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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: THE BOWL GAMES : Freedom Bowl : Air Force's Hennings Yearning for Chance to Tackle Pro Career

December 27, 1987|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

First came the Outland Trophy, then the next day's headlines, and everyone around Colorado Springs had to wonder if Chad Hennings, Air Force football great and potential jet pilot, was about to push the eject button.

Hennings Wins Outland, Wants Out.

Hennings Says He'll Explore His Options for Turning Pro.

Hennings Hopes to Play in NFL.

Eyebrows arched all around the Air Force Academy, where Hennings had spent the past four years playing football as a prelude to five years of mandatory military service. Through at least 1992, Hennings belongs to the Air Force. After that, he might be able to play for the Jets, but until then, he would only fly them.

Yet, on the day on he was voted 1987's top collegiate lineman, Hennings stood in front of a podium in New York and told the national media he would "explore every avenue" in order to play in the National Football League.

"I realize I have a five-year commitment," Hennings said that afternoon, "but I also want to look into the prospect of playing pro football . . . I don't want to step on any toes, and I certainly don't want to do anything to harm the reputation of the Air Force, but I feel I owe it to myself to see if it's possible."

Three weeks have since passed, and Hennings now finds himself preparing for a meeting with Arizona State in Wednesday's Freedom Bowl at Anaheim Stadium. Has he also found his freedom? Did he locate the avenue he was looking for--or is that an aircraft-carrier runway in his immediate future?

Off we go, into the wild blue yonder . . .

"If you've got a snowball, and you're in hell, then you've got a chance," said Air Force sports information director Dave Kellogg, assessing Hennings' odds of beginning a pro football career before the end of the decade.

But the Naval Academy has made exceptions in the cases of exceptional athletes before--allowing running back Napoleon McCallum to use his weekend leaves to suit up as a Raider, slicing basketball star David Robinson's service commitment to two years.

Couldn't the Air Force do something similar for Hennings, a 6-foot 6-inch, 260-pound defensive tackle with 4.6 speed and 24 sacks this season, a sure first-round NFL draft choice were it not for his obligation?

"There are no such plans," Kellogg said. "None. Zip. Zero. Zilch."

Or, as Falcon Coach Fisher DeBerry puts it: "Chad realizes his commitment and his obligation and he has every intention of fulfilling it. Chad is no different from anybody else on our football team. The academy's stand is that (pro football) is not an option for any of them."

Hennings acknowledges this, too.

"The Air Force and the Navy are two different services," Hennings said. "They can take two totally different avenues.

"What I had said (in New York) was that I intended to fulfill my obligation, but I wanted to look into the NFL, to see what my options are. It wasn't like I was going to squelch on my commitment to try and play professional football. But after I won the Outland, that's how a lot of papers played it. Anything for a story, I guess."

Col. John Clune, the Air Force Academy's athletic director, now looks back in amusement over the fuss created by Hennings', uh, Outlandish comments.

"I was upset a little at first, because he was taken out of context," Clune told a reporter Saturday. "It's like me saying to you, 'How'd you like to be sports editor of the Washington Post and make $100,000 a year?' And if you say yes, I go and write a headline about it.

"Yeah, Chad would like to play pro football and he said so, even though he has an obligation here. He's a very nice kid, a bright kid, but he's a little naive in situations like that.

"He answered the question, but right now, the question is a moot point. It's like asking me if you'd like to marry Bo Derek. Yeah, but don't let my wife know."

No Air Force cadet has gone on to play in the NFL--not Brock Strom, a consensus All-America tackle in the late 1950s; not Ernie Jennings, who caught 74 passes for nearly 1,300 yards in 1970. Mark Simon, who led the nation in punting in 1985, took leave to participate in the Denver Broncos summer camp this year and hopes to keep coming back until his five-year commitment is up.

Clune says he'd like to see Hennings approach the NFL the same way--keeping in shape and keeping in contact with some pro team while serving his country. "He could do it like Roger Staubach or Phil McConkey of the Giants," Clune said, citing two NFL products from the Naval Academy.

But Staubach and McConkey are skill-position players who could keep those skills honed on their own. And all Simon needs to practice his punting is a football.

How is Hennings going to keep his edge as a pass rusher for the next five years? Beat up on some pilots? Sack a few flight technicians, maybe?

"At my position, it would be fairly tough," Hennings said. "I'd have to maintain my strength and my weight and work on technique. And I'd have to keep at it for five years. You can pretty much draw your own conclusions from that."

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