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Eckel hopes to be on board

FOXBOROUGH -- He is an officer and a gentleman, which in the grand scheme is more important than being a fullback for the Patriots. But what a rush it would be to be all three.

That's what Kyle Eckel, a former star fullback in Navy's option offense, is hoping for.

He understands that fullbacks are dinosaurs in today's NFL. He knows they are used as blocking dummies for the big-money running backs. And this team already has a couple of those in Dan Klecko and Richard Seymour for goal-line situations. There's also Patrick Pass, who doubles as a fullback/pass receiver.

Eckel has no idea where or whether he fits. He doesn't even know how it all will work with the Navy. He is stationed at Newport, R.I., but his agent, Philadelphia-based Jim Kennedy, said Eckel has petitioned the Secretary of the Navy and received a reduction of his five-year commitment to three years, after which he can serve as a reservist.

While nothing is official, it's Kennedy's understanding that Eckel might be allowed to serve at Newport on off days and in the offseason. Both parties are taking a first-things-first approach: If Eckel is good enough to make the Patriots, they'll take it from there.

''The Navy and the Patriots have been so supportive of Kyle," said Kennedy. ''It's been unbelievable. They're certainly working hard to make this work."

His military commitment undoubtedly dissuaded NFL teams from drafting Eckel; the Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent in April.

''People ask me all the time how it's going to work, and I honestly don't know," Eckel said. ''I just think this is something I had to do. I think I needed to represent all of those guys I played with at Navy, because if they had the opportunity, they'd do the same thing."

Eckel has unbridled energy. He plays every play as if it's his last. He has scored touchdowns in both of New England's exhibition games (though Pass gained 88 yards on 11 carries to lead all Patriots rushers against New Orleans last week).

At 5 feet 11 inches, 240 pounds, Eckel led the Midshipmen in rushing with 1,062 yards and 11 touchdowns on 211 carries last year. He had an even bigger junior season with 1,249 yards on 236 carries. He had a career-high 179 yards in last season's 42-13 win over Army, the game that means everything at the Naval Academy.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, of course, grew up in Annapolis, where his father, Steve, was an assistant coach for 33 years at the Academy. Steve Belichick attended every Navy game last year as the Middies had their most wins (10) since 1905 and beat New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl, 34-19.

''It's a very rigorous program, both physically and mentally, and the whole discipline and all of that," said the Patriots coach. ''We've coached plenty of other players that have played at service academies, going back to [Phil] McConkey, for one.

''There's plenty of other players that graduated that had other commitments in college as well as football, too. I think we need to keep it in perspective. I'm not taking anything away from him."

A three-year letterman at Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, Eckel had a breakout senior year that got him into Navy.

''I wanted to play Division 1 football," Eckel said. ''If I didn't go there, I would have gone to a fifth year of high school at a military academy or something like that.

''When you go there, you build relationships with each other. You go through all the hard times, the struggle, because you're helping the guy next to you do it and he's helping you the same way. There's a common bond that's within everybody."

That attitude seems to blend nicely with the Patriots' team-first philosophy.

''I think about my friends at school and what they're doing," said Eckel. ''I've got it pretty good right now. I'm here to represent them. Every day I go out there, I wear a Navy T-shirt under my uniform just to remind me, if they had this shot, they'd be doing the same thing."

His current teammates are quite curious about his dual roles as a Navy man and football player.

''Guys ask me a lot of questions -- a lot of the same questions you guys are asking me right now," he said. ''It's been happening for about a year now: How is it going to work with football? The truth is, I really don't know. Right now, making the team is really the first step in how any of that is going to transpire."

He has not received any special dispensation from his teammates; he was subject to the rookie treatment.

''I got my head shaved," said Eckel. ''Obviously, I've had a low cut before. I've done the whole indoctrination thing at the Naval Academy."

While the rest of the Patriots had most of June and July off, Eckel was back at the Naval Academy, on duty.

The chances to rest and just hang out with his buddies have been few and far between. He's an avid Phillies fan but hasn't been to the new Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. If he did have a couple of days off, he said, he'd ''sleep late and watch movies and hang out with friends."

But don't feel bad for Eckel. Right now, he's having the time of his life.

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