Running Back To The Front Of The Line

Sept. 04, 1985
Sept. 04, 1985

Table of Contents
Sept. 4, 1985

The Colleges
The Pros

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

The moments before noon formation at the Naval Academy's Bancroft Hall seem chaotic. Uniformed young men run the glossy corridors. The rumbling echo of slamming doors resembles that of approaching artillery. A single pale plebe is stationed near the foot of the steel stairway, emitting a staccato, high-pitched cry. He is as unintelligible as a bus depot announcer. Napoleon McCallum stands to one side, smiling a fond smile, and interprets. "He is saying, 'Time, tide and formation wait for no one. You have five minutes, sir.'

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 1985 issue Original Layout

"They showed me this when I was being recruited," McCallum continues. "How plebes have to chop [run] in the center of the hall, and recite standing orders and the chain of command and what was in the paper this morning whenever an upperclassman demands it. You have to laugh it off. You don't take it to heart because one year of being yelled at gets you three years of being able to yell."

Yet he doesn't yell. During the summer McCallum, who's a first classman (senior) and near the top of the midshipman chain of command, served as a squad leader, which meant that he was responsible for 14 second and third classmen. His duties included disciplining them, providing guidance, taking muster at formation and conducting room and personnel inspections. McCallum seems remarkably un-Napoleonic, for he is tall and well-built (6'2" and 214 pounds), uncalculating and harbors no obsession to rule. "Guys here are already motivated," he says. "I gotta help them, but yelling at them doesn't serve a purpose." McCallum also may be the best college running back in the nation.

That makes him, as he joins the flood of midshipmen pounding down the stairs and into King Hall, a phenomenon found only once every 20 years or so at a service academy. McCallum led the country in all-purpose running in 1983, averaging 216.8 yards a game. He rushed for 1,587 yards on a 3-8 team against defenses stacked to stop him, and finished sixth in the 1983 Heisman Trophy voting.

Now he stands behind his chair at the end of his table, listening to the day's announcements. Above, the great hall's timbers curve as do those belowdecks in the old ships of the line. Golden chandeliers seem to march to the horizon. The aroma of shoe polish is strong but loses out to steaming Irish stew.

Finally, all may be seated. The plebes at the table hurriedly pass food, juice and milk. After several hurried gulps, plebe D.K. Flick asks to leave the table. McCallum questions Flick on his efforts in the latest round of midterm exams. Flick lists marks in engineering, math, navigation. "Everything went up?" says McCallum.

"Almost, sir."

"Nothing went down?"

"No, sir."

"Fine," says McCallum with a nod. "You may be excused."

McCallum chats with a fellow first classman, W.F. Knehans, who raises an eyebrow when it comes out that McCallum sleeps seven hours a night. "I get six at the most," says Knehans.

"The daily routine is simple," says McCallum to a visitor. "Up at seven, shave, breakfast, formation at 7:30, first class at 7:45, four class periods of an hour, noon formation, lunch, two more class periods, football practice from 3:15 to six, out at 6:25, evening meal at 6:30. Then after 7:30 it's study."

McCallum, as one wishes a great running back to be, is superb at orientation, at perceiving the crucial elements at work even in seeming chaos. Seeing him at Annapolis, easy under the gold bars of authority, it is natural to ask about the mission of the academy. "There are two schools of thought on that," he says. "The first, call it Admiral Stockdale's, is that leadership should be stressed over academics. The second, Admiral Rickover's, is that you gotta know what you're doing to lead."

A third, call it Midshipman McCallum's, is an amalgam. "I think they get too technical here sometimes," he says. "To lead, you do have to have a good knowledge of the task, but you have to be able to take part in things at the men's level, too, then rise above it. The most important aspect of leadership is the faith of the people under you that you're going to take care of them. They gotta know your morality. If they don't trust you, they won't fight as well. It's hard to create that. I don't know a way you can really teach it; you just experience it."

Particularly in football. "You need sports for the leadership qualities they bring out," he says. "When it gets tougher, you have to push everybody to go harder to win, because you don't want anyone who's just content to play and not win leading you into battle."

All this might as well have been said by von Clausewitz or Nelson. But then McCallum lends the idea a lighter touch. "That's why my hero is Captain Kirk of the Enterprise," he says. "He always gets out of danger, and he hates to lose his men."

