- NICKI JHABVALA
Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer “shocked” by policy change before NFL draft
As he settled in to watch Day 3 of the NFL draft Saturday, Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer received news that immediately altered his future.
But he never received a call. He never heard from an NFL team. He never got that moment to celebrate his leap to the pros.
Instead, he only read that the opportunity he had worked months to try to obtain had suddenly vanished.
“I first found out waking up to a Denver Post article and bunch of text messages (Saturday),” Steelhammer said. “I was shocked as much as anyone else was. I thought it would be a pretty neat day, however it went down. I definitely didn’t think it would go down the way it did.”
The U.S. Air Force notified the Academy on Thursday, the first day of the NFL draft, that it would not approve requests to waiver active-duty military service commitments for cadet athletes so they could immediately join a pro team.
“Cadets will be required to serve two years active duty prior to entering Ready Reserve status which would permit their participation in professional sports,” the Academy said in a statement.
“The Air Force places tremendous value on our cadet athletes and their contributions to the nation as we continue to build leaders of character, engage in combat operations overseas and continue to ensure our highest military readiness at home.”
Neither the Academy nor the Air Force notified Steelhammer and many of his teammates of the policy shift, which kept Jalen Robinette, Air Force’s all-time leading receiver, from being drafted Saturday and Steelhammer from being picked up as a free agent immediately after.
“We had teams ready to sign these kids,” Steelhammer’s agent, Peter Schaffer, said. “Teams were even talking about drafting him. I had offers. A lot of NFL teams didn’t know about it during the draft because they were all focused on the draft and then all of sudden they started calling.”
The interest from NFL teams disappeared. They didn’t want to spend a draft pick or money on a player who would not be available to them for at least two years.
When the draft began, they didn’t believe it would be an issue.
In July 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense altered its pro sports policy to give graduating athletes at service academies a chance to join a pro sports team immediately. Instead of serving two years of active duty, they could request Ready Reserve status. But each request had to be approved on “a case-by-case basis” and a green light was never guaranteed.
The Air Force nixed any chance of it for Academy athletes.
“Coming into it, this ruling wasn’t even in existence,” said Steelhammer, who joined the Academy before the Department of Defense policy was enacted. “Just having the opportunity to play college football, first off, was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. And then being part of something bigger than yourself was also something that intrigued me, getting a great education, and the list goes on.”
After the sports policy went into effect, Steelhammer and Robinette worked toward completing their education while also pursuing a future in the pros. They took full course loads — a minimum of 15 hours — while participating in required military training and preparing for the draft and both participated in a Pro Day hosted by the Academy in March. Robinette even attended the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
On Monday, the team will travel to Washington, D.C., for a congressional dinner that evening and a visit with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday in honor of winning the 2016 Commander-in-Chief trophy.
When they return, Steelhammer said he will finish up his coursework to graduate in May, but continue to work toward a possible future in the NFL. Despite the abrupt change, he says that he has no regrets about his time at Air Force and that he remains committed to fulfilling his duty.
“The goal is to finish what I started,” he said. “Obviously, this is another speed bump to take on, but I’m definitely not giving up.”
In the meantime, Schaffer said he plans to look at every possible avenue to fight the ruling and give Steelhammer a chance to be an NFL player before 2019.
“I really don’t think that it’s fair,” Schaffer said. “I don’t think it’s right to sit there and let them go four months and I also don’t think it’s in the best interest of the Academy or the Air Force to take these guys’ professional football future away, especially when they’re completely committed to doing everything the right way. These kids do not want to abandon the Air Force. They’re as loyal as they come.”