MOBILE, Ala. – In the upcoming months, the Army football team will visit the White House as a celebration of the program winning the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy as the top military academy. Along with the ritualistic group-and-grin photos and handshakes, the White House visit offers another unique opportunity for Army football’s best player.
Senior tackle Brett Toth should be the first Army player to be selected in the NFL draft since 2008. He’s 6-foot-6, 303 pounds and is the first in program history to participate in the Senior Bowl for the country’s top NFL senior draft prospects. Toth has improved as the week has gone on in Mobile, joking that he’s done more pass blocking in a day than he did in a season blocking for Army’s triple-option offense.
His NFL draft stock has soared, and if he’d gone to school at Hawaii, Maine or Miami, the speculation around his professional future would center on what round he’ll be drafted. Not if he’ll be picked.
But there’s mystery surrounding Toth’s draft process that reverberates up to the highest levels of Washington bureaucracy. All the way up to the White House, actually, where President Trump has developed a combative relationship with the NFL.
By attending West Point, Toth has agreed to a mandatory military service requirement upon graduation. It’s a five-year commitment that would allow him to apply for a waiver to pursue a professional career after two years. He fully plans on fulfilling his military commitment. Toth majored in physics with a concentration in nuclear engineering, and on Feb. 17 he will learn about where he’ll be posted as an engineer.
There’s a possibility and precedent, however, for Toth’s military service to be waived. And that’s where things get complicated. For the Army, no recruiting campaign could replicate the reach of one of the most respected cadets on campus getting drafted and playing in America’s most visible sporting league.
Right now, NFL teams don’t know what to make of Toth. They like him as a prospect, as he has the frame, strength and upside – he’s only 21 – to be an ideal player to draft and develop in an organization.
When reaching out to scouts the past 24 hours, there’s a buzz about Toth. But there’s also a problem. NFL executives don’t know what his status is. He’s an intriguing prospect who could end up a mid-round pick somewhere in the Day 3 range of the draft if he’s eligible right away. But if he can’t play full-time for an NFL franchise until 2020 after his two years of service before a waiver, there’s an exponentially smaller chance he’d be drafted. In a league that churns through coaches and general managers by the handful each year, planning for 2020 isn’t a wise strategy.
This is where President Trump and Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, a retired Marine general, come in. The clearance for waived military service would go up to those levels. Toth made it clear he doesn’t plan to lobby, publicly or privately, for any special treatment. He committed to play at Army after being moved during a home visit when an Army coach told him: “’You could be the guy who is leading America’s sons and daughters.’ It’s a very powerful thing to say. It got me in the door.”
Toth would be grateful if President Trump brought up his situation at the White House, but he’s not going to ask. He’s mostly looking forward to shaking his hand. “I’m inclined to do my two years of service,” he told Yahoo Sports this week. “It’s why I went to West Point. I’m not one of the average players worried about draft stock.”
Toth adds: “There’s a chance for it to get it waived. It would take a lot more higher-ups, like presidential at that point. But I mean if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m not going to try and pursue something that would be outlandish.”
There’s conflicting recent precedent, as Army officials have received calls from NFL officials this week attempting to find clarity on what will happen with Toth. Last year, Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette was told in late April, just before the draft, that he wouldn’t be able to get his mandatory service waived. He went undrafted after being projected as a likely pick.
Two years ago, Navy star quarterback Keenan Reynolds got his mandatory military service deferred after being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. It was announced at graduation by then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a moment that generated plenty of positive publicity as Carter said, “Go get em.” Reynolds’ classmates erupted in cheers. (Reynolds finished the season as a wide receiver on the Washington Redskins’ practice squad).
New England Patriots long-snapper Joe Cardona is a member of the Navy reserves who has two weeks of active training a year and an additional one weekend per month. He had to reschedule some active duty last year, as Yahoo’s Eric Adelson wrote, to take part in the Super Bowl.
The general feel is that the ruling depends on the Secretary of Defense, and the transition from Carter to Mattis has marked a shift in flexibility. Army officials tiptoed around the subject when Yahoo Sports reached out Friday. They have spent the week scrambling to get information together for the NFL teams that have called looking for information while Toth’s play has shined at the Senior Bowl.
Army coach Jeff Monken firmly believes Toth can have a long career in the NFL.
“The compelling argument is that those kids can be such ambassadors for our academies, as well as our braches of service,” he told Yahoo in a phone interview Thursday. “To have a kid playing in the NFL, who went to an academy, to be able to share that with the young people of America who may think about going into the Army. What a great influence that is.”
Ultimately, the call on Toth’s NFL future goes all the way to the White House. And after a season of persistent presidential vitriol about NFL players kneeling for the anthem, a fascinating question looms: Will the President take a stand to allow an elite cadet to play in the NFL?
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