The Naval Academy also hates to lose its man, which is why McCallum is still in school. His football heroics came two years ago. His 1984 season was wiped out by a broken leg in Navy's second game. By all precedent, he should be an ensign now, serving the first of five years of active duty. But under NCAA rules, and at his request, McCallum has been permitted to return for a "hardship" fifth season. He is the first service academy athlete ever to redshirt.

McCallum was five years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The child was fascinated by the astronauts. He clipped pictures of Shepard, Glenn, Aldrin and Armstrong and made a scrap-book. His parents, Napoleon and Virginia McCallum, were both teachers. They had christened their son Leon Ardel McCallum. However, seven months after he was born, they went to the Jefferson City, Mo. courthouse and changed his name. "My husband always wanted to have a son named Napoleon," says Virginia.

The elder Napoleon really deserved the name. In 1973, when his son was nine, he moved the family to an 11-acre farm in Milford, Ohio. Eight of those acres needed to be logged, cleared and fenced. The McCallums, father and son, did it. Then they built two barns and remodeled the house. There were animals to feed, fields to hoe. "We always worked," says the younger.

"I hate lazy kids," says the elder.

"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."

McCallum plays with a great good humor—no matter how fierce the battle. "He comes off the field after taking some terrific hits," says running-back coach Bill Haushalter, "and he's got this kind of joyous expression that says, 'Boy, that's fun.' " In addition, he has a deep affinity for levelheadedness, for not getting too excited. And because he can separate what his body does from what his mind does, he can detach himself from the testosterone-soaked passions of football more easily than most players at major schools. He can be his own sweet self.

At Navy, a midshipman doesn't incur his five-year service obligation until he commits to a third year. If McCallum had had a clearer view of his football prowess, he might have switched schools after his sophomore year. "I was tempted to leave," he says lightly. "The talk was that I was pretty good. If a good college team had come along and let it be known that I was wanted...."

None did, so McCallum decided upon a Navy career. He immediately bloomed into the best the academy has had since Roger Staubach won the Heisman in 1963. As a junior, McCallum had six consecutive 100-yard games, eight in all, including two 200-yard games. He also broke 12 school records. "He was our only dimension," says Tranquill. "Everyone keyed on him."

Didn't matter. "Against Pitt, he came to me in the first quarter," says Haushalter, "and said, 'I'm not gaining any yards. What's going on?' I said to be patient. They were giving us what we wanted. It would come. He ended up with 172 yards." That was the most a runner had taken from Pitt in 12 years.

Only then, in the wake of such accomplishment, did the gravity of his five-year commitment sink in. Now the idea of pro football having to wait until 1990 tormented him. "I looked into different ways of getting out, of hurrying it up," he says. He had one option: to drop out of the academy, serve a two-year hitch as an enlisted man and be free by 23.

McCallum spoke with Navy's two Heisman winners, Staubach and Joe Bellino (1960). Bellino delivered a ringing appeal to stay. "You will have graduated from one of the great institutions in the world," said Bellino. "You will have played for Navy, family and self. You will have the opportunity to serve your country. You can't take those things away." Staubach said simply, "You will be successful in whatever you do because you went to the academy."

McCallum knew all this. Eventually he would realize he had been foolish to consider anything else. "I was afraid to act, really," he says. "I could see I was in a good situation. Why lose it, why take a chance on losing it, when it was all talk." Because he had matured late, McCallum has never had an inflated self-image. "When I watched myself on film, I never seemed to look like a football player, not like the guys I saw on TV, the Walkers and Dickersons," he says. "I kind of underestimated myself. So I did the cautious, sensible thing."

To Navy's ecstasy. Last year, the academy put McCallum on a poster, dressed in an 18th-century naval uniform, standing before the cannons on the frigate U.S.S. Constellation in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The legend was I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO RUN. Unfortunately, that pretty well described his season. In the second game, against Virginia, while being dragged down from behind, McCallum's foot was twisted to the side and his fibula cracked. It was repaired with a steel plate, in hopes that he would be back in time for Army.

When well-wishers arrived at his hospital bed, they found McCallum in high spirits. One visitor was Navy sports information secretary Jayne Bell. "He had this big grin," she says. "He said he knew now he'd made the right decision. He'd stuck by his first course and, hurt or not, he would have his education, he would be a naval officer. He didn't care about the Heisman. He had no complaints. There's nothing selfish about him."

"You know, I've never seen him down," says Tranquill. "He handled that injury as well as it could be handled."

"I got to be more of a real midshipman when I got hurt," says McCallum. "I had more time. My grades went up."

