By Ron Richards, www.armedforcesbowl.com
Playing college football on the highest level of the sport requires special individuals. The discipline needed for players to manage their studies, personal life and the demands of being a major college athlete are extremely taxing.
Those demands increase exponentially for players at the United States Air Force Academy. Being a football-playing cadet requires a commitment that goes beyond that made by your typical college freshman, let alone a football player in a normal collegiate setting.
It’s not to say that students who attend universities elsewhere don’t have major demands on their time. Or that they aren’t committed – no doubt most are.
But the level of commitment a cadet in Colorado Springs must make as he/she matriculates at the Academy reaches levels that are unheard of for most students.
The process begins when Air Force head football coach Troy Calhoun and his staff identify a player they believe will be a good fit for the Falcon program. After six seasons as the Falcons head coach – plus the time he personally spent as a cadet and Falcon player – Calhoun and his staff are quick to point out the demands that an incoming cadet faces when he joins the AFA football program.
“It’s the ultimate challenge for a young man or woman when they come to the Academy,” Calhoun said. “You are going to be taking at least 18 semester hours every semester. You will take two levels of calculus, two levels of physics. Aeronautical engineering, astronautical engineering. After you graduate, you aren’t going to the NFL. Unlike most colleges, you aren’t gonna be able to red shirt.
“Before you ever see a helmet or shoulder pads, you are going to go through 5½ weeks of basic training. When you graduate, you are going on active duty. Wherever we need you, you’re going. You don’t get your iPhone or your BlackBerry or anything like that. You give all that up. It’s easy to say you might want to doit. But to make that kind of commitment – it takes a rare kind of kid.”
All that considered, for Falcon quarterback Connor Dietz, the decision to become a cadet was relatively easy.
“The Academy – both academically and from a football standpoint – is different, obviously,” said Dietz, who graduated a few weeks ago, is playing in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl as a Second Lieutenant and will be stationed at Macdill Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., after taking the 60-day leave each graduating cadet receives.
“From the recruiting aspect, the coaches let you know what is going on from the start and bring you in on things when they are recruiting you. But until you actually go out there (Colorado Springs) and see for yourself and meet the guys on the team, you really don’t know. That’s what really sold me. I met several guys who were similar to me and then I knew being at the Academy would be a great opportunity for me.”
As Calhoun said, it takes a rare student-athlete who is willing to make the kind of commitment required to be successful at the Air Force Academy.
“It’s gotta be more than academics,” said Calhoun as he described the type of student-athlete the Falcons seek. “They have to be great students, that’s for sure. But it’s so much more than that. They have to know, it’s going to be hard. There’ll be plenty of days – particularly in the first six months – that you’re gonna feel awful. You’re gonna be miserable. You just know that it will be a hard place to be.
“It’s great to watch them grow, to see their pride rise up and see their personal fortitude. But it’s a rough, rough road.”
Calhoun, who was at the Academy from 1985-89 and started at quarterback for the Falcons in 1986, took a moment to reflect on his days as a recruit and offered, “I thought that if I would go anywhere else, I would probably be happier. There would be a lot more joy and a lot more comforts. And definitely a lot more freedoms.
“I had a mom, I was sitting at dinner one night, and my sister (who also attended the Academy and graduated in 1991) asked me where I was going to go to school and, before I could even answer, my mom had this (kitchen) towel and she slammed it down on the counter and said I don’t think there’s a decision to be made here, and I ended up at the Academy. I would never trade it for anything. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.”
Defensive lineman Nick DiJulio, a senior from Overland Park, Kan., echoed the comments of Calhoun and Dietz.
“Yeah, it’s a little different at the Academy,” he said. “But it is something you know going in and just accept. The guys on the team, we are all dedicated to play football and represent the Academy in a good light. We understand what comes with the job when we come to Colorado.”
The final opportunity for both Dietz and DiJulio to represent the Falcons on the gridiron comes at 10:45 CT tomorrow when they square off against the Rice Owls. The preparation they have received – both on the field and in the classroom – has prepared them to positively represent the Academy, and our nation, for years to come.