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Troubled waters

The Navy experience of Patriots running back Eckel wasn't exactly smooth sailing

Email|Print| Text size + By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / November 18, 2007

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Even as he rose to football stardom at the US Naval Academy amid the war on terrorism, there were signs that Kyle Eckel might be better suited to play professional sports than honor his commitment to serve as a commissioned officer.

Eckel, a Patriots fullback and favorite of Bill Belichick's late father, Steve, a longtime assistant coach at Navy, was recommended at least twice for dismissal from the academy before he graduated last in the class of 2005, a former student leader said.

The recommendations to dismiss Eckel, submitted by a school conduct board, were rejected by administrators, according to First Lieutenant Eric Scherrer, a Marine pilot who served on the board as a subcommander of the brigade of midshipmen.

Seventeen months after Eckel graduated, however, he was expelled from the Navy and ordered to repay the government more than $96,000 for the partial cost of his education.

"Kyle was a great guy and a good football player, but the academy is a place to train officers and he did not uphold the standards," Scherrer said. "You just can't break all the rules. With Kyle, it really was a character issue."

Eckel, 26, who has emerged as a valuable special teams player for the Patriots after reigning as one of the most prolific rushers in Navy history, said in interviews last week that he never appeared before a conduct board at the academy, and if he was recommended for dismissal, he was never informed of that. He also described Scherrer's characterizations of him as "completely false."

Eckel said he was called several times before academic review boards his first two years at the academy but was able to overcome his problems. He declined to discuss details of his termination from the Navy.

Officials at the academy and the Pentagon would not discuss Eckel's disciplinary record, citing privacy concerns.

"I worked hard and was able to meet all the requirements to graduate," Eckel said. "I also worked hard on the football field in the name of the Naval Academy, the Navy, and the Marine Corps, just like all my teammates."

The Patriots saw enough football promise in Eckel to sign him as an undrafted free agent a month before he graduated from the academy and received his commission as an ensign. The team signed Eckel despite his obligation as a graduate of the service academy to serve five years on active duty, barring a waiver from the Navy.

"He's got a lot of character, integrity, and toughness," Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli told USA Today after the team signed him.

But between the time the Patriots lost Eckel on waivers to the Dolphins in September 2005 and Belichick asked him to rejoin the team this September, his military career fizzled.

Of the 12 Naval Academy graduates who have played in the NFL - including Winchester's Joe Bellino, who won the Heisman in 1960 and joined the Patriots in 1965 - Eckel was the first to be expelled from the Navy.

Though Eckel and the Pentagon declined to specify why he was involuntarily separated Oct. 31, 2006, he was involved in a couple of difficult events in the preceding months.

  • At about 3 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2006, Ensign Kyle R. Eckel, having consumed about 10 beers, by his count, became a witness in an incident for which a former Navy teammate, Kenneth Ray Morrison, is serving two years in the brig for indecent assault and conduct unbecoming an officer. Morrison also was ordered dismissed from the Navy.

    Eckel, in a sworn statement he submitted in Morrison's court-martial, described partying that night in Washington, D.C., with Navy football players. After returning from Lulu's, a nightspot near Foggy Bottom, to a two-bedroom hotel suite that several players and friends were sharing, Eckel was told by a former teammate that Morrison "was in bed with a girl," according to Eckel's statement.

    The teammate "told me that I had to go check it out," Eckel stated.

    By checking it out, Eckel unwittingly placed himself at a crime scene. In the bedroom, he witnessed Morrison, then a senior at the academy, lying next to a female midshipman, a junior at the time, their nude bodies partially exposed.

    Thirteen months later, a military jury found Morrison guilty of having sex with the woman without her consent. The panel reached the verdict despite Eckel asserting in his statement that Morrison was "a good guy" and the victim "had a reputation for sleeping around."

    Asked last week about the incident, Eckel said he was an innocent bystander.

    "Anything that happened that night, if anything, was out of my control," he said. "I don't know how many people are blamed for a car accident they were watching from the side of the road."

  • At about 1 a.m. on Aug. 6, 2006, Annapolis police responded to an incident involving Eckel that began in a harborfront bar. In a statement she filed in Annapolis District Court, Melissa Hayes, then 23, said trouble started when Eckel, uninvited, began dancing with her.

    "I told him I didn't want to dance with him," she stated. "He then grabbed my butt."

    Eckel verbally abused her, Hayes claimed, prompting her to throw a gin and tonic in his face.

    Bounced from the bar, Hayes left with friends. She alleged that Eckel pursued her across the street and "began verbally assaulting us again."

    An argument ensued, according to Hayes, and "that's when Mr. Eckel pushed me to the ground."

  • She was taken by ambulance to the hospital and treated for a broken right arm.

    A week later, Hayes filed a court complaint, causing Eckel to be charged with first-degree assault, second-degree assault, and a fourth-degree sexual offense. He was arrested and released on $75,000 bond.

    However, a police report and several witness statements contradicted nearly every element of Hayes's account. Not only did Eckel not dance or grab Hayes in the bar, witnesses said, but she assaulted him on the street.

    An independent witness, Stanley Robey, told police that Hayes repeatedly punched Eckel, kicked him several times in the groin, and spit at him. Robey said Eckel repeatedly said to Hayes, "Back up, please back off."

    Finally, Robey said, Eckel "had taken enough abuse and pushed the girl."

    The Anne Arundel County state's attorney declined to prosecute, angering Hayes.

    A single mother who lives in an upscale cul-de-sac about a mile from where Bill Belichick grew up and his mother still resides, Hayes said in an interview she was "flabbergasted" that the charges were dropped.

