Could the Seahawks' ongoing efforts to build a better offensive line lead them to...the U.S. Army?
Army right tackle Brett Toth was one of the best run-blocking tackles in college football last season. The former all-state tight end in high school in South Carolina is 6 feet 6, 300 pounds and athletic. He often races into defensive secondaries to block safeties.
He's also a month and a half from getting a West Point degree in physics, with an emphasis in nuclear engineering, plus his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army's engineering branch.
You don't need hands or even fingers to count how many times the Seahawks have sought one of those.
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Toth had been offered a preferred walk-on spot at Clemson and a delayed entry to play for Virginia Tech before he chose West Point. He impressed scouts at both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl in January. Many believe he'll be selected in the later rounds of the NFL draft, on April 28.
"So far, I know I've obtained an opportunity. Teams are free to bring me in for rookie camps," said Toth, the son of a Navy man and grandson of former Air Force serviceman.
"I get my shot. That's all I need."
Will that shot be as the first service-academy graduate drafted by the Seahawks?
Seattle has drafted 16 offensive linemen since 2011, the most in the NFL in that span. The 2018 Seahawks sure need a run blocker, or three. And in today's college football of spread offenses and linemen constantly pass blocking in two-point stances, good run blockers are about as rare as physics majors and nuclear engineers doubling as second lieutenants on an offensive line.
Toth had a Pro Day for NFL scouts at West Point last month. He didn't participate in any of the drills at the league's scouting combine a week before that. Upon arrival for the combine in Indianapolis, NFL doctors found a stress fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his right foot. Rather than possibly, fully breaking that by running and jumping at the combine, he waited until his Pro Day at West Point on March 8.
The Times-Herald Record of Middletown, N.Y., reported Toth's was the most attended workout for an Army football player in at least five years. The newspaper noted 20 NFL scouts from 12 teams watched him--including, yes, the Seahawks.
They saw him run the 40-yard dash in 5.0 seconds. That would have been the fifth-fastest time among offensive tackles at the combine.
And, no, the Seahawks don't go where the Hudson River bends west to find players very often. Next to never, in fact. No Army player has ever played for Seattle.
But coach Pete Carroll has vowed to get Seattle back to his run-game roots in 2018, after two years among the league's worst rushing teams. That's going to take new, better blockers and backs.
Pro Football Focus rated Toth as the fifth-best best run blocker in college football last season. His Army team led the nation is rushing offense in 2017, at 362 yards per game. The Black Knights went 10-3, won the Commander-in-Chief's trophy for the first time since 1996 by beating Navy and Air Force, then rallied past San Diego State to win the Armed Forces Bowl.
The Seahawks have had two former academy guys play for them in their 42-year history. Defensive end Bryce Fisher, an Air Force Academy graduate, played 33 games for Seattle from 2005-07 including in the franchise's first Super Bowl, at the end of the '05 season. Guard Mike Wahle played for Navy then the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers before signing with the Seahawks in 2008 and playing 10 games that year. Wahle didn't graduate from the Naval Academy; he was kicked off Navy's team for a failed steroids test before his senior season.
Thing is, if the Seahawks or any other NFL team drafts Toth or signs him as an undrafted free agent this spring, it may be as a down payment for 2020 and beyond.
They may have to wait two years for him to actually play.
A unique, winding path to the NFL
Current Department of Defense policy states graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy must serve as active-duty officers for at least two years, and five years in standard careers.
After two years, those with aspirations to become a professional athlete can request a waiver to serve the remainders of their service commitment on reserve status. That waiver would permit such exceptional athletes regular time to play sports professionally.
The recent history of academy graduates playing in the NFL has been a mix of new opportunities, Super Bowls—and doors slammed shut.
