MIAMI -- If you came here looking for answers, you're out of luck. I have no answers. Not when the topic is New Orleans Saints fullback Kyle Eckel. And not when the question is this: Why is Eckel, who ran for 1,147 yards at Navy in 2004, playing in Super Bowl XLIV instead of fulfilling his military obligation in the United States Navy?
That's a big, meaty question. And I'm but a small, scrawny sports writer, one who cannot answer it. Nor will I fill in the blanks with my version of Right and Wrong. Not this time. Not on this topic. It's too large, too powerful. Too real.
|The Saints cut Kyle Eckel at midseason before bringing him back. (US Presswire)|
The best I can do is try to explain why Eckel is here, in Miami, instead of there, in the war zone. And even then I'll be operating blindfolded, because nobody is illuminating this story, including Kyle Eckel. I asked him, though. Believe me, I tried.
The facts that I approached Eckel with start here: He graduated from Navy in spring 2005. According to Naval Academy regulations, he would serve five years of active duty before pursuing his NFL career. Those are the rules at Navy, no matter who you are. Navy's Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1964, but he served five years -- one in Vietnam -- before making his NFL debut in 1969.
Rules are rules, but Eckel did try to get around them. Shortly before graduation he asked the Navy to release him from active duty. The Navy said no, but in two years he would have a second option to pursue, a more realistic shortcut around that five-year obligation. A Department of Defense policy allows a graduate "with unique abilities" to serve just two years of active duty, forgoing the final three years for six in the reserves.
Eckel was five months away from being able to seek that waiver when he received something else -- a full release from his commitment in October 2006. Technically it's called an "involuntary separation," which is a nice way of saying that, 17 months into his five-year military obligation, Kyle Eckel was dismissed from the U.S. Navy. He also was ordered to repay almost $100,000 toward his education.
This was not a public relations move. Nor was the Navy trying to do him a favor. In civilian terms, the Navy fired Kyle Eckel -- and to this day, nobody will say why. Not the Navy, which declined interview requests through the Pentagon, and not people within the Navy football program, who deferred the question to Eckel. And not Eckel himself. He's not saying.
Again, I asked. It happened Tuesday when I got him alone at Super Bowl Media Day.
"No," Eckel said -- politely -- when I asked him to tell me about his exit from the Navy.
"No?" I said back to Eckel. "That's it? 'No'?"
"Right," he told me -- polite as can be. "No."
There's more background here, but it's murky and maybe irrelevant. Nine months before his involuntary separation from the Navy, in February 2006, Eckel walked in on a former teammate having sex with a woman, sex that was later determined to be "indecent assault" and resulted in the teammate serving two years in the brig. Eckel wasn't charged with a crime, but the timing is curious, especially in conjunction with this: In an unrelated incident in August 2006, a woman accused Eckel of pushing her to the ground outside an Annapolis, Md., nightclub, breaking her arm. Police investigated, witnesses disputed her description of the events, and no charges were filed against Eckel.
Less than four months later, he was dismissed from the Navy. Crushing blow? Maybe to his ego, but remember -- even before his graduation in 2005, Eckel had requested to be released from active duty. That didn't work, but in October 2006 the Navy finally obliged, albeit harshly ("involuntary separation") and at a cost of roughly $100,000. Still, he was a free man. No war-time military commitment for Kyle Eckel. Just professional football. And on Sunday, he'll be in the Super Bowl.
"Can't really explain how it feels," Eckel said. "Obviously it's the highlight of my career."
Not everyone is pleased about this. MilitaryTimes.com, an online news magazine devoted to the armed forces, highlighted Eckel's coming appearance in the Super Bowl and was criticized by soldiers on the message boards below. One wrote, "This guy was 'having a blast' while his classmates were in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't think this is the type of person the Military Times should be showcasing." Another wrote, "As active duty Navy and a PS (personnel specialist), an involuntary Administrative Discharge is not something the United States Navy should be proud of, let alone advertising."
The Eckel family remains loyal to Navy. Eckel himself stays in touch with classmates -- "All the time," he said. "We're brothers" -- and his actual younger brother, Kevin Eckel, is at Navy right now. He plays football. He's a fullback, just like his older brother -- and in the Navy football offices, they still love Kyle Eckel. They also provide some possible insight into the high military expectations that might have brought about his expulsion.
"It's easy to take shots at athletics because we're such a visible sport," said Navy offensive line coach Chris Culton, who coached fullbacks when Eckel was a senior. "Kyle is still -- especially here in our football family -- very well thought of. He worked hard while he was here, and that's something that can be said of every midshipman here: You've got to have great work ethic and time management skills. Kyle wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but what is unacceptable here gets laughed at, at other schools. You can get in trouble here for wearing mesh shorts under your uniform. Missing curfew is a huge deal here."
It's a different world in the military, and obviously that world isn't for everyone. Just as obviously, it wasn't the world for Kyle Eckel. The Navy confirmed as much when it set him loose in October 2006. To be sure, Eckel was never the prototypical military man. For one thing, he's a video-game nerd. For another, he graduated dead last in his class of 2005, "the anchor," as it's called at Navy. Graduating last at a military school -- which still means you did graduate -- is more impressive than being a middle-of-the-road student almost anywhere else, but at Navy it makes you a weak link.
And Eckel didn't make up for his academic mediocrity with gung-ho military attitude. Before Eckel's final Army-Navy game in December 2004, President Bush appeared in the Navy locker room to wish the Midshipmen luck. Eckel would tell the New York Times later that, as Bush was making his short speech, Eckel wondered if the man would ever finish talking. Nothing against the Commander in Chief, but Eckel loves football. And he ran for 179 yards that day in a 42-13 Navy win.
"Best fullback we ever had here, and we've had some good ones," Culton said. "He's one tough hombre."
Eckel played his sophomore season with a torn ACL. The knee was sore and swollen, but his legs were so strong that doctors missed the tear initially, and he played the rest of the season with a brace. Eventually the tear was discovered, and he had surgery. He missed spring practice but was on the field in August and gained more than 1,000 yards. Then he gained another 1,000-plus yards as a senior. Then he tried his best to get out of active duty and play in the NFL, and after 17 months he inadvertently got his wish.
Add it up, and this guy was put on this planet to play football. It's not as noble a mission as serving the military, or even close. Indeed, they don't even belong in the same category. But Kyle Eckel is a natural-born football player, not a natural-born soldier. Somewhere along the way the Navy figured that out, but Eckel remains a lightning rod within the military community, which cannot decide if he is someone to be celebrated or someone to be shunned.
Kyle Eckel, former Navy superstar, is playing in the Super Bowl -- not fighting for our country. Who lost in this story? I'm not sure anyone lost. Maybe everybody won.