These two words are interwoven into the very foundation of the United States Naval Academy culture.
For Navy Football player and potential NFL Draft prospect Joe Cardona, the personal sacrifice of potentially putting a lifelong dream on hold in order to serve as a naval officer upon his graduation and commissioning next month is just another step in his development as a leader that he knows will pay dividends down the road. He embraces the road ahead, ready and willing to serve his country as he waits for the opportunity to pursue his NFL dream.
Cardona, a four year starter at long snapper for the Midshipmen, is widely considered to be the best long snapper available in this year’s class. He has been timed snapping at over 40 mph and can get the ball to the punter routinely in under seven tenths of a second. NFL.com rates Cardona as the number one specialist in this year’s draft class regardless of position. One NFL special teams coach has even said that Cardona "will play in our league until he wants to quit."
I recently caught up with Cardona to see how the NFL draft process has treated him, what teams are showing him the most interest, and what it is like for a service academy prospect hoping to catch on with an NFL team.
Cardona told me that he views this as a big opportunity for not only himself, but for the Navy football program as a whole. He knows he is representing more than just himself throughout the process, and he does not take that responsibility lightly. He said the best advice he has received is "to just be good at what you do."
He knows there will be frustrating days as he tries to balance his time between serving his country as a naval officer and attempting to maintain his skills as a long snapper. If he wants the opportunity to do both, he says he must just continue to do his best at everything he does and remain patient for that opportunity to arrive.
Cardona said the opportunity to attend the Senior Bowl and NFL combine was incredible and he enjoyed every minute of those experiences. Getting to snap for Portland State punter Kyle Loomis in the Senior Bowl was especially memorable. Loomis is an Army veteran who is rated as the number one punter in this year’s class by NFL.com, and the future Naval Academy graduate snapping to the former Army veteran was certainly a unique experience.
Cardona said that the Scouting Combine was just like another week at the Naval Academy for him. While many of the prospects were stressing out over having to wake up early, perform all day, go to bed late, and have no choice but to do it all over again the next day, Cardona said four years at the Naval Academy certainly prepared him for the process and allowed him to get the most out of his time at the Combine.
Cardona has been hearing from several teams. The Chiefs and Ravens came out to the Navy Pro Day. He has had private workouts with the Eagles and Patriots. He also attended San Diego State’s Pro Day and has been hearing from the Chargers since then. Through it all, he remains optimistic that he will not only get an opportunity to play in the NFL, but that hopefully that opportunity will come before the conclusion of round seven of the NFL draft on Saturday.
As Cardona prepares to spend next Saturday barbecuing with friends and family as he waits in anticipation of potentially being the first Navy player selected in the NFL draft in almost twenty years, the question is almost certainly not if he will get a chance to prove himself to an NFL team, but when?
While many players this week will hear their names called and see the draft as the culmination of a lifelong dream leading to a spot on an NFL roster next season, the road to realizing that dream for Cardona is just beginning. In all likelihood, Cardona will spend at least the next two years as a full-time naval officer and part-time NFL player before those roles have a chance to be reversed.
A 2007 Department of Defense directive established the current policy for Academy and ROTC graduates seeking to participate in professional sports before completion of their Active Duty Service Obligations (ADSO). This directive states that after a minimum of 24 months, "officers may request early release from their ADSO for the purpose of pursuing a professional sports activity with potential recruiting or public affairs benefits for the Department." The intent of this directive was to standardize the process across each service branch while still allowing each branch the leeway to implement the policy as it sees fit.
The problem is that the implementation of the policy remains largely unstandardized and this leaves professional athlete prospects such as Cardona and their future teams in the dark when it comes to the amount of time they will be required to serve before joining the Selected Reserve and getting the chance to chase their professional dreams.
It just so happens that Cardona’s attempt to make it in the NFL comes at a time when former USNA grads are making waves across professional athletics.
- Mitch Harris, a 2008 USNA graduate and current Navy Reserve lieutenant, made his MLB debut over the weekend with the St. Louis Cardinals.
- The Colorado Rapids selected Joe Greenspan, one of Cardona’s classmates, in the first round of this year’s MLS draft.
- Billy Hurley III is a 2004 USNA graduate and former Navy lieutenant currently playing on the PGA Tour.
- Eric Kettani, a 2009 graduate and current Navy Reserve lieutenant , spent last year on the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad.
All of these athletes have or will have served as officers in the United States Navy and they all understand and embrace what that means. Their service as officers lends itself to service as ambassadors for the United States Navy as they pursue their professional careers.
I recently spoke with Kettani, who has been mentoring Cardona for months now on how to handle his unique situation, about how the process went for him and the advice he has given Cardona as he prepares to go through the same process.
Kettani said that he has preached patience to Cardona. He has told him to take his time and that it is a long process. Kettani served three years of his initial five year commitment before being granted his release and joining the Reserves for seven years. Mitch Harris, on the other hand, was required to serve all but four months of his original five year commitment before joining the Reserves for three years. The uncertainty of when the opportunity will present itself lends Kettani to insist that Cardona must be ready when the time comes, because there is no guarantee when that time will be.
Kettani spent time as the Repair Division Officer on the USS KLAKRING, an Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate, and said that it was very difficult to stay in shape on a ship with no gym and only sparse crossfit equipment to work out with. He said that when he returned from deployment and went to a local Jacksonville football field near his apartment for his first workout, he was so exhausted after doing 300 yard shuttle sprints that he told his roommate and workout partner that he thought there was no way he would ever make his NFL dream become a reality.
Kettani persevered and has turned that experience into opportunities with the Patriots, Redskins, Chiefs, and Jaguars. He has truly become an ambassador for the Navy as he has been able to have former Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan participate in his promotion ceremony to lieutenant, has one of his paintings hanging in the office of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and spends his offseason travelling to locations such as Diego Garcia to spend time with service members not just as an NFL player, but as a Navy lieutenant as well.
This culminated in Kettani recently being recognized as one of the Navy Reserve’s Spotlight Sailors for its Reserve Centennial, an honor which Kettani points to in showing how he has met the intent of that original 2007 DOD directive for exceptional athletic personnel who could provide public affairs benefits to the military.
And so, Eric Kettani passes on to Joe Cardona the advice that Cardona seems to have embraced. Do your best at everything you do. Be the best Division Officer you can be. Earn your qualifications faster than anyone else. Continue to perfect your craft. Understand the larger platform you will be given. Be patient. Be ready.