TAMPA, Fla. -- It was supposed to be one of the best days of Cameron Kinley's life.
The former Navy football captain and cornerback was graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, becoming the first in his family to graduate as an officer. As president of his 1,084-member class, he would deliver a commencement speech. A political science major, Kinley would also meet Vice President Kamala Harris, the keynote speaker for the ceremony.
Instead, May 28, 2021 felt like the day Kinley's NFL dream died.
Unbeknownst to classmates and teachers who congratulated him, Kinley had been informed three days earlier the Navy denied his request to delay his service. Having the graduation ceremony at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where Kinley helped lead the Midshipmen to an 11-2 record in 2019, made it even harder.
It meant he couldn't go to training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had signed him as a free agent, despite a strong showing at rookie camp.
"I thought he showed promising signs when he was here," Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of Kinley.
Instead, Kinley would be required to report to the Navy on June 28 before going off to intelligence school Oct. 2 for six months, followed by his duty station assignment.
"He kept his composure ... but I know it's tearing him apart," his grandfather, Lynn Reed, who spent 23 years in the Navy and retired as a chief, told ESPN. "It's heartbreaking for me also."
"I had a lot of classmates coming up to me ... asking me about my experiences in Tampa, asking me if I'm excited to get back down there," said Kinley, who made one of the top plays of rookie camp last month by picking off quarterback Kyle Trask. "It was hard trying to keep a smile on my face knowing I wouldn't be able to go back down to Tampa. And having to get up on stage and still deliver that speech -- it was tough. It took a lot of strength.
"It's been rough -- mentally and emotionally."
Kinley wants to make it clear he does not wish to sidestep his five-year Naval commitment; he just wants the chance to live out both of his dreams. An opportunity in the NFL likely won't be afforded to him down the road at a position predicated on speed, reflexes and instinct that must be fine-tuned constantly. He will have to wait two more years before being able to apply again to play.
"It's hard not to look at all the comments on social media, but I always see the, 'Go serve your two years. You know David Robinson did it. Roger Staubach did it. Serve your two years and come back,'" Kinley said. "And I'm like, 'That's cool.' But at the same time, I'm not just gonna be chilling these two years. I'm a commissioned officer in the Navy in the information warfare community. I have a commitment. It's not impossible, but to think that I'll be the same player that I am right now two years from now -- that's no easy task."
Kinley needs a last-minute reversal from the Navy or his NFL dream will be put on hold. He wrote a letter to Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn to see if she could request the decision be overturned. He even appealed to Vice President Harris the day of his graduation, pulling her aside and telling her, "I might need your help with something in the future." He didn't tell Harris about his request being denied but he hopes she may have gotten wind of it.
"I didn't have time to lay everything out completely," Kinley said. "I think she could see it in my eyes when I was like, 'I need your help with this.'"
'His lifelong dream'
Kinley has not been given an explanation from the Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker, who declined to send Kinley's deferment package to the Secretary of Defense. The only person he's heard from was Captain Jereal Dorsey, a spokesperson for Harker. Kinley was told he cannot appeal.
"He wants to serve his country but playing football at the highest level has been his lifelong dream," Michael De Sane, Kinley's agent, said. "And now that it's a real possibility, it is being stripped from him at the last second."
"Admission to the Naval Academy is an extensive and competitive process," Dorsey said in a statement. "The mission of the Naval Academy is to develop young men and women to commission as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. When students accept admission and continue their education in this program, there is an understanding and acknowledgement that they will, upon graduation, be commissioned.
"Every Midshipman attends on the same terms and each has the same responsibility to serve. Exceptions to that commitment to serve have been rightfully rare."
Other branches of service have forwarded athletes' packages to the Secretary of Defense, who ultimately decides if an athlete can delay service. This year Jon Rhattigan (West Point) will go to training camp with the Seattle Seahawks, Nolan Laufenberg (Air Force) with the Denver Broncos and George Silvanic (Air Force) with the Los Angeles Rams.
Harker also denied former Navy pitcher Charlie Connolly, who was told two days before graduation that he won't be eligible for the 2021 MLB draft.
"Nobody owes me an explanation, given that this is the Secretary of the Navy and this is how the chain of command works," Kinley said. "I just think it will help me, personally, to get a sense of peace. If I can get an understanding of what's going on and why. ... You know they've been able to make a way for it to happen in the past."
'I just don't understand why he can't do both'
Lack of consistency in recent years has created challenges and sometimes heartache for service academy athletes aspiring to go pro. Some recent cases:
Former Navy fullback Eric Kettani signed with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2009, but was placed on the military/reserve list. He signed with the Patriots' practice squad in 2011 before he was recalled by the Navy. He re-signed with the Patriots in 2012 again and negotiated a deal with the Department of Defense to serve seven years in the Naval Reserves while playing in the NFL, which he did until 2015.