    "It happened just the way I said it happened and I don't know how [Eckel] could say it happened any different," she said. "He definitely got special treatment."

    Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney, said Eckel received no special consideration.

    "Essentially, the case was dropped because of the overwhelming evidence of aggression by the alleged victim and because Mr. Eckel responded with a minimal amount of force in pushing the alleged victim away," Riggin said. "There was not a sufficient case for criminal charges."

    Eckel said police initially asked him if he wanted to press charges but he declined.

    "It was a very unfortunate incident," he said. "I was very regretful I put myself in a situation like that and allowed someone to try to do that to me."

    Graduating on time

    A Philadelphia native, Eckel has no criminal record, other than a misdemeanor reckless driving conviction last year for operating a 2006 Toyota Corolla 101 miles per hour - the speed limit was 65 - at 4 a.m. on Interstate 95 near the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va. He was fined $1,100, plus $76 in court costs.

    By nearly all accounts, Eckel's former Navy teammates remember him as hard-working, likable, and good-humored, traits he displayed in 2003 in a video locker-room spoof of the academy's rigorous standards. (The video is archived on YouTube.)

    Navy football fans also remember Eckel for helping turn around a program that went from 0-10 his freshman year to 10-2 his senior year. Eckel and his teammates twice visited the White House as winners of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for posting the best record in games among the service academies. And Eckel, a two-time MVP of the Army-Navy game, finished his college career ranked fourth all-time in rushing yards (2,906) at Navy.

    For all his football glory, though, Eckel may have lacked some of the finer qualities of a model midshipman.

    "It was basically about military bearing," Scherrer said of the conduct board's purported concerns. "He was just there for the wrong reasons. He was there to play football and nothing else seemed to matter to him."

    Eckel's supporters described him as a success for graduating in four years while playing Division 1-A football, especially considering the academy's stringent standards.

    "No one is perfect," said Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Jeff Vanak, an intelligence officer who played with Eckel at Navy. "But if you can [graduate], you paid the price, and he did all that."

    Graduation posed a dilemma for Eckel, however, because it triggered his active duty obligation while the NFL beckoned. He had asked the Navy several months earlier to release him from his service commitment, but the request was denied.

    Navy regulations permit academy graduates to apply for a waiver after two years of active duty in exchange for serving an additional six years in the Navy Reserve. But a spokeswoman said the Pentagon has deferred action on all such requests "to support manning for the current war."

    Nonetheless, the Patriots took a chance on Eckel, who came with an endorsement from Belichick's father. Considered one of the best talent evaluators in college football, Steve Belichick regularly attended Navy games until he died in 2005 at age 86.

    "Steve loved Eckel," said Minor Carter, an Annapolis lawyer who graduated from the academy and spoke to the elder Belichick shortly before he died. "That's why Billy likes him. His father said he's the real deal."

    Out of service

    The Navy enabled Eckel to train with Patriots in 2005 by assigning him as an assistant to the athletic director at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I. Authorized to play while off duty or on leave, Eckel rushed for two touchdowns in the preseason and impressed Belichick enough that he wanted to keep him.

    But the Patriots hit a snag when they placed Eckel on waivers, hoping no team would claim him so they could sign him to the practice squad. In a surprise move, the Dolphins signed him and the Navy responded by suspending his football career and recalling him to active duty.

    A year later, Eckel was out of the service, having gotten little closer to military action than training missions in the Atlantic aboard the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship. The Pentagon said Eckel was involuntarily removed from the service through an administrative separation, a development first reported by the Baltimore Sun.

    Eckel said he was permitted to submit a letter of resignation, but he declined to say whether he challenged the separation. Nor did he care to explain it.

    "If I was to fight that battle, it would be extremely uphill," he said. "It's a place I don't want to go. I'm trying to head forward and not look back."

    Some veterans have complained that Eckel failed to complete his service obligation. Since he graduated, 14 Naval Academy alumni have been killed in action or military operations, and many of Eckel's classmates have been deployed to war zones.

    "The taxpayers lost by him getting kicked out of the Navy because we didn't get what we paid for," said Jim Mulquin, a retired Navy lieutenant and former civilian division director of the Naval Air Systems Command. "We have to suppose there was another youngster who would have made a wonderful career officer but was turned down the year Eckel was accepted by the academy."

    Several of Eckel's former teammates said they think no worse of him for his abbreviated military career. Second Lieutenant Tyson Stahl, a Marine who served seven months last year in Iraq, declined to comment on Eckel's military service but praised his character.

    "As a Marine Corps infantry officer, I would love to have a guy like Kyle on my left or right," Stahl said. "That should say it all."

    Vanak, who served last year in the Middle East, said he does not begrudge Eckel his football career. He said Eckel text messages many of his former teammates before every NFL game, reminding them of their "brotherhood."

    "He is very cognizant that he is playing football and we're serving the country and he wants us to know that he's playing for us," Vanak said. "It might seem like a small thing, but to the guys who played with him, it means a lot."

    Navy alumni also thanked Eckel for helping to raise money for a memorial fund honoring Marine First Lieutenant Travis Manion, a member of the Class of 2004 who was killed in combat in April in Iraq.

    Eckel expressed pride in his Navy career.

    "I learned a lot of lessons, and the experiences will last me a lifetime," he said. "They're all extremely valuable."

    Eckel's finest hour with the Patriots came Oct. 14 when he scored his first touchdown on a 1-yard dive in a 48-27 victory over the Cowboys in Texas. He remains a backup fullback and continues to impress the coaches with his special teams play.

    He said he is grateful to the Belichicks and Patriots for the opportunity.

    "It's a privilege to play in the NFL and to play on this team," Eckel said. "To be here is an honor. It really is."

    Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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