Home Sports Air Force lieutenant resumes pursuit of NFL dreams

Air Force lieutenant resumes pursuit of NFL dreams

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Air Force linebacker Ryan Watson had agreed to the terms. He had signed and returned the contract. Two years ago, he thought he was joining the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent.

And then, suddenly, he wasn’t. 

Shortly after the 2017 NFL draft, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it was changing its rules and would no longer allow aspiring professional athletes at service academies to bypass their required two years of active-duty service. So instead of joining the Cardinals, Watson became a second lieutenant in the Air Force and was shipped to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

“It kind of just sucked,” Watson told USA TODAY Sports on Friday, “knowing that you either gave up on your dream, (or) you were put in a situation where it was a lot harder (to reach).”

But now, after two years as an acquisitions officer, Watson is back on the NFL’s radar. He’s fulfilled his active-duty service requirement and his agent, Justin VanFulpen, told USA TODAY Sports that Watson has scheduled workouts with the Atlanta Falcons on Monday and Detroit Lions on Wednesday, in hopes of latching on with an NFL team.

“There’s definitely some rust that will come off,” the 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker said. “(But) physically, I would say I’m about as strong if not stronger than two years ago. I think these two years allowed me to recover, coming off a few injuries. … I feel fully healed from those.”

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Watson, who recorded nine sacks and 38 tackles during his senior year at Air Force, is one of several Falcons whose careers were left in limbo by the Department of Defense’s policy reversal in 2017, including wide receiver Jalen Robinette and safety Weston Steelhammer. Another Air Force athlete, pitcher Griffin Jax, was able to join the Minnesota Twins farm system last year through the Air Force’s World Class Athlete program, which provides exceptions for athletes in Olympic sports.

Watson said the past two years have been both personally difficult and professionally uncomfortable, as he’s worked one job while focusing on another. He said his role with the Air Force is “not the sexy job by any means” and involves “a lot of meetings, a lot of connecting the dots” to ensure that personnel get the equipment they need for a particular mission.

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While some of his friends are working to become pilots or training overseas, Watson said he eschewed some of those opportunities in order to make sure he had time to train for the NFL. And while others have clamored for promotions, he has tried to do good work while keeping an eye on the exit.

“I think that’s the hardest thing, the way it’s structured at the two-year point,” he explained. “A lot of (the) work you’re doing as a young Lt. is for later in your career, because as a Lt. they’re trying to groom you to become an officer. But in those two years, I’m not really trying to become that officer right now. I’m trying to play football.”

Watson said he considered giving up on his pursuit of the NFL during his first year of service before rededicating himself to training. In recent months, he often has worked out twice a day — in the morning and during lunch — with some stretching and movement drills in the evening while his agent has sought to maintain communication with teams.

“There was never a ‘no,'” VanFulpen said. “It was just ‘hey, let us know when he’s available.'”

As he now shifts his full focus to the NFL, Watson said he definitely disagrees with the Department of Defense’s policy that left him in this position, but he still respects it. He wishes NFL hopefuls could defer their service commitments, focusing on football first before fully investing themselves to their obligations later on in their careers.

“If I was in charge and could change things, I would. But I’m not,” Watson said. “I think I’m like most Americans in that I don’t agree with every decision that’s ever made. But I respect them nonetheless, because I love my country and I love what I do.”

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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