Former Navy long snapper Joe Cardona was able to delay his service in 2015 after being drafted by the Patriots, but it was with the understanding that a waiver must be approved each year, meaning his status with the team was always uncertain.
Joe Greenspan, who played soccer at the Naval Academy, was also able to delay his service after he was selected 26th overall in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by the Colorado Rapids.
The Obama Administration created a policy in 2016 allowing some service academy athletes the ability to play professionally right away. Former quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a Heisman Trophy finalist, was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens.
The policy was rescinded by the Trump administration in 2017, when then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote service academies "exist to develop future officers" and that graduates would serve as "full-fledged military officers carrying out the normal work and career expectations" after receiving an education at the expense of taxpayers.
Air Force's all-time leading receiver Jalen Robinette would have become the school's first draft selection in 28 years, but was told he had to fulfill two years of service in 2017.
The Trump administration reversed course in 2019, however, under Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the insistence of Trump. That's how former Navy wide receiver Malcolm Perry, a seventh-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins, was granted the opportunity in 2020.
"There was not a change in policies between 2020 and 2021," Dorsey said to ESPN in an email, "However there was a different Secretary of the Navy at that time."
Harker became the Acting Secretary on Jan. 20, 2021.
"It's a very sensitive process," said Reynolds who, like Kinley, didn't get word until after rookie camp, just before graduation. "It's tough to deal with because you don't really know how it's gonna play out. I really didn't know what was gonna happen. Fortunately, it was all about timing and luck for me and my class. ... When we walked onto the stage at graduation, I had known [my request was granted] ..."
Reynolds said he was "disappointed" to hear Kinley wouldn't get that same opportunity.
"There is no better person to represent the Navy on that type of stage than Cam," Reynolds said. "If you had to pick a name out of a hat to give that opportunity to, Cam is the name you want to pick."
"I just don't understand why he can't do both -- serve his country as a reservist while achieving his dreams and bringing good light to the Academy that prepared them to compete at this level," De Sane said. "It's just sad."
Reynolds served in the reserves, which allows any officer or enlisted personnel to schedule their required drills at different times if there's a scheduling conflict. Because he couldn't attend on Sundays during the season, Reynolds moved his reserve days to the offseason, where he'd spend 30-plus days in active duty.
"That's how I would pick up on everything I missed during the season," said Reynolds, who has worked as a cryptologic warfare officer providing battlespace awareness since graduation. "That's also how I was able to get my qualifications."
During his rookie year, he did drills on Mondays, studied and even scheduled a Physical Readiness Test (PRT) consisting of push-ups, sit-ups and running 1.5 miles after a Saturday practice during the bye week.
"When I went in these [NFL] buildings, the questions I got weren't about football, weren't about who we played or who we beat," Reynolds said. "It was, 'What was it like being at the Naval Academy? What did you do? What is your job?' Every building I was in -- it was constant -- every time I talked to the press, these [were] the things people wanted to know.
"I had so many different opportunities to shine a light on service ... being able to be kind of an ambassador for the academy."
Ryan Williams-Jenkins -- who co-founded the agency representing Kinley, played at the Naval Academy and served five years in combat -- sees the denial of Kinley's request hurting not only recruiting but the Navy as a whole.
"The Navy and the Naval Academy have gotten a lot out of Cam," Williams-Jenkins said. "And they've used his name, image and likeness to their benefit. And now when it's time for Cam to benefit, no one wants to support [him]. To me, that's very disheartening. I don't think that's becoming of the leaders that we have. As a leader, as a combat veteran and former Navy football player, I think we could do better by our people."
"It definitely might have an impact on some recruits," Kinley said. "It just depends on what they deem to be more important. The academy is still a great institution. It still has a lot of different opportunities to offer, but if you want to put all your eggs into a basket of going to the NFL, it's probably not the place for you. Especially with the situation that I just went through. And I hate that for the program."
'I would love to have him'
Arians said Kinley has a spot waiting for him in camp if the Navy reverses its decision.
"Well, he's obviously very, very important to the Navy," Arians said. "It's kind of a Catch-22. I know he wants to attempt to be a professional football player, but he obviously means a ton to the Navy. So I'll leave that up to them. I would love to have him." Despite the increased importance of information warfare and cyberspace, Kinley doesn't believe his job factored into the Navy's decision. He also believes his job over the next two years won't be impactful enough to make a difference.
"The average NFL career is two to five years," Kinley said. "In two years, I wouldn't be as developed in the Navy. Once I make Lieutenant, maybe yes, that's more of an impact.
"If anything, whether or not they reverse the decision for me -- that would be nice -- but at the end of the day, I just hope that some kind of consistency is created moving forward. That way nobody has to deal with this heartbreak and disappointment that I'm having to go through right now. I don't want anybody to have to experience that."