The previous administration of President Barack Obama relaxed service rules and began allowing some academy graduates the chance to defer active-duty time and go into the Ready Reserve immediately to pursue NFL careers. That's how 2015 Naval Academy graduate Joe Cardona has snapped for kicks for the New England Patriots in each of the last two Super Bowls. It's how former Navy star quarterback Keenan Reynolds got drafted in the spring of 2016 by the Baltimore Ravens, in the sixth round. Reynolds, who unlike Toth and Cardona was not invited to the combine, spent most of the '16 season on the Ravens' practice squad. He was on Washington's practice squad late last season.
At the 2017 combine I talked to Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette. Some were projecting him as a mid- to late-round draft pick last year. He was hoping to follow Cardona and Reynolds into the NFL, but was sensing a change may be coming in DoD policy under a new president, Donald Trump.
Indeed, two months later the Trump administration rescinded the two-year waiver-request policy. A Pentagon spokesperson said last May: "Our military academies exist to develop future officers who enhance the readiness and the lethality of our military services. Graduates enjoy the extraordinary benefit of a military academy education at taxpayer expense."
Robinette is a logistics officer in the Air Force right now, not in the NFL. And Toth is back at the likelihood of serving two years on active duty and then asking for a waiver into the reserve and, he hopes, the NFL.
There are other, more remote possibilities for Toth to play right away. The president or his top military cabinet adviser could, by exception, authorize a complete wipe out of his service time immediately so he can play in the league.
"If a waiver would come, it would have to come from either the Commander in Chief or the Secretary of Defense. They would be able to waive my service completely," Toth said, explaining his understanding of his possibilities.
"I'm not a person that's going to lobby for that."
That's not why he went to West Point. That's not why anyone does.
As I wrote last May when national debate was raging over the policy change, guys don’t pick an appointment to Army or Navy when Nick Saban is offering them a scholarship to play football at Alabama.
"I gave the commitment four years ago to come here (to West Point) and serve five full years," after graduation, Toth told me. "I believe if I deserve (being released to play in the NFL before that), if they believe the P.R. aspect (of a new academy grad playing in the NFL) would be offered to the military would be worthwhile and they gave it to me, then I'd be very thankful.
"But I know my position."
Toth wakes each day before dawn, shines his shoes and brass, goes to class morning into the afternoon and prepares for graduation at West Point on May 25. He's got physical tests to pass, plus classes in his physics degree and nuclear-engineering track to finish; all cadets, regardless of major, must choose an engineering track for a field of study.
Meanwhile, West Point's superintendent, its commandant of cadets and football coach Jeff Monken periodically update Toth on whatever they might be hearing about a possible waiver into the NFL.
It was refreshing to listen to Toth's selfless perspective on his place in the draft process—and more importantly, in the Army—at the combine. A few feet away prospects from the big-time football schools were boasting, as they do every year, that he was the best pass blocker or most accurate passer or best receiver in this draft class.
"They've got so many other things on their agendas that are far more important than my waiver," Toth said of those who run his school, not USC or Michigan.
"They've got to worry about the entire Middle East.
"As that's where their focus should be."
"A barrier" from the draft
Toth is trying to become the second West Point graduate currently in the NFL.
Alejandro Villanueva, USMA Class of 2010, is a Pro Bowl right tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was an infantry officer and Army Ranger who deployed to war in Afghanistan three times and won a Bronze Star Medal before fulfilling his military service obligations in 2014. A few months ago Villanueva became the first service academy graduate selected for the Pro Bowl since Naval Academy grad Roger Staubach in 1979. Villanueva is the first West Point graduate selected for the Pro Bowl since Glenn Davis in 1951.
Army has had two players drafted by the NFL in the last 21 years. The Detroit Lions selected safety Caleb Campbell in the seventh round in 2008, when the Department of the Army briefly had its Alternative Service Option for select athlete officers to go straight into pro sports. But then the Army suspended the ASO, soon after Campbell had already signed a three-year rookie contract as a rookie with the Lions. The Army required Campbell to serve two years on active duty as an officer first before he could request an early release. Campbell got that release in 2010. The Lions gave him a one-year contract instead of the three-year deal he had coming out of the draft. Detroit cut him a year later. He was out of the NFL by 2012.
