In the middle of August, summer of 1986, the United States Navy, which could ill afford it, took a direct hit amidships below the water line and, when last seen, was limping to port, listing badly and sending flares into the night air.
The fleet was under attack by some of the super-dreadnoughts of our day, the mightiest flotilla of them all, the national press. The Washington Post, New York Daily News, New York Times, Howard Cosell, Mike Royko, even the networks, were pouring shot and shell across the Navy's bow.
The casus belli was the Navy's decision to dispatch a line officer into civilian life periodically to earn a supplemental living running errands for a private corporation.
You would have thought they were lending him to the Russians. Actually, all they did was lend him to the Los Angeles Raiders, which is not quite the same thing.
The shock effect was instantaneous. This was the kind of thing that led to the fall of the Roman Empire, the decline of manners, and it probably couldn't be expected to help the Reagan Administration any. It's the kind of thing you'd blame on the National Rifle Assn. if you're on one side of the political spectrum, or Rose Bird if you're on the other.
The Navy of John Paul Jones, Admiral Dewey and Commodore Perry had just struck its colors. No wonder the Aussies won the America's Cup. We are a nation of landlubbers if the Navy can't hold its position. If there's ever another battle of Subic Bay, we've had it.
The actual facts were a little less emotional. Napoleon Ardel McCallum is an officer and a gentleman. He's also a damn fine football player.
You don't get all that many fine football players at the Naval Academy these days--for a very good reason. Fine football players want to spend their immediate postschool years on the roster of the Green Bay Packers, not the good ship Peleliu. They want to go where they don't have to study the cosines of angle X and the square root of infinity. They want to go where class attendance is optional, girls are plentiful and the booster club will get you a car to go get 'em.
Ens. McCallum didn't set out to be a football player. He was only the fourth-best running back in his own hometown in high school and figured his prospects were limited.
He wanted to be an astronaut, anyway. Failing that, he wanted to be at least a Navy pilot.
For that, the Naval Academy is an excellent springboard.
Plebe McCallum found out two things at Annapolis: (1) he was an excellent football prospect; (2) he was a suspect astronaut prospect.
"It was my eyes," he said. "I can see 20/20 but I was borderline. You can be 20/20 if you miss three letters on the 20/20 line. But you can't get into Pensacola (naval flight school) if you miss even one. I missed two."
He hardly needed a white cane and cup. He could see without glasses, but his prospects for orbiting the earth one day went glimmering. He orbited football fields instead.
Service academies are the trial horses of football. In pugilism, they would be known strictly as opponents. They look good on the record but pose no great problem on the field. They're usually long on eagerness, short on skilled talent.
Napoleon McCallum brought instant respectability. The Middies beat teams such as Pittsburgh and Virginia. They went to the Liberty Bowl. They lost to Michigan by three points, Ohio State by two. They beat Army every year McCallum played except one, and they tied that time.
It's important to the service academies to have good football teams. It's an image matter. It ministers to institutional morale, and when underclassman McCallum broke his leg, the academy redshirted him, held him out for a year so he could play an additional season. It had never done that with an athlete before.
It's important to have a good Navy, too. But when Ensign McCallum graduated, he was at least 20 years away from the captain's cabin of a battlewagon or the command of a task force. He was ready for an NFL backfield right away.
When the Raiders drafted him and he was transferred out to nearby Long Beach, and when Secretary of the Navy John Lehman allowed piously as how there was nothing wrong with his returning punts for a professional football team, the horizon was alight with the big guns of the defenders of the American Way. They were out to save the Republic from the gravest threat to its institutions since the Japanese fleet sailed for Pearl Harbor. Tora! Tora! Tora!
It cost the taxpayers $140,000 to make an officer and a gentleman of Ens. McCallum. He got $60 a month his first year and $120 the second, up to $360 his final year. He also got all the electrical engineering manuals he wanted. He also got all the "Square that hat!" "What'd you say, Mister, I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" the lights-out and shoe shining and "Yes, sirs!" anyone could want.
The defenders of our shores were quick to point out that other super-athletes had served their hitches without dispensation, notably Roger Staubach and Felix (Doc) Blanchard.