On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late June, a previously obscure golfer named Billy Hurley III won the Quicken Loans National PGA Tournament at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Tiger Woods, the tournament’s host, presented the gleaming silver trophy. Hurley had gone into the final round with the lead and staved off competition from seasoned veterans such as Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.
Hurley credited his poise under pressure to the focus he learned as a midshipman and naval officer. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in the class of 2004, his assignments during five years of active duty included service in the cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG-64), a stint teaching economics at the Academy, and a tour on board the destroyer Chung-Hoon (DDG-93). That sense of concentration on the mission served him well while conning his ship in the Suez Canal and withstanding 110-degree Persian Gulf temperatures.
Another Naval Academy graduate who has made the transition to pro sports is pitcher Mitch Harris, class of 2008. His grandfather, Gunner’s Mate Louin Harris, was a member of the crew of a 5‑inch/25-caliber antiaircraft gun on board the heavy cruiser Minneapolis (CA-36) during the June 1942 Battle of Midway. As a midshipman, Mitch Harris did well in baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him, but then Harris’ five years as an officer—on board the amphibious transport dock Ponce (LPD-15) and the frigate Carr (FFG-52)—intervened. To keep his arm in shape, he pitched to a shipmate, one of the few able to catch his fastballs. Sometimes the baseballs went overboard, so his dad kept him resupplied.
In early 2013, Harris debuted at the Cardinals’ spring training base in Florida. The public-address announcer issued a “Welcome aboard to Lieutenant Mitch Harris,” accompanied by “Anchors Aweigh.” In April 2015, Harris made his regular-season debut with the Cardinals as a reliever. He was the first Naval Academy alumnus to play in the Major Leagues since Willard R. “Nemo” Gaines, who pitched in four games for the Washington Senators in 1921 shortly after graduation from Annapolis. Gaines then returned to naval service and eventually retired as a captain in 1946.
Other notable players who turned pro were the Academy’s two Heisman Trophy recipients. Joe Bellino got the award as a running back in the 1960 season, and Roger Staubach as a quarterback in 1963. The Boston Patriots selected Bellino in the 17th round of the 1961 draft. He also had multiple bonus offers from Major League baseball teams but couldn’t take those. Instead, he served three and a half years of sea duty, first in the frigate Norfolk (DL-1) and later as executive officer of the minesweeper Albatross (MSC-289). He had intended to make the Navy a career but submitted his resignation because duty had taken him far away from home when his wife lost a baby and he was concerned about losing another. Then, without a job, he tried football again and played for the Patriots.
Because Staubach was color-blind, he became a Supply Corps officer and served four years of shore duty. He requested duty in South Vietnam, because he believed in the U.S. war effort. In Da Nang and Chu Lai he donned in-country green uniforms and threw footballs to keep in shape. Later he served at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, which had a football team that played a schedule of college squads. After he left active duty, Staubach played 11 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. A Naval Academy assistant football coach during the midshipman years of both Bellino and Staubach was Steve Belichick. His son, Bill, has enjoyed considerable success as coach of the New England Patriots.
Napoleon McCallum, a running back who graduated from the Academy in December 1985, is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. He served in the amphibious assault ship Peleliu (LHA-5), based in Long Beach, California. He managed to juggle his Navy duties with playing for the Los Angeles Raiders. Later he served in the cruiser California (CGN-36) and missed a football season while the ship was in the Indian Ocean. Once his five-year Navy commitment was completed, he returned to playing with the Raiders. His career came to an abrupt end in 1994 when he suffered a grievous knee injury.
David Robinson, class of 1987, was the top basketball player in Naval Academy history. He grew to stand 7 feet tall as a midshipman and led his team to the Elite Eight in the 1986 NCAA tournament. Because Robinson’s height made him ineligible to serve as an unrestricted line officer, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman forged a compromise so Robinson would have only two years of active duty as an officer in the Civil Engineer Corps. Robinson then reported to the San Antonio Spurs, with whom he earned a host of honors during a career that included 20,790 points scored and National Basketball Association championships in 1999 and 2003. He is known in the San Antonio community by the affectionate nickname “Admiral.”
With those cases as background, in May of this year Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus granted exemptions for two recent graduates to play in the National Football League in 2016: Keenan Reynolds, NCAA Division I record holder for career rushing touchdowns (88), and long snapper Joe Cardona. Reynolds has been drafted as a wide receiver by the Baltimore Ravens, and Cardona will have a second season with the Patriots. The explanation is that their public-relations value will enhance the image of the Naval Academy and the service. Some taxpayers look askance at that rationale after they have funded the players’ college educations. Time will tell.