Former Army quarterback Ronnie McAda was the final pick of the 1997 draft. He was among the Packers' last cuts of training camp that summer. Hall of Famer Brett Favre and now-Eagles Super Bowl-champion head coach Doug Pederson from Ferndale were the only other quarterbacks in that Packers camp with McAda. McAda served from two years as an Army lieutenant. When he got his release from active duty after two years, the Packers sent him to play in NFL Europe. Green Bay cut him in 1999. Denver signed him but he was out of the league in 2001.
So, yes, a West Pointer playing in, and excelling in, the NFL happens about once every 40 or 50 years.
After all, USMA graduates have other, more-impacting jobs coming out of college than playing football.
At the combine, while interviewing with NFL teams, Toth admitted some frustration knowing his path to the pros is not nearly as direct as every one of the other 335 prospects the league invited to Indianapolis last month.
Then again, it's what he signed up for. Proudly.
"There's a couple times when it's frustrating," he said. "Other paths, they see it as more internal: 'I've got to do this. I've got to show out here. I've got to perform this way.'
"And they've got nothing that's, kind of, in their way, a barrier or a threshold that divides them from the draft and what comes after that."
Toth said he he first began hearing in 2016, his junior season for Army, that NFL teams were noticing his play. That's when he said playing in the league became a thought for the first time.
Not that he focused much on that.
"At West Point, you don't survive if you are thinking two years down the line, " he said, chuckling. "You've got classes and tests that are hitting you left and right."
To take the week off to come to Indianapolis for three days at the combine, Toth missed five graded assignments. He made those up the following weekend.
Then there are the physical requirements Toth must meet to graduate.
Toth, 21, said he is talking with officer representatives in the Army's engineering branch to see what weight he can serve at while still being in football shape.
The Army has specific height-weight and body-fat requirements every West Point cadet must pass to get commissioned as an active-duty officer upon graduation, as do the Navy and Air Force for their academies. In my time at West Point it was common to see senior football players, particularly linemen, basically wearing garbage bags under their cadet uniforms while running all over post in the months following their final college season ended and before graduation. It was their mad rush to get within height-weight and body-fat standards to get commissioned in May.
Toth says he's within height-weight standards to graduate. But there are two other requirements to get his diploma and commission as a second lieutenant. He must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test. The minimum requirements for a 21-year-old male to pass the APFT shouldn't be a problem for Toth: run two miles in under 16:36, plus complete at least 35 push-ups in 2 minutes and 47 sit-ups in two minutes.
It's the second graduation requirement that is far more daunting: West Point's Indoor Obstacle Course Test.
Football players at USMA get to defer taking that test until after their college playing careers are over, into the final semester of their senior years. The test is running through a series of 11, wind-sucking obstacles such as a low-crawl ladder, a balance beam, vertical wall and finally a much taller vertical rope one must climb, arms pulling with feet locking and unlocking, to reach an upper, indoor track. The finish is running two laps carrying a weighted medicine ball and three more laps carrying a baton, all to finish in a required time.
And all inside dusty, old Hayes Gymnasium, which feels and seems may have been there since before West Point was founded in 1802. Hayes rivals the Sahara for the world's driest air. The lungs burn during and after the test. Cadets have special names for the cough they get—for days—after completing the IOCT.
I get flashbacks just writing about this, and not good ones. The first time I took the IOCT I was breezing through it—until I got to the top of the rope. I didn't interlock my legs often enough to save my arms from fatiguing, decisively. My grip slipped. I fell to the gym floor roughly—and I mean ROUGHLY, like a sack of bricks—back-first, about 20 feet below.
Toth was happy to tell me Friday he passed both the IOCT and APFT.
Well, for the IOCT, he sounded more relieved.
Just something else he has to do that differs from the normal NFL prospect.
"I'm going to try to keep as many leave days as I can for these different rookie camps," he said, smiling at the challenge.
"If it's meant to be, you are going to find a way to do it. It's all that drive and that discipline to keep that persistence. If I want to stay in football, I'm going to find a way to do it."