before and since have taught us, there is no way around it. The service academies are generous on the one hand, demanding on the other.

Oh, you have a job offer? Pays a million dollars? But we don’t understand. You already have a job--ensign.

It’s non-negotiable, although plenty have tried to negotiate.

Back in the 1940s, for instance, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside themselves tried to get around the Army’s prior claim on their time. After graduating from West Point, it was proposed, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis would enjoy a four-month furlough each year to coincide with the NFL season. In exchange, each would sign an agreement to serve 20 years in the Army.

According to Davis, in an interview with The Times two years ago, the Army nearly went for it. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, superintendent of West Point, liked the idea.

“Taylor approved, and he sent the arrangement to the Pentagon for approval,” Davis said. “Three days later he called us in and said, ‘OK you two have a deal.’

“The next day, he called us in and said: ‘Sorry, we’ve got to renege on that arrangement. Some congressman is raising hell about it.’ ”

Those boosters again.

More recently, Eddie Meyers, the back who preceded McCallum at Navy and who set all the rushing records McCallum is about to break, tried to negotiate an arrangement. Meyers, who bunches his 30 days of furlough each year to coincide with the Atlanta Falcons’ training camp, will not be able to try out for real until 1987, when he’ll be 28, perhaps a little old for a running back.

Meyers tried to bargain to retain some of his youth.

“I told them I’d be willing to do two years (in the Marines) for every year of pro football. They didn’t want to hear that. I tried to pay for my time at the academy. You hear how concerned taxpayers are, I figured it would be OK as long as the naval service gets paid. They didn’t want to hear that either. They basically want me to serve my time.”

Lt. Meyers said that from Camp Pendleton, where he is definitely serving his time.

With all this precedent, McCallum didn’t figure to do much better, although he did try. “I had heard, when I was being recruited, that if for some reason you don’t finish, you can pay the Navy back. I asked the coach to check it out. Not sure how hard he checked it out, though.”

In fact, there is no such provision, although give McCallum credit for throwing around some interesting ideas. One story quoted him as saying: “But coach, I could buy them a missile or something.” Apocryphal. “I don’t think I said anything like that,” he said, laughing easily. On the other hand: “But I would have gone as high as a million.”

You’re not sympathetic? You figure Nap knew what he was getting into when he signed up with the Navy?

Well, first of all, McCallum is making no great effort to get out of anything.

Would he like to make a million or whatever in the NFL? Of course. And it’s no longer thought to be unpatriotic, even at the academy, to say so. The other day, the quarterback told a reporter he wishes he had gone to a Pacific 10 school instead.

One Navy official was flabbergasted to see such a quote in print but another said, more or less, “Wake up. It’s 1985.”

Note most of all that McCallum is fulfilling his commitment with the Navy and not crying about it.

The other thing is that McCallum didn’t entirely know what he was getting into. That is, when he agreed to serve the Navy, he had no idea he’d ever have pro prospects.

That’s the thread that runs through all these cases.

When Eddie Meyers came here, after having fielded exactly zero scholarship offers, he didn’t even think he’d make the team. As for McCallum, his ambition at the time of his entrance here was to become an astronaut. Pro football seemed out of the question.

Oh, he was a decent enough athlete back in Milford, Ohio, though athletics were mainly a way for him to avoid all the chores his father kept finding for him. To hear McCallum talk, he cleared more land in his youth than Paul Bunyan. He was a decent wrestler and seemed to prefer that. As he told one interviewer, “Wrestlers got medals and had their girlfriends kiss them out on the mat.”

He was a decent football player, too, just not so good that he started any recruiting wars. He was the Cincinnati area’s fourth-leading rusher but, all the same, got state honors only as a defensive back. “I wanted to end up at Michigan,” he said. “They sent me a card but nothing else.”

McCallum, who dreamed of being a pilot as much as anything, had hoped to put it all together at a good engineering school. But Syracuse was the only one, besides the academy, that offered a scholarship. Since it never occurred to McCallum that there might be football for him after college, what did it really matter? He’d graduate and go to the moon one way or another, in uniform or out.

His first couple of years at Navy did nothing to put his decision in doubt. Keep in mind that we’re talking about a kid who once carved an airplane in the paneling of his parent’s mobile home, who cut pictures of astronauts from old magazines, who idolized not O.J. Simpson but Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise. “My first two years my main concern was flying, getting the education this place offered,” he said.

Anyway, he wasn’t making anyone forget, well, Eddie Meyers. Though he gained 739 yards his sophomore year, he was shaping up as a nice little back from the Naval Academy, no more no less. McCallum certainly wasn’t overly impressed. “I looked at myself and I looked awkward,” he said.

After the second year at the academy, it is still possible to drop out and avoid the Navy’s five-year commitment. That occurred to McCallum, who had just read of Steve Young’s $40 million contract with the Los Angeles Express, and he tested the waters, first with his coach and then his mom and dad. “That was as far as that went,” he said, suggesting that he had met some resistance at home.

Some resistance?

“I talked with my dad awhile and told him I was going to Syracuse,” McCallum recalled. “We talked awhile and then we argued. He finally ended up telling me I didn’t know what I was doing. I said, ‘All right, I’ll stay here but I don’t want to be here. And you can remember that for the rest of your life.’ ”

All you dads out there, not much of a malediction, huh? Dads carry lots heavier luggage than that, especially Napoleon’s.

