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Running Back To The Front Of The Line
Kenny Moore
September 04, 1985
After missing nearly all of last season with a broken leg, Napoleon McCallum returns for an unprecedented, and controversial, fifth year at the Naval Academy
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September 04, 1985

Running Back To The Front Of The Line

After missing nearly all of last season with a broken leg, Napoleon McCallum returns for an unprecedented, and controversial, fifth year at the Naval Academy

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"My father would have us out there at 6:30 in the morning," says the younger. "We wouldn't have breakfast until my mom woke up. I'd think, 'Other kids don't have to do this.' I hated him for it until I got to the academy. Only when I saw how people react who haven't worked like that, how they complained, how they didn't make things happen, did I appreciate what my dad had done."

No coach, relative, teacher or teammate of McCallum's ever neglects to tell you of his willingness to work. "But no, I've never talked to my father about this," says McCallum. "I never wanted to give him the satisfaction."

McCallum's father explains, "I was trying to make a person he'd be proud of, a person who could face obstacles in life. I wasn't too concerned whether he'd like it. I was concerned with the end result. I felt the same way about my father."

McCallum's two dependable ways out of farm work were study and sport. In high school he maintained a 3.0 GPA, high-jumped 6'6" (he has raised that to 6'10" at Navy) and pole-vaulted 13'6". He was the fourth-leading ground-gainer in the greater Cincinnati area. "But I liked wrestling a lot more than football," says McCallum. "Besides running the ball, I was a defensive back. That was the worst. I always got hurt trying to tackle." Even wrestling didn't show him at his best, because he often got sick trying to keep his weight at 155.

Thus, when the major football colleges combed through Cincinnati, McCallum was left without a call. He made a list of where all the astronauts had gone to college, finding that the service academies had turned out the most, followed by several schools, including Michigan. "I really hoped to hear from Michigan," he says. When he didn't, he narrowed his choices to Syracuse, Air Force and Navy, all of which recruited him. But the Air Force Academy was stark and isolated in the Colorado mountains. Navy was in quaint little Annapolis. "I had had enough isolation on the farm," he says.

He took eagerly to the midshipman's cloistered life. "I'd studied a lot at home, and I didn't go out," he says. "I wasn't allowed out. I was used to getting up early. I'd been in Civil Air Patrol, so I was accustomed to some of the military stuff. The hard parts were memorizing Reef Points [the handbook of Naval lore that every plebe must master] and having to shout out things. I never was a great talker, but I got better at it."

Football was the least of his worries. As a sophomore he ran for 739 yards. By all objective judgment, he was and would continue to be a good but not a great back. His speed was not blinding, his strength not overpowering, his moves not acrobatic. His coaches thought he was slightly tentative. And if that wasn't realism enough, he had been forced to reassess his career goals.

"I'd hoped to become a pilot and work up through the Blue Angels to the astronauts," he says. "But as I learned more about the astronaut program and the people in it, football began to seem like the easier thing to do. Coming out of high school, I thought, 'Hey, I'm smart. I got a scholar-athlete award for the Cincinnati area.' Then I came here and saw the guys who are really on top of it, with the same ambitions. I began to see it would take me twice as long to learn the technology as it would take them." So McCallum decided against majoring in aerospace engineering and settled on applied (computer) science instead. He could still fly, but he could also throw himself more fully into football.

"His biggest physical change came between his sophomore and junior years," says Navy coach Gary Tranquill. "He matured and lifted weights and developed a very subtle running style. He's a glider. He has that long, smooth stride that just doesn't look as fast or as quick as it really is. The defender never seems to get the shot at him that he thought he would. And, of course, he has the thing all great backs have—vision."

And the instinct to react to what he sees. "I love it when I'm stretched out catching a flare pass," says McCallum, "feeling a guy bearing down on me, thinking I'm a piece of fresh meat, and I can do a quick step and make him miss. Or when I feel the defensive back over-pursuing, I can stop quick and just happily watch him go by."

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