When Phil McConkey was growing up in Buffalo, New York, he had two dreams: Become a pilot and score a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
But despite playing for one of the top high school teams in the state as a wide receiver and defensive back, the 145-pound McConkey didn’t receive any scholarship offers to play football at a high college level because of his size. That seemingly diminished his chances at accomplishing both dreams.
“So I figured, at least at the Naval Academy, I’ll get a shot at one of ‘em,” McConkey said Tuesday in a phone call.
He attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, played football and went on to become a pilot.
And when his active-duty service ended, he became a 27-year-old rookie for the New York Giants. He accomplished his second dream during Super Bowl XXI, catching a deflected pass for a touchdown in New York’s win against the Denver Broncos.
McConkey considers himself fortunate that his NFL window was still open, that he was able to still compete at the highest level. But he doesn’t think it necessarily has to be in that order.
And as he read about Cameron Kinley’s situation, learning more about the recent Naval Academy graduate who signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he said he felt “heartbroken.” Kinley wasn’t granted a waiver to delay his commission so he could pursue his NFL dream before serving in the Navy.
Kinley, who captained the football team and served as class president — a rare occurrence at the Naval Academy — had his request to defer his active-duty service denied by acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker. Harker didn’t provide a reason. He also didn’t forward the request to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who has the authority to grant exceptions to immediate active service.
“If you want any guy to represent the country on behalf of the Navy and do it the right way, this is the guy,” Ryan Williams-Jenkins, a former Naval Academy graduate and Kinley’s agent, told the Washington Times. “So the fact that there’s been a denial, it doesn’t sit well with us or make sense.”
In a statement, Capt. Jereal Dorsey — special assistant for public affairs for the Secretary of the Navy — said the mission of the Naval Academy “is to develop young men and women to commission as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps.” Capt. Dorsey added that “exceptions to that commitment to serve have been rightfully rare.”
But the situation is especially confusing for Kinley and Williams-Jenkins because the United States Military Academy and the Air Force Academy have forwarded their requests for waiver to the Secretary of Defense for review. There’s also recent precedence for players receiving exemptions to immediate service requirements.
In 2019, then-President Trump issued a directive to the Department of Defense to allow athletes at military academies to defer their service obligations until their professional sports careers finish. Malcolm Perry, a Naval Academy graduate, was approved for deferral and drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 2020 draft. Elijah Riley from Army signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent.
And this year, four players from Air Force and Army have signed with NFL teams: Jon Rhattigan (Seahawks), Nolan Laufenberg (Broncos), George Silvanic (Rams) and Parker Ferguson (Jets).
“While I acknowledge that these men are from different branches of the armed service,” Kinley said in a statement, “it puzzles me as to why I am the only person to be denied this opportunity.”
Kinley’s not alone in his puzzlement. McConkey, who’s now the president and a partner at Academy Securities after a six-year NFL career, said having players like Kinley in the league would only help the Naval Academy.
From a purely football perspective, prospective recruits could look at Kinley’s situation and choose Army or Air Force — Navy’s main rivals — because of the chance to play in the NFL before serving. But beyond that, McConkey said the spotlight on Kinley if he made the active roster would also beam on the Naval Academy.
“If he’s playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the same team as Tom Brady, the attention brought to him I think is so positive,” McConkey said. “His value to our nation and the Navy is great if he can be on that stage and shine such a positive light on not only himself, but the Naval Academy.”