It was no big deal at the time because who really wanted McCallum besides the Navy? Hardly anybody. But then in his junior year, for reasons that remain unknown to him and the coaching staff, he positively blossomed and led the nation in all-purpose running, averaging 216 yards a game, rushing and returning kicks. Why, he busted Pitt for 172 yards.

How did he look to himself then?

McCallum smiled. “A lot smoother,” he said.

A lot of other people thought so as well and thus was McCallum’s torment raised to a new level.

At that point, it was still possible for McCallum to drop out, trading his five-year commitment for a two-year enlistment, in which case he’d be a 23-year-old NFL rookie instead of a 26-year-old rookie. But the Navy by now realized it had something beyond an officer candidate. It had a Heisman candidate, a walking-talking recruitment poster. The Navy moved the big guns into place.

Roger Staubach, Heisman winner-supply officer-NFL star came around. Then Joe Bellino, another Navy Heisman winner, came talking. The theme they used was predictable but no less persuasive. Backing out of a commitment, they said, is not the best foundation for the adult life.

McCallum saw the honor in following their advice and went ahead with his Navy career, though he is human enough to suffer regrets from time to time.

“I had doubts but this is something I wanted to do, too,” he said. “I’m not crying over it. I’ll graduate, go into the fleet, get ensign pay and I’ll live in a house finally, not Bancroft Hall.”

So he’s looking forward to it, up to a point. “I have a lot to look forward to, being in the Navy,” he said. On the other hand, there is the road not taken. “I don’t dwell on it,” he said, again laughing. “That leads to depression.”

It is finally proposed that maybe by taking this hard, high road he will become an example of the athlete who lives up to his commitment. Maybe that’s his appeal. Does he, in fact, feel somewhat noble?

Thinking it over, he said: “Sometimes I feel a little stupid.”

Of course, McCallum has not put football entirely out of his mind and, curiously, neither has the Navy.

That McCallum has been redshirted after last year’s calamitous senior season, when he broke his ankle in the second game, suggests that the Navy is onto something. After all, what is the academy’s mission but “to prepare midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers in the Naval service.”

Nothing there about the Heisman, you’ll notice.

Yet the Navy had little trouble granting McCallum’s request for a redshirt season, believed to be the first ever for athletic reasons at a service academy. It may be because the Navy recognizes its own obligation to McCallum.

Here is the statement from Rear Adm. Charles Larson: “I decided we had an obligation to support McCallum after all the support he has provided for the Naval Academy and the Navy itself in recent years.”

So the Navy has honor, too.

The other thing may be that the Navy has all these posters of McCallum posing in old-time Naval garb in front of the carrier Constellation left over from last season.

In any event, McCallum was allowed back--he was part of one fleet that would not be moth-balled--and that didn’t sit too well with traditionalists, not to mention Army.

It was a flap all the way around, and the big scandal may be that Navy actually had to prevent McCallum from graduating to redshirt him. Not your normal college, you can be sure. McCallum was all set to leave with a degree in applied science so his schedule had to be juggled so he wouldn’t complete his degree requirements in his supposed senior year. Now he’ll graduate with a second major in physical sciences.

In all this there is sometimes the suggestion that somehow McCallum has tweaked the Navy’s nose and is getting away with something.

McCallum is not too sure about that. He’ll play another season of football, true, but he’ll also endure another two terms of midshipman status. That is not unqualified fun. There is the schoolwork, for one thing, and there are all the other things that go with being a midshipman. And there are none of the things that go with being an ensign, which include a little more independence and money.

Then, too, there was June week, when the graduating midshipmen traditionally throw their hats into the air in a great celebration.

McCallum’s mother was disappointed that he wouldn’t participate in that with the rest of his classmates. “I wasn’t one to be real sentimental,” he said. “That was just something for my mom. But when it got around that time, I realized I wanted to be part of it. Maybe I would have graduated if I had known what it would really be like. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, shaking President Reagan’s hand.”

For the record, the off-June graduates are allowed to throw their hats, too, but in the superintendent’s office. “The hats don’t go as high,” McCallum said.

Neither will McCallum himself go as high because his dream of flying for the Navy has pretty much been put aside. His injury last season probably would bar him from flight training, even with the eight pins and metal plate removed.

Besides, two years of flight training would bump his military obligation up to seven years.

“That’s a factor,” he said. Postponing a pro career five years may be impossible as it is.

Nowadays, he is more ground-oriented, which is what you should expect of one of the country’s great running backs. The man whose style is so undefined that even Coach Gary Tranquill can think of no better word than subtle is strictly a runner, no more a would-be flier.

Now he’s chasing, in his trademark five-yard bursts, a trophy that ultimately may reflect more glory onto a service academy than upon himself. And why shouldn’t it. It’s the academy that has broken with tradition and given him a second chance to chase it, right?

Still, it seems there should be some kind of award, no matter how many yards McCallum gains, to honor him. Not for making a hard decision, which is at once honorable and stupid, but for living with it so cheerfully.

“It’s something that will pay off in the long run,” he says of his strange career course. If so, it will be the finest run of this football season.