When the Class of 2007 at the U.S. Naval Academy received their diplomas and commissions two months ago, one of their best-known members was conspicuously absent.
But it wasn't academic issues or medical problems that kept Midshipman Jason Tomlinson from becoming Ensign Tomlinson, and embarking on a career as a naval surface warfare officer. Shortly before his scheduled departure from Annapolis, Tomlinson--a star player on the academy's football team over the last four seasons--simply elected "not to graduate," a decision that stunned his coaches and fellow Midshipmen.
According to the Annapolis Capital (which recently broke the story), Midshipman Tomlinson had a change of heart, faced with the prospect of spending five years in uniform after graduation:
"I came to realize during my senior year that the military just was not for me. I had been thinking about it for a long time, I prayed about it a lot and I had to do what I felt was right in my heart," Tomlinson said yesterday when contacted by The Capital.
"I did not think it would be fair to the men I would be serving alongside and leading to go into this with reservations and misgivings. My heart wasn't in it."
Capital sportswriter Bill Wagner reports that Tomlinson's teammates and Navy head football coach Paul Johnson tried to convince him to go through with graduation and his military commitment, to no avail. While the service mulls his future, Tomlinson remains a Middie, assigned to the Naval Station facility on the Severn River, near the Academy.
A Navy spokesman told the paper that the service has two options for re-couping the costs of Tomlinson's education; make him pay the bill (an estimated $140,000), or require him to serve in the fleet, as an enlisted sailor. Tomlinson is expected to learn his fate in the near future.
There are reports that Tomlinson's "doubts" about a Navy career may stem from his success on the gridiron. Despite playing in a run-oriented offense, Tomlinson finished his career at Annapolis as the #10 receiver in school history, catching 67 passes for 1,078 yards. Tomlinson also excelled as a punt returner, and was a key figure in the resurgence of Navy's football program. During his four-year career, the Midshipmen logged a 35-15 record, and never lost to rivals from West Point and the Air Force Academy.
In the process, Tomlinson attracted attention from pro scouts, who were impressed by his intelligence, size and speed. But, with Tomlinson obligated for five years of active-duty service, he was not selected in the recent National Football League draft. However, scouts believe that the former Navy player has the skills to make it in the NFL, provided that his pro career isn't delayed. Critics claim that Tomlinson's decision skip graduation is aimed at clearing his entry into next year's NFL draft, or signing a free-agent contract with a pro team.
That's assuming, of course, that the Navy decides to let him go, and only requires that Tomlinson repay the cost of his education. At the NFL's minimum salary for rookies ($286,000), Mr. Tomlinson could retire a significant chunk of that debt, and there are indications that the former Navy star could command a much bigger contract, either as a 2008 draft selection, or a free agent. Under that scenario, it would be very easy for Tomlinson to write a check, pay for his education, and still have lots of money in the bank.
But Tomlinson must be aware that the Pentagon's favored method of recouping lost education funds is through military service, not repayment. As an ROTC instructor in the mid-1990s, I experienced a similar incident. One of my female cadets, heading for pilot training after graduation, suddenly "found love" and decided that the Air Force didn't fit her future plans. The cadet's wealthy parents even offered to write a check and repay the costs of her scholarship. Assuming that the service would take the money and forget about her, our cadet began planning an elaborate wedding. The instructor staff at the detachment (including your humble correspondent), cautioned against it, reminding her that the Air Force could demand active duty service to recoup its losses.
Sure enough, the service mandated just that. And, when she discovered that her enlisted job choices would be extremely limited, the cadet had another change of heart, and remained with the ROTC program (over my objections, I might add). Not surprisingly, the flake eventually wiggled out of her pilot slot, electing to join her boyfriend in the space and missile career field. Not long after graduation and commissioning, she suffered a "nervous breakdown" in training at Vandenburg, and left the service altogether. So much for the taxpayer's investment.
Jason Tomlinson doesn't fall in the same category as that loony cadet, but he clearly has ulterior motives for avoiding military service. And that makes me wonder: if Tomlinson had reservations about military duty (or, alternately, ambitions for a pro football career), why not resign earlier from Annapolis? I've known several players who left a service academy after their sophomore years, allowing them to pursue an athletic career before their service commitment kicks in (generally, the military does not seek "recoupment" from cadets who resign before their junior year).
Or, why not follow in the footsteps of Roger Staubach, Napoleon McCallum and David Robinson, Annapolis grads who fulfilled their military commitment and pursued successful careers in pro sports. For both McCallum and Robinson, the Navy modfied or reduced their service commitments, and the service might make similar accomodations for Midshipman Tomlinson. Air Force Academy grad (and Outland Trophy winner) Chad Hennings went on to a very successful career as a defensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys--after meeting his service obligation as a fighter pilot, and flying combat missions over northern Iraq.
But the average NFL career lasts only three years, and Tomlinson apparently fears that his talent will erode during years of duty on a ship. So, he'd rather back out now, in hopes of landing a pro football deal while he still has the requisite skills to earn some serious money.
Unfortunately for him, Tomlinson's dream may go unfulfilled--and rightly so. As a Midshipman for four years, Jason Tomlinson was acutely aware of the service commitment entailed in a Naval Academy education. And, to his credit, he stayed with the program, on track to graduate and earn his commission until some sports agent likely whispered in his ear and promised NFL mega bucks, if only Tomlinson could find some way out of his service commitment. Just take a pass on graduation, offer to repay the education bill, and use an NFL salary to write the check. That seems to be the "plan."
I can only wonder if Midshipman Tomlinson will be surprised when the Navy announces that he will join the fleet as an enlisted sailor, in order to repay the Annapolis education. He may also be shocked to learn that the service won't bend over backwards to find him a job. In counseling my dim-witted cadet of a decade ago, I discovered that most "recoupment" enlistees in the Air Force would up as cooks or truck drivers. I'm guessing that a similar fate awaits Tomlinson in his Navy "career."
When you get a full-ride, four-year college education (and a chance to develop your football skills) on the Navy's dime, then the service should recive some sort of "return" on its investment. Three or four years of swabbing decks, scrambling eggs or driving a truck may not equal the cost of an Annapolis degree, but it's an appropriate fate for a young man with strange notions about "service."