SAN DIEGO — Size has always been a big problem for Air Force defensive tackle Chad Hennings.
Once he was too small to play major-college defensive tackle. Then he was too tall to fly jets. Now he is too big, too fast and too good for pro football to ignore.
That might prove to be his biggest problem.
Hennings had little trouble overcoming the first two obstacles. He grew into the part of an All-Western Athletic Conference tackle, developing from a 6-foot 4-inch, 215-pound freshman into a 6-5, 260-pound senior. As for flying, he simply obtained a waiver from the Air Force that will allow him to take pilot training despite being 2 inches taller than the maximum 39 inches seated height. But when it comes to pro football, Hennings might find himself in another league--the world of military politics.
"That decision is out of my hands," said Hennings, whose team will play host to San Diego State Saturday. "I would like the opportunity to play pro football, but that's not a decision for me. That's something for the upper echelons in the government. It's up to the secretary of the Air Force to make that decision."
So far, that message has been clear. Hennings will serve his five-year military service commitment.
"There have been no exceptions," said Dave Kellogg, Air Force sports information director.
That does not mean speculation about Henning's pro value will end.
"He is a first-round draft choice, no question," San Diego State Coach Denny Stolz said. "He is as good as those two linemen from Brigham Young last year (Jason Buck and Shawn Knight), and those players went in the first round. He is, along with Hawaii's Al Noga, as dominant a defensive player as there is in our conference."
Stolz was so impressed with Hennings last season that he switched Mike Ariey from tackle to guard just so he could match up in size with Hennings.
"And he still got nine sacks, so you can see what good that did," said Stolz, laughing. Actually, Hennings had only two sacks, but the Falcons won, 22-10, to hand the Aztecs their only conference loss of the season. But this year, Stolz doesn't plan to make any alignment changes to counter Hennings.
"They (Air Force) learned from what we did last year," Stolz said. "Now they've got Hennings moving all around. You never know where he'll line up."
Stolz figures that wherever Hennings lines up, he'll cause the Aztecs problems. In games against Wyoming (a 27-13 loss) and Texas Christian (a 21-10 victory), Hennings had 19 tackles (9 unassisted), 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and 3 pass deflections.
Such performances are why Hennings normally would be considered a top pick in the National Football League draft. As it is, Hennings could still be drafted, but he likely will have to complete his military service before being allowed to play pro football.
That was what Eddie Meyers, a school record-setting running back at Navy, had to do with the Atlanta Falcons. Meyers took leave to attend training camp with the Falcons in the summer, but he was required to return to duty before the start of the season. Meyers joined the Falcons this year after he completed his service obligation. He since has been placed on the injured-reserve list.
Meyers' situation might be the most likely scenario for Hennings, should he be permitted to pursue his interest in professional sports while still under military obligation. The Air Force has not granted the type of exceptions that allowed Napoleon McCallum to play with the Raiders last season while stationed in Long Beach or that would permit David Robinson to play professional basketball after only two years of active duty.
The Navy's more lenient policy has been tightened since John Lehman was replaced by James Webb as Secretary of the Navy. Webb prohibited McCallum from playing for the Raiders this season.
Playing pro football was hardly in Hennings' plans when he accepted an appointment to the academy.
Hennings was an all-state tight end and state wrestling champion from Elberon, Iowa, a farming community near Cedar Rapids. He said he considered offers from Iowa and Iowa State but chose Air Force at the urging of a friend who had enrolled at the academy a year earlier.
"At the time, pro football never entered my mind," Hennings said. "I was thinking further down the road--10-15 years down the road. But the more I played, and after I grew a little bit more, I became more interested."
The blossoming of Hennings began after his freshman season, when he was moved from tight end to the defensive line. He was a second-team All-WAC selection as a sophomore and a first-team choice last season, when he made 101 tackles, including 10 for losses, and had 10 sacks.
Hennings, a business major, also was a first-team academic All-American.