Occasionally, after a study session, a classmate would say it was a shame he couldn't redshirt a year, as he could at other Division I colleges. "I didn't want to hear that," says McCallum. "I wanted to play that year, against Army and in a bowl game. But later, as the doctors told me that would be dangerous, I began to think about it." He studied the NCAA rules and, with Tranquill's blessing, went to see the academy's athletic director, J.O. Coppedge.

McCallum told Coppedge his plan: He would request an extension at the academy covering the summer and fall semesters. He would graduate in December 1985 with two majors, applied science and physical science. Sure he would have an extra football season, but he was also "enhancing his educational basis for future service."

Coppedge told McCallum that he liked the idea, but it had to be presented tactfully up the chain of command. It was. When it reached academy superintendent Rear Admiral Charles R. Larson, he studied the circumstances and granted McCallum the extension.

The liaison between the football program and Larson's office was Captain Jim Maslowski, who's now the executive officer of the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. "It's in the best interests of both the academy and McCallum," says Maslowski. "Others have been extended at the academy because they had some academic deficiency but their leadership ability was so great that it warranted their being carried on. So Napoleon's case isn't a perfect exception to the rule. His extension was granted without knowledge that he would be physically able to play football." Perhaps, but with McCallum not being academically deficient—he could have graduated in June—was there any reason other than football to grant him an extension?

The academy's action did not sit well with everyone, starting with McCallum's mother. "She was looking forward to all those hats going up in the air last spring," says McCallum. Jon Masson, a sports columnist for the Colorado Springs Sun, ripped Navy, writing, "The only way an Air Force cadet would be kept for an extra semester would be for academic reasons.... I find it nauseating when a service academy lowers itself to the level of the other football factories."

In addition, Armed Forces Journal International editor Benjamin F. Schemmer wrote: "A dart to Navy Secretary John Francis Lehman, Jr. and Rear Admiral Charles R. Larson for forgetting (or subverting) the mission of the Naval Academy. Its mission is simple.... 'To prepare midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers in the Naval service.' Lehman and Larson apparently think the academy's mission is to train professional athletes, set intercollegiate athletic records, or win Heisman trophies." Schemmer is a West Point graduate.

Lehman didn't have a hand in the McCallum decision, but he defended it with vigor. "I should have hoped for a more benevolent attitude," he wrote Schemmer, "inasmuch as West Point has just won—with a very fine performance—its normal allotment of one game in every eight."

This minor flap will be harmful only if it obscures the thoughtful, modulated nature of McCallum. "I guess that's one of my problems," he says. "I tend to see things from a couple of angles." Yet McCallum can be a forceful advocate, as when he gently but doggedly explains to a computer professor all the wonderful points he has made in an exam answer that just has one little thing wrong. He can be a second-guessing athlete, as when he gets yelled at for not hitting a hole in practice when nothing was there. "Hey, when it's plugged, I want to go wide, or back around," he says. "You hear all this Heisman talk, you want to get more yards."

Regardless of how the academy's mission is drawn, it surely will bask in a successful McCallum season. Says Coppedge, "This is an extraordinary man in an extraordinary circumstance. I think the Navy has an obligation to take care of its people." Captain Kirk couldn't have put it any better.

But McCallum can. "You don't hurt the ones you love," he says.

On the other hand, McCallum and Navy football fans won't be the only ones to profit from his additional season. He'll be a joy to watch, surely, but the boon will be to all those young men—teammates, plebes and even opponents—lucky enough to be exposed to such an example. The Navy team senses that. Last spring, it elected McCallum one of its two co-captains.

Says McCallum, "I like to have someone else out there firing us up. But if there's no one doing that, then I have to." That, simply, is the voice of a man ready to rise to any occasion.

PHOTOJERRY WACHTERMcCallum ran sixth for the 1983 Heisman.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNAlthough he's close to the top of the midshipmen chain of command, McCallum was a decidedly un-Napoleonic squad leader this summer.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNMcCallum dissected this crayfish just as carefully as he did the NCAA's redshirt rules.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNFor the time being, McCallum uses radio controls to satisfy his yearning to fly.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNMcCallum's responsibilities were extended this spring when he was elected co-captain of the team.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNBack home in Ohio with (from left) Napoleon Sr., Virginia sisters Tammy and Ova.PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSAs a junior, McCallum legged out eight 100-yard games, including two 200-yarders.